When President Biden’s team announced last Tuesday that he would hold his first solo White House news conference this Thursday, they were optimistic that Biden would be able to offer an ebullient update about his early successes, including passage of a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package and dramatic strides in vaccinations.
But nine days are often more like dog years in the life of a president, and somewhere between planning and execution, reality intruded. When Biden steps behind the lectern Thursday, he does so, facing myriad crises and challenges — a reminder of the whack-a-mole nature of governing that may imperil his ambitious agenda.
The nation is reeling from two back-to-back mass shootings, which left a total of 18 people dead — 10 at a supermarket in Boulder, Colo., on Monday and eight last Wednesday during a rampage at three spas in the Atlanta area. In response, Biden on Tuesday waded into a heated cultural debate over the role of guns in society, calling for tighter gun law restrictions that include an assault weapons ban and the expansion of background checks.
On immigration, Biden is grappling with a crisis at the southern border, where officials are dealing with a growing surge of migrants — many of whom are unaccompanied minors — without the necessary capacity or resources to meet the challenge. On Wednesday, he announced that Vice President Harris will lead the country’s efforts to stem the surge, working with Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to enhance immigration enforcement at the border with Mexico.
In addition, Biden is facing intraparty tensions over the lack of Asian American and Pacific Islander representation at the highest levels of his administration; is working to manage another intraparty debate about whether to reform the Senate filibuster; and is monitoring the situation in North Korea, which recently fired off a series of short-range missiles.
After thrice tripping while walking up the steps of Air Force One on Friday, the 78-year-old president could also face questions about the stumble — or when he plans to release his updated health records, which he has not done since late 2019.
And all the recent challenges come on top of the four major crises — the coronavirus, the economy, racial inequity and climate change — that Biden identified as he took office.
“That’s the presidency,” said Rahm Emanuel, the former mayor of Chicago who served as chief of staff to President Barack Obama. “You can have the best-laid plans but it doesn’t matter when you go toe-to-toe with reality. A White House earns its stripes by taking every challenge and then turning it into an opportunity to address an issue and move the ball forward.”
Former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele said that the events of recent weeks are likely a preview of the twists and turns Biden will have to deal with in the months ahead.
“You don’t run on shootings and big immigration issues unless those are the issues that are staring you in the face in the campaign,” Steele said. “Issues will come and there will likely be an issue next week — or two weeks from now — that no one thought the administration would have to deal with coming in the door.”
The question confronting Biden, Steele added, is: “Are you prepared for that next thing that will be thrown at you?”
During his campaign, Biden ran as a unifying figure and emphasized noncontroversial issues, such as delivering pandemic relief and creating jobs. He often steered clear of the divisive cultural topics that typically highlight partisan divides.
“There is only one America. No Democratic rivers, no Republican mountains,” actor Sam Elliott said in one of Biden’s closing commercials last fall.
Entering the White House, Biden’s advisers have long felt that the pandemic is the top issue for voters, and that the president’s political fate rests heavily on his response to the deadly virus. They remain eager for him to promote the massive coronavirus relief package that he signed into law earlier this month, and he boasted last week of meeting his administration’s coronavirus vaccine goal — 100 million shots administered in 100 days — in nearly half the promised time.
Yet the recent deluge of developments on other fronts have largely overtaken the headlines, and are among the most polarizing topics now facing Congress.