(bright upbeat music) - President Biden's first year.
(air whooshing) - Nobody has ever organized.
Nobody has ever organized a strategic operation to get as many shots in arms.
- [Yamiche] The president faces tough questions at a rare marathon press conference.
He promotes his achievements.
- Some people may call what's happening now the new normal.
I call it a job not yet finished.
- [Yamiche] And defends his setbacks.
- It's one thing if it's a minor incursion.
- [Yamiche] But his messaging on Russia and Ukraine leads to international tension.
Meanwhile, the GOP marks the anniversary with pointed criticism.
- Biden needs to pivot.
He's gotta get away from representing the radical left.
He's gotta think of, "How do I help the average American."
- [Yamiche] Plus.
- The motion is not agreed to.
- [Yamiche] Democrats fail to pass voting rights legislation.
(bright upbeat music) - [Narrator] This is Washington week.
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Once again from Washington, moderator Yamiche Alcindor.
- Good evening and welcome to Washington Week.
This week marked one year since President Biden took the oath of office.
And he is under escalating pressure.
The challenge is about COVID is surging as the Omicron variant continues to sweep across the country, and inflation is at a 40-year high and his approval rating is sliding.
On Wednesday, President Biden held the longest presidential press conference in history.
It was one hour and 51 minutes.
He touted his administration progress in fighting COVID, but he also admitted that more could have been done.
- Should we have done more testing earlier?
But we're doing more now.
- And he called out Republicans for former president Trump's continued grip on the GOP.
- Did you ever think that one man out of office could intimidate an entire party where they're unwilling to take any vote contrary to what he thinks should be taken for fear of being defeated in the primary?
- A day later in a fiery press conference, Republicans blasted the president.
Here's house minority leader, Kevin McCarthy.
- We've got an economy that is damaged.
We've got cities and streets that are dangerous.
We have adversaries that feel emboldened.
- Joining me today to discuss President Biden's tumultuous first year and what's to come, Laura Barron-Lopez, white house correspondent for Politico, Carl Hulse, chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times, and Mike Memoli, white house correspondent for NBC News.
Well, thank you all for being here and of course, we remain remote because we're living through this pandemic.
But Laura, I wanna start with you.
You were in the room at that historic and rare press conference.
Talk a little bit about how the president is trying to reset in this moment, especially of course, as the pandemic continues to dominate everyday American's lives.
- As you mentioned to me, it was his second solo press conference at the white house since taking office and compared to the one that he had around March of last year, you know, the president admitted some things that were misjudgments on his part, things that he thought his white house could have done differently, that he could have done differently, including making sure that more tests were widely available for the Corona virus.
And also he talked about how he genuinely didn't expect Republicans to obstruct as much of his agenda as they have so far.
Now, some people may be surprised to hear the president say that considering that during his campaign, he ran saying that he was someone who could create this bridge with Republicans, that he could get Washington working more like it used to again, and a lot of Democratic candidates who ran against him in the primary kept arguing that that wouldn't be the case, that Washington had changed and what he remembered during the Senate years was not possible.
And so you've seen that frustration really from Biden more and more.
- And we're gonna definitely talk about sort of his surprise at the GOP opposition, but Laura, I wanna ask you another quick follow-up, which is what's the white house's thinking when it comes to equity as it distributes test and masks?
There are some people who are very worried that they're gonna be the most vulnerable populations not being able to get access to some of those things.
What's the white house's debate about all this.
- Yeah, so the white house right now is really trying to come out very forcefully on Corona virus.
And, you know, they're trying to show that they're getting ahead of the curve on this.
So they're also trying to send masks to a lot of families right now, trying to provide tests to a lot of families.
But the CDC director recently told Politico that they think that there needs to be an entire overhaul in terms of how the public health apparatus operates in response to pandemics like this.
And so whether or not there are going to be bigger changes in terms of how the CDC approaches this, it's something that we're gonna be looking for.
