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Biden discusses stalled domestic agenda and other issues during news conference

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

In a news conference yesterday, a year into his administration, President Biden talked about his stalled domestic agenda, a standoff with Russia over Ukraine and his leadership style. The president took questions for nearly two hours. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson was one of the reporters at the White House asking questions of Biden. And she joins us this morning. Hey, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: It had been many months since President Biden had held a formal news conference like this. And these are often occasions in which a president attempts a reset. Is that what we were watching yesterday?

LIASSON: Yes. That's what we were watching. He certainly came to this news conference in need of a reset. His approval ratings are low. His domestic agenda - at least two big parts of it - are stuck in Congress. And when he was asked about that, he mentioned three things that he wanted to change in his second year in office. He said he wants to get out of Washington more often, take the show on the road, interact with ordinary Americans. That kind of sounded like the standard, my only problem is that I need to communicate better. But in this case, many Democrats feel that that has been a problem. Voters don't know what he's passed or tried to pass. The second thing he said he'd do is get more advice from outsiders, bring in people to the White House with fresh voices, fresh perspectives. He said he didn't want to fire anyone. He said he was happy with his team. He just wants to add some new voices. And then the third thing was become deeply involved in the upcoming midterms. He also discussed his leadership style, you know? Biden was a senator for more than three decades. And his style has in many ways been similar to that of a Senate leader. Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: One of the things that I do think that has been made clear to me, speaking of polling, is the public doesn't want me to be the president-senator. They want me to be the president and let senators be senators.

LIASSON: He went on to say, if I made a mistake, it's because I'm used to negotiating to get things done. And I've been relatively successful at that when I was in the Senate and as vice president. But, he said, I think that the role as president is a different role. And this really echoes complaints from Democrats who say that Biden needs to be more aggressive, more proactive, more of an executive and less of a kind of deferential, one among equals with senators.

ELLIOTT: Let's talk about some of the issues he's having with the Senate because voting rights went down to defeat last night. What happened?

LIASSON: The outcome was preordained there. The Senate failed to muster the 60 votes necessary to end debate on the voting rights bills because Republicans were filibustering those measures. Then Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer moved to try to change the filibuster rules just for the voting rights measure so that a simple majority could pass it. But that also fell short because, as we expected, two Democrats - Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona - both opposed changing the rules.

But Biden, in his press conference, said he did think there could be room for reform of the Electoral Count Act. That's something that a handful of Republicans have expressed openness to that would basically clarify the vice president's role in the counting of electoral votes, for instance, in an attempt to prevent another January 6. Remember, what Trump wanted Vice President Pence to do was somehow reject the slates of electors that gave Biden the White House.

ELLIOTT: Biden also talked about another big part of his agenda, his domestic spending and policy bill - the so-called Build Back Better Act. What did he say about that?

LIASSON: Well, he made some news there. The Build Back Better Act has also been stuck because of opposition from Democratic Senator Joe Manchin. Biden acknowledged that it doesn't have the support as written, so it will have to be broken up. Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: I'm confident we can get pieces, big chunks of the Build Back Better law signed into law.

LIASSON: So what he's saying is, pretty much, whatever Manchin wants, that's what he'll try to pass. But he did say that there is general agreement with Manchin on several big, important provisions, including climate, including free preschool. But he also made clear that he probably wasn't going to get two really big priorities of his. One is the child tax credit. And the other is free community college. And it sounds like the White House is confident that at this point, Democrats, even progressive Democrats, in the House are ready to pass something, even something much smaller than they wanted, rather than nothing.

ELLIOTT: Let's talk as well about foreign policy. Certainly hanging over President Biden is Russia's increasingly hostile posture toward Ukraine. What did he say about that?

LIASSON: Right. This caused a lot of controversy yesterday. He said he expected Vladimir Putin to do something, to take an aggressive step in Ukraine. But he also said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Russia will be held accountable if it invades. And it depends on what it does. It's one thing if it's a minor incursion, and then we end up having to fight about what to do and not do, et cetera.

LIASSON: So sounded like he was giving a green light to Putin to do something less than a big invasion. But later, the White House clarified that any military move across the border would be met with a swift response. Anything short of that would be met with a reciprocal response.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks so much.

LIASSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.