At just over six months after taking office, the president has seen one of his major legislative priorities, the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, the American Rescue Plan, pass, has overseen a COVID-19 vaccination program which has seen nearly 50% of the U.S. population fully vaccinated and reached key agreements on sweeping infrastructure proposals — one of which would fix roads and bridges, replace lead pipes and enhance broadband internet, while another would include funding for paid family leave, child care, family tax breaks, education and an expansion of Medicare.
But COVID-19 cases are spiking in parts of the country as the delta variant spreads, while the vaccination rate has slowed to its lowest since January.
Senate Republicans blocked a key procedural vote on a bipartisan infrastructure proposal, delaying progress further.
And the president faces a number of other key challenges, including a spate of cyberattacks from Russia-based cyber criminals, the drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, looming foreign policy issues in Haiti and Cuba, battles over voting rights and a spike in crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border.
But Biden projected an air of confidence, laughing and joking with the crowd, while also sharing deeply personal stories — including talking about his son Hunter’s struggle with addiction while calling with more resources to combat the opioid crisis.
“I am damn proud of my son who overcame being addicted and he did it and he's doing it and he's in good shape, thank God,” Biden said. “We don't have nearly enough people involved in mental health and drug addiction services.”
“We shouldn't be sending people to jail for use,” Biden said, to applause from the crowd. “We should be sending them to mandatory rehabilitation. We have to deal with the idea of addiction by providing for what we all know: it's a disease of the brain … and has to be treated as such”
Here are some key takeaways from the event:
President Biden said that the U.S. now has “a pandemic for those who haven't gotten the vaccination.”
“It’s that basic, that simple,” Biden continued. “If you're vaccinated, you're not going to be hospitalized. You're not going to be in an ICU unit. And you are not going to die.”
For those who are not vaccinated, Biden said, “this is not a pandemic.”
The president also discussed vaccine hesitancy and mistrust, which comes as vaccine misinformation has run rampant. Biden pledged that the White House is working to tackle vaccine misinformation.
Biden answered a question about when children under 12 will be cleared to receive COVID-19 vaccines. The president said that guidance should be coming “soon,” but would not commit to a specific date because, "I do not tell any scientists what they should do. I do not interfere.”
“When they are ready, when they've done all the scientific that needs to be done — children 5, 6, 7, 8 they all have different makeups,” Biden said. “They're developing. They're trying to figure out whether or not there's a vaccination that affects one child that is at such and such an age, and not another child. That's underway.”
In response to a question from a woman who is currently running for her school board, Biden said that “everyone under the age of 12 should probably be wearing a mask in school,” which comes days after a pediatrician group recommended that everyone over 2 should be wearing masks in schools.
"That's probably what's going to happen,” he added.
Regarding full FDA approval of the COVID-19 vaccines, which could go a long way toward combatting vaccine hesitancy, Biden said that “sometime, maybe in the beginning of the school year, at the end of August, beginning of September, October, you'll get a final approval.”
The president said that his administration is trying to restore faith in science by listening to the scientists: "I mean, literally listening to the scientists and not interfere. Not rush anything, just make — let the scientists proceed. They desperately want to get this right.”
Biden’s administration, he said, is utilizing “every avenue we can, public, private, government, non-government to try to get the facts out, what they really are.”
“What we're doing is getting people of consequence who are respected in the community,” Biden said, including athletes, public figures, and clergy members, among others.
“We just have to keep telling the truth,” Biden said.
Biden urged Americans to ask “legitimate questions” about the vaccine: “The question should be asked, answered and people should get vaccinated.”
Biden said that long-term inflation is “highly unlikely,” despite fears of inflation from a number of Republicans.
“The vast majority of the experts, including Wall Street, are suggesting that it's highly unlikely that it's going to be long-term inflation that's going to get out of hand,” Biden said, adding: “There will be near-term inflation because everything is now trying to be picked back up.”
Biden said that the U.S. would take action soon to “reduce inflation.”
“We're going to be providing good opportunities and jobs for people who, in fact, are going to be reinvesting that money back in all the things we're talking about, driving down prices, not raising prices,” the president added.
