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Biden acknowledges his team should have done more COVID testing earlier

President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Wednesday.
Susan Walsh
President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Wednesday.

Updated January 19, 2022 at 7:40 PM ET

Marking the end of his first year in office with a long, wide-ranging formal press conference, President Biden said it had been "a year of challenges, but also a year of enormous progress," citing statistics on vaccinations, job creation and cuts to child poverty.

"Still for all this progress, I know there's a lot of frustration and fatigue in this country," Biden said during lengthy opening remarks, referencing the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns about inflation.

He acknowledged that his administration could have been quicker to boost testing for the virus. "Should we have done more testing earlier? Yes. But we're doing more now," he said.

And while he emphasized that the nation had endured "two years of physical, emotional, psychological weight" of the pandemic, he said America still had a bright future.

"Some people call this a new normal. I call it a job not-yet-finished," Biden said.

Wading into the thorny, increasingly political issue of how schools should manage the interests of students, teachers and parents amid the pandemic, Biden said that schools should remain open, citing funding and supplies provided to school districts to help better mitigate the threat of the virus.

In total, Biden spoke for nearly two hours on topics ranging from the pandemic and his administration's response to how he planned to forge forward on his legislative priorities and the nation's foreign policy agenda.

Biden suggested breaking the Build Back Better into smaller pieces

While Biden touted his progress on the coronavirus as a victory for the administration, a number of key legislative priorities, including the Build Back Better plan and voting rights changes, remain blocked in the Senate.

On Wednesday, Senate Democrats pressed forward on two voting rights bills backed by Biden — the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — which are all but guaranteed to fail.

And the president's signature $2 trillion Build Back Better package — which would expand spending in the nation's safety programs, including addressing prescription drug costs, childcare and paid family leave — has faced opposition from both Republicans and members of his own party.

Biden said that the holdup on Build Back Better was slowing America's progress not only on social spending, but also on addressing inflation and ongoing supply chain snarls that have resulted in costly backups and product shortages across the country.

"It's clear to me that we're probably going to have to break it up [the bill]," Biden said.

The president said he had been talking to Democratic senators about trying to get as much of it passed as possible, with the intention of fighting for the rest later.

Biden said that there seemed to be enough support to pass the energy and environment portion of the bill. He noted two senators that opposed the larger package supported pieces of it, but did not give further details.

Biden said McConnell and Trump are intent on blocking his agenda

On Republicans, Biden said that "one man out of office" — meaning former President Donald Trump — was intimidating senators from supporting any of Biden's policies. He said he had spoken to five unnamed Republican senators who said that they agreed with him privately on some issues but were worried they would be defeated in primaries if they were public.

"We've got to break that. It's got to change," Biden said.

On Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, he said: "I actually like Mitch McConnell," but that his prime objective is to try to block Biden's policies. "That's OK, I'm a big boy, I've been here before," said Biden, a 36-year-veteran of the Senate.

'Russia will be held accountable'

Biden was asked about Russia's increasingly hostile posture toward Ukraine and what the United States and its allies were prepared to do in the event that Russia launches an invasion.

"My guess is he will move in. He has to do something," Biden said of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin, he said, has "never seen sanctions like the ones I promise will be imposed if he moves." And he vowed that it would be a "disaster for Russia" if the country chose to invade its former Soviet neighbor.

He said NATO leaders were united in their resolve.

"Russia will be held accountable if it invades," Biden said — but added consequences would depend on whether Russia committed a "minor incursion" or a more severe advance.

His description of possible Russia action against Ukraine as potentially "minor" drew immediate scrutiny from Republicans, including Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who recently visited Ukraine.

In a statement, Portman said: "Any incursion by the Russian military into Ukraine should be viewed as a major incursion because it will destabilize Ukraine and freedom-loving countries in Eastern Europe."

Later, the White House sought to clarify its position, saying that any Russian aggression would be met with "decisive, reciprocal, and united" action.

"If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that's a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our allies," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement, noting Russia's frequent deployment of "aggression short of military action" like cyberattacks and paramilitary hits.

Biden had said in his remarks that "there are differences" within NATO on how what to do if Russia takes action that is "something significantly short" of a military invasion, noting the kind of financial sanctions under consideration would hurt European economies, and emphasizing that he has to "make sure everybody's on the same page as we move along."

In his Wednesday remarks, the president said there could be "severe economic consequences" such as limiting Russia's ability to do financial transactions: "Their banks will not be able to deal with dollars," he said.

"I think he still does not want any kind of full-blown war," Biden said, adding he thinks Putin wants to test the West — and would regret it. "I think that he is dealing with what I believe he thinks is the most tragic thing to happen to Mother Russia," Biden said, explaining his thinking about Putin's motivation.

Biden also said it was unlikely Ukraine could join NATO in the near term as it still needed to work on democratic reforms.

Biden's popularity is sagging ahead of the midterms

For Biden, Wednesday's presser was a chance to try to focus on some highlights of his time in office, like the massive COVID-19 aid package and the infrastructure bill — even as major legislative priorities like voting rights, improvements to the social safety net and climate incentives have stalled.

When Biden took over from Trump, the coronavirus pandemic was in full force, ravaging the national economy and education system, as well as overwhelming hospital emergency rooms and funeral homes.

Now, soaring inflation and supply-chain snarls have hit Americans in the wallet and grocery store. What's more, the omicron variant of the coronavirus is raging and the Supreme Court ruled against Biden's vaccine-or-test mandate.

He ended 2021 with the lowest approval ratings of his presidency, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.

And while Biden has a personal stake in his first year success, America's perception of his job performance will have wide-reaching effects on upcoming midterm races, in which Democrats face an uphill battle in maintaining their slim majorities in both chambers.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alana Wise
Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.
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