- And Mike, Laura really rode in to the second part of this conversation now, which is this conversation about President Biden being surprised by how the GOP is opposing much of his agenda.
Talk a little bit about what the sort of conversation is there, how the president is viewing this, especially of course you're the Biden whisper.
You've been covering him for so long, Mike.
- Yeah, Yamiche.
In fact, I was on Air Force Two with Vice President Biden the day after he and president Obama were re-elected.
He predicted to me then that this fever would break, Republicans would come to the table and work with the Obama administration in the second term.
I was with him on the day of the midterm elections when 2018, when Democrats were expecting a big rejection of president Trump then in his second year in office.
And he said that once we see these Democratic wins, we're gonna see Republicans realize they need to run away from Trump.
We heard him after his own election in 2020 saying he thought that was the time to work together with Republicans across the aisle, lower the political temperature.
And look at where we are now a year into office.
President Trump as if anything, former president Trump, a bigger figure within the Republican party, and then he was a year ago when they were running away from him in some respects after the January 6th insurrection.
The president says he's surprised at the fact that Republicans are still captive to him behind the scenes in the white house.
They're really not.
But you are seeing President Biden trying to increasingly frame the midterm election argument as a choice.
A choice between Democrats who may have a policy agenda that they're divided about sometimes, but you know what it is, you know what they're fighting for, versus Republicans who simply seem to be about opposition to anything the Democrats propose.
That's what they're hoping to do in a midterm year, which is typically a referendum on the incumbent party, the president, the white house, trying to make it more of a choice for voters.
Well, the fever, as you said, did not break.
Carl, we call Mike the Biden whisper, we call you the DC whisper because you've been covering DC for so long.
You told one of our producers that President Biden's more than three decades of experience is actually working against him.
Talk a little bit about that and how sort of the Washington that he remembers is not the one that he's having to deal with right now.
- Yeah, as they say on Capitol Hill, I associate myself with Mike's remarks there.
I think a lot of, the president basically acknowledged what a lot of us have been thinking for a year that he had totally underestimated the depth of Republican obstruction because he had worked with Mitch McConnell before.
But boy, times have changed.
And what I said about, so when the president ran, he was touting his 36 years in the senate he's been vice president, he'd worked with Mitch McConnell, he really knows how to do it.
But that turned out to be a disadvantage because he thought he was going to be able to engage with Congress, sort all this out.
But really what happened to President Biden was that he got down into the muddle of Congress.
Congress is always a mess even at the best of times.
And when the president is messing around with them, he looks weak, ineffective.
And I think what you're seeing from the white house right now is a recognition of that.
And they need to rise above it.
When you hear them say, "We need to get out in the country more," that's a classic statement from a administration that's struggling in Washington.
We need to get out into the country.
But I think they may have learned their lesson.
You know, they don't need to replay every negotiation, phone call they're having with Joe Manchin because that makes it look like you're not getting things done.
They need to figure out a way to look like they are getting things done.
And it's gonna be difficult.
I mean, they're gonna fix on their agenda.
No doubt about it.
- Yeah, and one of the things that they're trying to sort out, get done really, is of course, voting rights.
On Wednesday, President Biden promised to do more to reach out specifically to black voters and address their concerns, which include of course, access to the ballot box.
- I have not been out in the community nearly enough.
That's a problem that is my own making by not communicating as much as I should have.
- But later that night, a push by Senate Democrats to change the filibuster and pass voting rights legislation failed.
Two Democrats; senators Manchin and Sinema, people that we've talked about so much on this show, they joined all 50 Republican senators in voting against the measure.
And Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, is under fire for this statement about black voters.
- Well, the concern is misplaced because if you look at the statistics, African-American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.
- Now, Senator McConnell says he misspoke and he should have said all before Americans.
He also defended his record on race by noting he was at the 1963 March on Washington, where of course, Martin Luther king spoke and delivered his I have a dream speech.
Now, Carl, I wanna come back to you here.
Talk about the power dynamics at play.