“Can you ever think of a time, those of you who are economists,” Biden asked, “Can you think of any time when the middle class did better and the wealthy didn't do really well?”
“I'm not being facetious now,” Biden added. “I'm tired of trickle-down.”
Speaking to a restauranteur who mentioned that he is having trouble hiring amid the enhanced unemployment benefits provided by the American Rescue Plan, Biden said that there is “no serious evidence” that those benefits are negatively impacting hiring, but added that those programs are “coming to an end.”
Biden acknowledged that the hospitality industry is “going to be in a bind for a little while,” but added that “we spent billions of dollars to make sure restaurants could stay open.”
“There's a lot of openings now in jobs and people are beginning to move,” Biden added.
Biden called a procedural vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill failing “irrelevant” to the bill’s eventual success in Congress, saying that he takes Senate Republicans at their word and believes the bill will move forward on Monday.
“I take my Republican colleagues at their word. I come from a tradition in the Senate, you shake your hand, and that's it, you keep your word — and I found Rob Portman does that.”
Biden praised the Ohio crowd’s Republican Senator, saying that Portman is “a good man.”
“Portman is a good man,” Biden said. “I talked to him before I got here, and I really mean, he's a decent, honorable man, and he and I are working on trying to get this infrastructure bill passed.”
Biden believes the measure will move forward on Monday: “I'm not being facetious. You had up to 20 Republicans sign the letter saying. 'We think we need this deal.”
“What happens is the vote on Monday is a motion to be able to proceed to this issue, then they're going to debate the issue of the elements, the individual elements of this plan to make sure we're going to fix that damn bridge of yours going into Kentucky,” Biden said of the antiquated Brent Spence Bridge, which connects Ohio and Kentucky.
Biden’s reference to the bridge drew cheers from the crowd. Two previous presidents — Barack Obama and Donald Trump — pledged to fix the bridge, to no avail. Residents in Ohio and Kentucky told the New York Times they were optimistic for repairs to the bridge when McConnell and John Boehner, the former House Speaker who represented a district north of Cincinnati, were both in power in Congress, but action did not come.
Mark Policinski, CEO of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI), told Spectrum News that the bridge has been "functionally obsolete" since the 1980s. The bridge, which was opened in 1963, carries $1 billion worth of freight across the bridge every day; more than $400 billion every year, according to Policinski.
The bridge is part of a corridor that is the second-largest trucking bottleneck in the country, according to the American Transportation Research Institute — second only to I-95 in Fort Lee, N.J., which leads into the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan.
“I think it's going to get done," Biden said. "Remember last four years when we had infrastructure week every week?
“We didn't do a thing, but it's necessary,” Biden continued, adding: “It's going to not only increase job opportunities, but increase commerce, so it's a good thing and I think we're gonna get it done
During a commercial break, a woman in the audience implored Biden to fix the bridge. Biden pledged that it would happen if the infrastructure bill passed.
“By the way,” Biden said later, with a smile, “your Congressman wants that bridge too.”
The president said in no uncertain terms that he believes compromise between Republicans and Democrats is possible, but conceded that “the well has been so poisoned” during the Trump era, and finding common ground is more difficult now.
“I'm going to say something outrageous: I don't know you'll find any Republican I ever worked with who says I ever broke my word, didn't do exactly what I said I would do and keep my word,” Biden said, adding: “I was able to get an awful lot of compromises put together to do really good things, to change things.”
“I still believe that's possible,” Biden said, “But the well has been so poisoned over the last four years, and even now there's still this lingering effort.”
The president said that Republicans have conceded to him that he is right on certain positions, but fear primary challenges if they supported him.
However, Biden said, “I think that's all beginning to move.”
“I don't mean overnight, don't get me wrong, I'm not playing out some panacea here, but I think people are figuring out that if we want to,” the president added. “I've always found you get rewarded for doing what you think at the time is the right thing and people really believe you believe it's the right thing to do.”
“I think you’re seeing it come together,” he added.
