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Biden’s can-do attitude shines through in first press conference

Jules Witcover, syndicated columnist

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden in his first White House press conference left no doubt he is committed to a long-term effort to return normality to the conduct of American affairs after the Donald Trump detour into chaos and self-aggrandizement.

The president punctuated the signal with a flat and surprising statement that he expects to seek a second term in 2024, nipping in the bud speculation that he might settle for one term as the nation’s oldest president now at age 78.

In doing so, he at least temporarily chilled chatter about a likely elevation to the highest office of Vice President Kamala Harris as the first female chief executive four years hence, while he continued to highlight her as his principal administration partner.

Biden repeated his confidence in her as his point person in coping with the severe immigration crisis on the Mexican border. He promised greater transparency in the care of migrant children separated from their parents and housed in temporary U.S. facilities or who are routed back to the Central American countries to wait normal processing for possible admission to this country.

But the main thrust of Biden’s hour-long first news conference as president, after nearly two months in office, was his single-minded agenda to “build back better” in the wake of the social and economic devastation of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Help is here and hope is on the way,” he said in rapid summary of what already had been accomplished in providing large cash payments to millions of American families and small businesses, with more to come.

He served notice again that he intends to be an activist president, relying more on the narrow Democratic majorities he holds in the House and Senate, while still paying lip service to bipartisanship.

For all the talk of his personal conciliatory nature, Biden, after 36 years in the Senate and eight a vice president, can still count, and has demonstrated his willingness to play hardball with Republicans in their continuing resistance to him

In the matter of the child separations at the border, he has not hesitated to appeal to American sense of morality.

“Rolling back the policies of separating children from … their mothers?” he said. “I make no apology for that. Rolling back the policies of ‘Remain in Mexico,’ sitting on the edge of the Rio Grande in muddy circumstance with not enough to eat? I make no apologies for that.”

So far, at least, the president appears to have the stronger case for public opinion on the side of compassion rather than traditional GOP woes over expanding budget deficits. Emphasizing the severity of the conditions on the ground in packed federal facilities holding unaccompanied minors, he warned that they “better get a whole hell of a lot better real quick,” adding “we can get this done,” while addressing a much broader list of concerns he is aggressively undertaking undertaking in his first months in office.

Surprisingly, despite Biden reporting that the government had already achieved his stated goal of 100 million vaccinations in his first 100 days — and his statement that he was now doubling the goal to 200 million by the same deadline — reporters had no questions about the state of the pandemic that has already killed nearly 550,000 Americans. As for a supposed disappointment among the press about Biden waiting nearly two months to meet with them, the reporters made little effort to hassle him as he sailed through the one-hour interrogation, pleading for time to tackle the heavy agenda he as set for himself.

With little reference to the economic mess Trump had left for him to clean up, Biden said: “These long-term problems have been around a long time, and what we are going to be able to do, God willing, is now begin one at a time to focus on those as well. And whether it’s immigration or guns or a number of problems facing the county.”

In was in this context that he called on the two parties to “join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature,” and labeled Republican efforts to narrow voting rights “un-American” and “sick.”

His candid answer about his political intentions in 2024 seemed to underscore his awareness that fulfilling his ambitious agenda might require another term beyond the one to which he was just elected at age 78.

He already is our oldest president and would be well into his 80s if re-elected, reflecting his rare commitment to a life of public service.

Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcovercomcast.net.

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