WASHINGTON – On his first official trip away from Washington since taking office, President Biden on Tuesday offered Americans assurance of the availability of coronavirus vaccines and his optimism that his relief bill of $ 1, $ 9 trillion was the type of ambitious plan that could restore the US economy.
“Now is the time we should be spending,” he said at a CNN town hall in Milwaukee, promoting a plan that so far has no Republican support in Congress. “Now is the time to get big.
On the coronavirus, he said every American who wanted a vaccine would be able to get one “ by the end of July of this year, ” sounding a more optimistic note than last week when he warned that logistical hurdles would most likely mean a lot Americans still would not have been vaccinated by the end of the summer.
“We will have over 600 million doses – enough to immunize every American,” he said at an event that included not only his own supporters, but Trump voters and independents as well.
Mr. Biden predicted that “by next Christmas I think we will be in a very different, benevolent situation than we are today.”
The town hall’s question-and-answer format gave the president the opportunity to put into practice what has been his hallmark of personal politics for decades. When an independent voter asked him how his son with a pre-existing illness could get vaccinated, for example, Mr Biden told him, ‘If you want, I’ll stay after this is over and maybe we can. be talking a few minutes and see if I can help you. “
At another point, he comforted an 8-year-old girl whose mother said she was afraid of dying from Covid-19. “You are the safest group of people in the world,” he says. “I wouldn’t care, baby, I promise.”
Expressing sympathy for the girl’s missed school time, Mr Biden said his administration’s goal was still to open most schools full-time to K-8 students within the first 100 days. .
The pledge appeared to contradict White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who said last week that the administration’s once-ambitious goal of reopening had been scaled back so that more than 50% of schools dispensed. “One instruction” in person “at least one day a week” in the first 100 days. She later added, “We certainly hope to build from this even at 100 days.”
But Mr Biden bristled at the idea that he was lowering the bar to one day a week of school in person. “This is what has been reported,” the president said. “It’s not true. It was a mistake in the communication.
He also said he expected school to continue through the summer to give students the opportunity to catch up.
The trip to Milwaukee seemed like some sort of makeup tour for the city, which was scheduled to host the 2020 Democratic National Convention last summer, before the coronavirus pandemic upended plans for in-person meetings.
And the cadre, in a state he won by less than a percentage point in November, made sense for a president pushing a plan to help Americans recover from the ravages of the pandemic.
An increase in coronavirus cases has made Wisconsin one of the worst-hit states throughout fall and early winter, although the numbers have dropped significantly. The state’s 5.5% unemployment rate is also down from double-digit highs it hit at the start of the pandemic, but it’s still higher than it was. last winter.
On Tuesday night, Air Force One landed in a snowstorm Wisconsin, and as the nation’s attention was finally more fully focused on Mr. Biden, after the end of the second impeachment trial of his predecessor, Donald J. Trump, over the weekend.
Continuing his practice throughout the arraignment, Mr Biden seemed eager to avoid mentioning his most recent predecessor. At one point he called Mr. Trump “the old guy”.
Asked by moderator, CNN presenter Anderson Cooper, on his thoughts on the verdict in Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial, Biden said he wanted to move on. “For the past four years, all that’s been in the news has been Trump,” he said. “The next four years, I want to make sure all the news is about the American people. I’m tired of talking about Trump.
At one point, however, he couldn’t resist a veiled search, telling Mr. Cooper all but one of the living former presidents had contacted him by phone, making it clear that only Mr. Trump was not there. had not done.
Asked by Mr. Cooper about his suitability for the presidency, Mr. Biden, who on inauguration day said going to the White House felt like “coming home”, appeared humbled by experience.
On the one hand, he said, he was not used to living with a butler who helped him with his coat, as well as with other members of the White House residence staff who were there to serve it. “I was brought up in such a way that you weren’t looking for anyone to wait for you,” he said. “I find myself extremely embarrassed.”
Despite his close relationship with President Barack Obama, Mr Biden said he had never visited the private part of the White House residence before moving in last month. And he said living there was a big contrast to the vice president’s residence, where there was more space and privacy.
“It’s kind of like a golden cage in terms of being able to walk outside and do things,” he said of life in the White House. “I feel a sense, I have to tell you, a sense of history about it.
Mr Biden has repeatedly apologized when he felt his answers were too complicated or took too long, and he said he hoped he was up to the task of leading the country to face the challenges that he is confronted.
“I am literally praying for the ability to do for the country what you all deserve to be done,” Biden said.
Ms Psaki said on Tuesday that Mr Biden hoped to have “a good conversation with people about the way forward, and, also, even with people who disagree with him” during the trip. In fact, one of the president’s most vocal critics is Senator Ron Johnson, the Republican state senator, who vehemently opposes Biden’s rescue plan. But Ms Psaki said putting pressure on Mr Johnson was not the purpose of the trip.
Responding to a question about divisions in American society, Biden said the country agreed more on the need for relief than people realize, noting that 69% of Americans support his plan. “The nation is not divided,” he said. “You go over there and look and talk to people, you have bangs at both ends. But it’s not as divided as we pretend.
Outside the Pabst Theater, where town hall was held, a group representing fast food restaurants and other low-wage workers were planning to hold a protest to urge Mr Biden not to give up on his pledge to raise the salary minimum at $ 15 per hour.
But when asked by several small business owners about his support for a minimum wage of $ 15 an hour, the president sought to reassure them that the increase would be gradual, as if to show that the differences could be overcome. While “no one should be working 40 hours a week and living in poverty,” Biden said, “it’s only legitimate for small business owners to be concerned about how this is changing.”
But he singled out white supremacists as a singular domestic terrorist threat that needed to be addressed. “I would make my Department of Justice and the Civil Rights Division focus heavily on these same people,” he said. “I would make sure we focused, in fact, on how to deal with the rise of white supremacy.”
Dan Simmons contributed reporting from Milwaukee.