When asked about what he thinks about disagreements between Republicans and Democrats about the panel to investigate the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, Biden said, “I don’t care if you think I’m Satan reincarnated: The fact is you can't look at that television and say nothing happened on the 6th.”
“You can’t listen to people who say that was a peaceful march.”
Biden criticized conspiracy theories, warning that the U.S.’ reputation is at stake because of “venom” being spread.
“The idea that the Democrats or Biden are hiding people and sucking the blood of children,” Biden said. “We've got to get beyond this.”
“This is not who we are,” Biden said.
“The rest of the world is starting to wonder about us,” Biden said, recounting that he tried to reassure leaders at the G-7 summit last month that “America is back.”
“Heads of state said 'Are you really back?’” Biden recounted. “‘Will the country ever get it together?’”
“The kind of things that are being said of late,” Biden said. “We’ve got to get beyond this.
Biden called on Congress to pass two key pieces of voting rights legislation — the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — and reiterated how crucial the battle over access to the ballot box is crucial to the United States’ key tenets of democracy.
“I stand by what I said: Never before has there been an attempt by state legislatures to take over the ability to determine who won,” Biden said. “Not count the votes, determine who won.”
“With election officials across the board that they're deciding to push out of the way, and if in fact tomorrow, as they say, we're running last time and these laws had been in effect, that are these changes, in Georgia, the Georgia legislature says, ‘Oh, Biden won by multiple thousand votes,’ they could say, ‘We don't think it was legit,’ and the state legislature votes, ‘We're gonna send electors up to Congress to vote for Trump, not Biden’ — That’s never ever ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever been tried before, Biden said. “This is Jim Crow on steroids, what we're talking about.”
However, the president said that he doesn’t believe that the legislative filibuster — the 60-vote threshold in the Senate — needs to be removed in order to get voting rights legislation passed.
Biden said that the filibuster is being abused and noted that he wants to restore the talking filibuster, “maintaining the floor” in order to delay legislation, but added that it entirely will “throw the entire Congress into chaos and nothing will get done … and there’s a lot at stake.”
The president, rather, wants to pass voting rights legislation with the support of Congressional Republicans.
“I want to make sure we bring along not just all the Democrats, we bring along Republicans who I know, know better,” Biden said. They know better than this”
“What I don't want to do is get wrapped up ... in the argument whether or not this is all about the filibuster,” he added.
Biden noted that “you can’t stop” the American people “from voting,” touting the historic number of Americans who voted in the 2020 presidential election.
“More people voted last time than any time in American history in the middle of the worst pandemic in history, more people did,” Biden said. “And they showed up. They're going to show up again. They're going to do it again.”
“But what I want to do is I'm trying to bring the country together,” he continued. “And I don't want the debate to only be about whether or not we have a filibuster or exceptions to the filibuster or going back to the way the filibuster had to be used before.”
When asked about a federal judge’s recent ruling that DACA is illegal, Biden pledged that he is ”not going to let this go.”
“They should be able to stay in the United States of America,” Biden said of Dreamers.
Biden, with a fire in his voice, said that Dreamers “come here with really no choice,” adding that they are “good, good people.”
“We're going to make sure that a number of my Republican colleagues say they support the right of Dreamers to come,” Biden said. “They should be able to stay in the United States of America.”
But responding to another question about his administration’s immigration policy, Biden reiterated that Central Americans hoping to reach the U.S. border “should not come,” adding that the U.S. is setting up ways people can instead apply for asylum within their country.
“What we're trying to set up in the countries like, and in particular the northern triangle, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, etc,” Biden continued. “We are setting up in those countries, if you seek asylum in the United States you can seek it from the country.”
“You can seek it from an American embassy,” he continued. “You can go in and seek and see whether or not you qualify.”
Biden also said his administration has “significantly increased the number of officers who can hear cases as to whether or not to qualify under the law for being here as a refugee.”
The president also addressed the status of special visas to help Afghan allies who assisted U.S. forces in Afghanistan, who fear for their safety ahead of the United States’ drawdown from the country’s longest war.
“We're providing for them to be able to see whether they qualify to meet this special requirement to be able to come to the United States as a refugee and as ultimately earning citizenship here.”