Senator Manchin was literally delivering a speech saying that he was not gonna support this change to the filibuster during this press conference that President Biden was having.
- Right, I think that was a bad timing situation for the white house, because it was almost simultaneous that Senator Manchin and of course, Senator Sinema, were gonna hold up this voting rights measure.
Now, they both support the package itself of the voting rights changes.6 What they didn't support is changing the rules of the Senate.
It failed 52 to 48.
The thing is, we all knew this was going to fail because they've been telling us that for months.
But the Democrats were hoping perhaps they could convince them that this is such a crisis situation that something had to be done.
They didn't get there.
I thought the interesting thing about the defeat though, Democrats of the next day, they weren't feeling whipped.
They thought if they violated rules of Congress in a way, the old tradition, you don't force votes you're gonna lose, but they thought they had to do it.
They went all the way through it.
And they think they made some progress.
They showed people a lot about the history of the filibuster, why it could be changed.
So I don't think they're giving up on this.
There's some compromise talk that's really about changing the counting of presidential electoral votes, not the counting of votes cast at your local polling place.
But the Democrats, they took their beating, but they're gonna keep on going on this.
But as for President Biden, I think there was a feeling out in the activist community that it was too little too late from him on this and that he needed to be more invested early on.
- Well, Laura, Carl's talking about this being seen as too little too late.
You've been out talking to voters.
I wanna ask you specifically first about these comments that Mitch McConnell made.
I said that he's now saying that he misspoke, but what are you hearing from people about the way that Mitch McConnell just talked about African-Americans making a delineation from Americans?
- Well, I would say that civil rights advocates as well as the black voters that I've spoken to, you know, and they're not happy with Mitch McConnell, mainly because they feel, they're very aware of the fact that Republicans are not supporting these measures.
They're not supporting these bills.
Even though a small group of Republicans are saying that they may support changes to the electoral count act, which handles the certification process for the presidential election, the voters are very upset about where Republicans are coming down on this issue.
And so, yes, there were activists that did feel like maybe it was too little too late from Biden, but it was also important to them to hear him in Atlanta, making this very stark case saying, and posing the question not just to Republicans but also to Democrats like Manchin in Sinema about what side do you wanna be on.
Whether it's Martin Luther king Jr's side or Bull Connor's side.
And we've seen Biden again and again, really turn to history and these historical parallels to try to appeal to people in his party as well as Republicans to take a stand on issues like this.
- And Laura, when you're talking about people wanting to take a stand, the other thing I think that was really interesting in this press conference was the fact that, I was saying I'd put this question to Mike.
The president talked about breaking up BB inflation.
What's the strategy here?
How's that gonna work with the president trying to balance all these things?
- Well, one of the reasons that the white house was willing to work with Democrats to move on, well, everyone knew was this losing fight over the Senate rules was in part because they needed time to figure out what they were gonna be doing about their Build Back Better agenda, because you can really look back to last summer when advocates on the voting rights side thought that that was really the moment to move forward on the voting rights debate.
The white house, the president himself talked about the fact that if we moved ahead with voting rights, he would lose votes on his Build Back Better agenda.
So now we're sort of back to square one on both issues and what the white house's approach at this point is we have potentially two avenues through reconciliation, through a party line vote, to do some big things.
It's more likely that Democrats are gonna try to get one version, a scaled back version, writing it probably in Joe Manchin's office through this year.
The argument to the voters is that part of what this is gonna be about is tackling inflation, is putting more money in people's wallets, but obviously in an election year, the economy is prime to be a significant issue.
And then you heard the president talk about this.
We're gonna get as much as we can, and then we're gonna fight over the rest.
What he means by that is we're gonna take these issues to voters in the fall, frame that choice for them about what Republicans are for versus what Democrats are for, And tell Democrats too yes.
Our visions this year are that this is the time to elect more Democrats to make sure we can come back at this in the next few years.
