Taking centerstage for the first time since assuming office, President Joe Biden returned tonight to the town hall format that served him so well as a candidate last year in an attempt to assure a battered America that help is coming to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
He also wants to put the “former guy” behind him — unless he doesn’t.
“Good to be back,” Biden said to CNN’s Anderson Cooper as he walked onstage at Milwaukee’s grand Pabst Theater before an audience of approximately 60 voters. The president and the AC 360 host maintained social distancing due to coronavirus safety protocols, but neither the vaccinated commander in chief nor the frequently tested Cooper wore a mask.
Six months after last appearing on the AT&T-owned cable newser and five months on from his last town hall on ABC as then election rival Donald Trump was on NBC, the 46th POTUS made it clear earlier in the just over hour event that a very different type of commander-in-chief was in town.
A president who is quick to show he cares, and a president who has mastered the finer points of policy, even when it falls under the jurisdiction of the states. Not to take up too much time, as the disciplined but naturally garrulous Biden said at several moments on Tuesday, it was a winning performance for a man who has been tightly scripted within the confines of the White House since taking the oath of office on January 20 in a locked down D.C.
“If you’re willing, I’ll stay around after this is over and maybe we can talk for a few minutes and see if I can get you some help,” Biden promised Kerr Engebrecht, whose 19-year old son has the “lungs of a 60-year old” from pediatric COPD but can’t get a Covid-19 vaccine. It was classic Biden, but it also earned the long-time politician a round of authentic applause from the Democrats, Republicans and Independents in the theater.
President Biden offered to personally help a mother worried about getting a coronavirus vaccine for her 19-year-old immunocompromised son with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. #BidenTownHall https://t.co/pAaMBDnFrB pic.twitter.com/CRouSRAIY4
— CNN (@CNN) February 17, 2021
“Don’t be scared honey, don’t be scared you’re going to be fine, and we’re going to make sure Mommy’s fine too,” the president later told a second grader and her mother in the crowd who wanted to know when children would be getting the vaccine. Right now, children are considered low risk for getting Covid-19 and not a priority for the vaccinations, as health care workers and seniors are.
That fact aside, Biden’s response to the young girl and her mother was a near perfect encapsulation of how he straddled between his folksy Uncle Joe persona and a battle-scarred Beltway veteran. “A year from now, I think that there will be significantly fewer people having to be socially distanced, have to wear a mask, but we don’t know,” Biden told the audience in Milwaukee and watching on TV that are looking for a roadmap to normalcy. “I don’t want to over promise anything here,” the poll watching politician added after saying once again is there will be 600 million vaccine doses available by the end of July
Besides pitching his $1.9 trillion plan to halt the spread of the coronavirus, get more and more Americans vaccinated and rebuild the hobbled economy, the biggest message of Biden’s first presidential town hall will be that of the change at the top.
“I’m tired of talking about Donald Trump, I don’t want to talk about him anymore,” admitted Biden, effectively dismissing his predecessor as the “former guy” – which will likely be the takeaway shiv of the night among pundits.
Yet, in what was far from the first and surely not the last time Biden channeled Ronald Reagan, the 78-year President used the former Celebrity Apprentice host as his personal deflection shield the way the 40th POTUS would roll out his own predecessor Jimmy Carter for years. “For four years, all that’s been in the news is Trump,” Biden replied to a question from Cooper about the acquittal of the 45th President last week at his second impeachment trial.
“The next four years, I want to make sure all the news is the American people, I’m tired of talking about Trump, it’s done,” he added in another applause winning line. Of course, knowing where his own base stands, the seasoned politician deftly threw more shade on Trump when convenient in tonight’s town hall.
Playing it both ways, Biden also sought to slice off the hold Trump has had on the body politic.
“The nation is not divided,” Biden proclaimed in an unconventional response to the state of America 2021.
“You go out there and take a look and talk to people, you have fringes on both ends,” he asserted. “But it’s not nearly as divided as we make it out to be and we have to bring it together,” Biden noted, citing issues of common ground in the land, such as a majority of Americans desiring a stronger response to the pandemic. “You cannot function in our system without consensus other than abusing power at the executive level,” he stated.
Telling a number of his well-worn anecdotes and tackling kitchen table topics such as “demented” MAGA followers, systemic racism, police brutality and the criminal justice system, Biden is doing the town hall at an opportune moment of his presidency. His approval rating is still almost 55%, according to a FiveThirtyEight calculation, but more importantly it comes at a time of deeper divisions within the GOP. Earlier today, Trump slammed Mitch McConnell as a “dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack,” after the Senate Minority Leader said that the former president may have been acquitted of impeachment charges but was guilty of a dereliction of duty.
Late in the town hall, Biden talked about his experiences in the White House residence, the most surprising detail being that he had never been there (except for one quasi public room) even after serving eight years as Barack Obama’s Veep. Biden also talked of how unusual it was to be waited on in the White House residence, and that he gets up in the morning and tells Jill, “Where the hell are we?” Just these little details are endlessly fascinating, as the public still knows relatively little of what life is like in the private quarters. They also serve to humanize the man who has been in Washington since 1973, with Biden trying to show that he is still “one of us,” empathetic not just to people’s suffering but how more live their daily lives.
Perhaps the biggest piece of sheer gossip came when Biden said that all of the former presidents, “with one exception, picked up the phone and called me as well.” Biden may be tired of talking about Trump, but he’s clearly not tired of referring to him.
In doing the CNN town hall, Biden also is mirroring what Obama did in the first few months of his presidency. Obama held a town hall in Los Angeles in March, 2009, coupled with an in-studio sit-down on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Unlike his old boss, the Hollywood friendly Biden so far is staying away from the late-night bright lights and seeking to strengthen his bond with Wisconsin, which he won in 2020, and the heartland for his wide-ranging agenda and the 2022 midterms.
Expect a lot more town halls from Joe Biden in the next few years. He’s good at them.