February 18, 2021
President Joe Biden took part in his first town hall since entering the White House on February16 —answering questions from CNN’s Anderson Cooper (and audience members) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
CNN’s Editor-at-Large Chris Cillizza watched—and provided the following takeaways on the president’s performance:
- A hard deadline on vaccinations: Less than five minutes into the broadcasst, Biden made a promise that will be the big new—not just today, but for months to come: He said that “by the end of July, we’ll have over 600 million doses, enough to vaccinate every single American.” That pledge sets the clock ticking on Biden and his administration’s efforts to ensure that every single person in America who wants a vaccine will have one by the end of July. Biden also said he expected to have 400 million doses by the end of May. And, Cillizza noted, he set another goal: That things would be largely back to normal in the United States by next Christmas.) It’s worth noting that this is a change from Biden’s previous pledge from last month that everyone who wants a vaccine will be able to get one by the “spring.” Biden laid the blame for the need to push that timeline at the feet of the Trump Administration, insisting that his predecessor “wasted so much time” in dealing with the virus.
- Clearing up the school reopening question: Biden’s press shop got into a bit of hot water over the past week by claiming that schools opening one day a week would count toward his pledge to open the majority of schools within his first 100 days in office. Critics, rightly, pointed out that it appeared as a bit of a cop-out, since most parents, desperate after almost a year of virtual learning, don’t see one day of school a week as anything close to normal. Biden blamed the confusion on a “mistake in communication,” insisting that he believes that a majority of students from kindergarten to 8th grade would be back in school— with “many” of them going five days a week, he told CNN.
- Biden as comforter-in-chief: Perhaps the biggest contrast between Biden and the man he replaced in office is empathy, CNN’s Cillizza says. Former President Donald Trump had none; Biden is all empathy, wearing his heart on his sleeve. The town hall format played to Biden’s strength in that regard—and provided a stark reminder of just how radically different Trump was from anyone who came before (or after) him in the office. Biden told several questioners to talk to him after the town hall in order to help deal with their specific problems. And in one striking exchange, a mother with her eight-year-old daughter stood up and asked Biden what to tell kids who are worried about getting COVID and dying. “Don’t be scared, honey,” the President told the little girl, speaking directly to her as he told her that kids don’t usually get the coronavirus, and, when they do, they very rarely pass it on. It was a grace note—and one that would have been unimaginable during Trump’s presidency.
- The end of (talking about) Trump: Biden did his best not to mention the former President by name. (Biden’s preferred way to name Trump without naming him was to refer to the 45th President as “the former guy.”) When asked direct questions about Trump—on his impeachment, on his meddling in the Justice Department—Biden was even more blunt about his views on the man he beat last November. “I’m tired of talking about Donald Trump,” Biden said at one point. At another, he said this: “For four years, all that’s been in the news is Trump. The next four years, I want to make sure all the news is the American people.” (That line drew applause from the socially distanced audience.) What Biden clearly believes is that the best way to deal with Trump is to rob him of the media oxygen he so badly craves. The less Biden talks about Trump, the less attention Trump gets. It’s a solid theory—especially when you consider that Trump has been de-platformed from Twitter and Facebook.
- A radical view on polarization: Despite study after study that shows that both Congress and the nation as a whole are more deeply divided along party lines than ever before, Biden insisted that we’re not. “The nation is not divided,” he argued. “You have fringes on both ends.” Er, OK. I know that Biden believes that things will return to normal the longer we get from Trump being president—and that he is uniquely situated to make bipartisanship a thing again. He campaigned on it. And he believes he won, at least in part, on that message. Maybe! But there’s very, very little evidence so far in his term—and yes, of course it’s early!— that suggests the Republican Party’s elected officials are ready to renounce their Trump-y ways, opines Cizzilla. And there’s even less evidence that the GOP base wants anything other than Trump. A Quinnipiac University poll released earlier on Tuesday showed that 75% of Republicans want Trump to play a “prominent” role in the party.
Research contact: @CNN