- And I want to, before we're gonna switch to foreign policy, but one last question to Carl, if you can really quickly, just give us an update on the January 6th committee.
We saw a lot of activity this week.
- Yeah, I think they're making progress.
And I think that the general feeling on the Democratic side is that they're uncovering a lot of material.
I'll be looking for public hearings later and a pretty probably significant report at some point.
- Yeah, well, of course, is as all this is going on, there's the foreign policy.
During his news conference, President Biden addressed foreign policy.
And one question specifically about Russia, he predicted Russian president, Vladimir Putin, will, quote, move into Ukraine.
But he created, President Biden, some confusion when he said this.
- It's one thing if it's a minor incursion, and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do, et cetera.
- About an hour later, the white house press secretary released a statement trying to clarify his stance.
And the next day, President Biden sought to clear up his position even more.
- Any assembled Russian units moving across Ukrainian border, that is an invasion.
But to be no doubt at all that if Putin makes this choice, Russia will pay a heavy price.
- Joining us now from Ukraine is Vivian Salama.
She's a national security reporter for The Wall Street journal.
Thank you so much for being up late.
I know it's very, very early in the morning there.
Vivian, in response to President Biden's comments, the Ukrainian president tweeted, quote, there are no minor incursions and small nations.
Vivian, you're on the ground.
What's the latest that you're hearing from your sources about this situation.
- So, Yamiche, a couple of hours after President Biden made those comments, I had an exclusive with the Ukrainian foreign minister, and he immediately addressed President Biden's comments.
And he said, "There's no such thing as half aggression.
"You're either aggressive or you're not aggressive."
And what he warned is that by even just trying to distinguish between a minor incursion or a full invasion, which by the way has some background information that is actually what the NATO allies are talking about, I'll get to that in a minute.
But what the foreign minister said is that if you distinguish, you basically give a green light to carry on with his aggressive behaviors.
And so what the white house was trying to clarify and something that I've been talking to a number of US and NATO officials is that there is a distinction right now taking place between what President Biden called a minor incursion, which they basically mean not a full-on invasion of boots on the ground, perhaps cyber or some other hybrid warfare.
But his language unfortunately kind of reverberated across Ukraine because they thought that it was sending a negative message to president Putin.
So that's the latest of there.
- Yeah, and you know, his language sending a message, it also, of course, as we said, created international attention.
Talk a bit about what the consequences are that Russia might face.
Whether there's a feeling at the white house and maybe with NATO allies that the president's warnings to Russia are gonna be enough to stop them from any sort of invasion that they might be planning for Ukraine.
- So far the white house and NATO allies have been threatening bruising sanctions, economic sanctions against Russia, the likes of which they have never seen.
And they've repeated that over and over again.
They've been calling for deescalation.
But what we've seen in the last two weeks or so is actually the opposite.
An escalation where not only was there a cyber attack where Russia is accused of being behind it, there's also been joint exercises to the north of Ukraine, right over the border in Belarus, which Western allies all seem to agree is a guise for perhaps some operations.
And so I had some include exclusives not only with the foreign minister this week, also the defense minister just today.
And they were telling me that yeah, they're now a half encircled country and yet the allies unfortunately are still grappling about what to do.
And the reason for that is a couple of things.
A, there's a lot of disagreements as far as what the sanctions package should be.
A lot of NATO allies have their economies very intertwined with Russia.
And so any kind of economic hit could really reverberate across the continent.
From Washington's perspective, it kind of likes to step back and let Europe take the lead on these issues.
But at the same time, they do offer a lot of tough radar.
We saw Antony Blinken here this week, the secretary of state, promising Ukraine that they would be behind them.
But then the question goes to whether or not there's a political will in the United States.
We're in a midterm election year.
The president, as you've been detailing throughout the show, has a really tough road ahead.
There's a lot going on with the pandemic and other issues, the economy inflation, you listed them all.
And so there's so much focus on that that it's very hard to then kind of go forward with something like this.
And then in Europe, there's not that much incentive because of the economic consequences.
And so right now, what the Ukrainians are telling me is they need to move quickly before an invasion happens.
Not before it's too late.
And that's where we stand now.
- And Mike, jump in here.
Talk a bit about how the white house is thinking about this, how President Biden is thinking about this, when you think about all the great reporting that Vivian just shared.
- Yeah, incredible reporting from Vivian there in Ukraine.
You think about it, Yamiche, I remember being on stage with you around the sixth month mark of the Biden administration.
We had both just come back from Geneva from the president's first foreign trip, which was about showcasing the alliances restored with our European allies and, you know, speaking tough and directly with Vladimir Putin.
And now think about where we are at the one-year mark.
What happened this week and what was really revealed is the president likes to say no one doubts that he says what he means, but sometimes he says all that he means.
And that was exactly what happened.
The president speaking too candidly about some of those divisions behind the scenes within our alliances at a time when the strength of that alliance was the primary deterrence that our national security team and our allies were trying to put forward with Russia.
And so it's also worth noting that President Putin follows American politics.
He saw what happened to the president's approval rating, what his standing has been since the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
He is using this as an opportunity to test President Biden, who has made his foreign policy so much about this battle between autocracies and democracies.
And he sees an opportunity here.
- And Laura, briefly, what do you hear from the white house about sort of how president views, how President Biden views one-on-one conversations with the Russian president since he has had a couple of one-on-one conversations?
- Well, as Vivian was saying, it appears as though that they're open to having more conversations with Putin.
Secretary of state, Antony Blinken said that they are open to potentially having another summit between Biden and Putin to try to really hash out this diplomatically.
So right now the latest was that they are going to be taking stock of what occurred this week, of what was discussed this week.
And potentially next week, we could get more news about whether or not there will be a meeting between Biden and Putin.
- And Carl, you're on Capitol Hill, what is the sort of thinking about foreign policy and how it might impact the midterms as this is sort of a political football here?
- Yeah, I think there is a strong bipartisan appetite to be pretty tough on Russia and impose sanctions if something goes wrong.
And as I've been telling some people on Capitol Hill this week, if a war breaks out, this sweeps a lot of these other issues aside and people will really focus on that.
So it has a potential to change the dynamic, but it also strikes me that this was again supposed to be President Biden's strength.
You know, a great knowledge of foreign policy, foreign relations chairman for a long time.
And he stepped in it.
So again, an area where he's supposed to be pretty strong, and he made a pretty significant mistake there.
- Yeah, and Vivian, back to you, President Biden's poll numbers have really taken a hit since the Afghanistan withdrawal.
Now, of course, there's this issue with him misspeaking or with him wanting to clarify his comments.
It's not just a little bit about the impact of the president's rhetoric here on the foreign stage.
And we have about a minute left so I'm gonna give it to you.
- Incredible that today Ukrainian official called it the Afghanistan syndrome to me and said that ultimately the United States is having trouble getting allies to work with it more closely because there is this question of is the United States able to kind of command a crisis because of what happened with Afghanistan last summer and just the chaos that ensued during that withdrawal, but also a question of what is in store politically back home.
A lot of allies questioning whether or not President Biden will be in office in another two years, what happens if his party is defeated in the midterm elections, and so on.
And so they're looking at that very closely here in Eastern Europe and throughout the continent and are really kind of holding their breaths to see what happens.
- Well, it's interesting that they're still holding their breaths.
I remember being in Geneva with Mike Memoli and so many other reporters, talking about this idea that there are a lot of European leaders, a lot of world leaders around the world that are just looking at President Biden and thinking how long is this Biden doctrine gonna last.
So thank you so much, Vivian, for sharing your reporting, for joining us from Ukraine.
I again, am indebted to you for waking up so early.
I will definitely thank you when you're back States side.
And thank you also to Laura, to Carl, to Mike.
They will be joining us as we continue our conversation on President Biden's first year in office on the Washington Week Extra.
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