Last Thursday, new US President Joe Biden entered the East Room at the White House in Washington for his first press conference after 65 days in office. Those watching the one-hour event will have seen that the changes at the White House after the four years in office of the previous administration of former US president Donald Trump are not only limited to the way Biden fields questions, but also to the substance of what he has to say, both marking a sharp contrast with the Trump years at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The news conference dealt primarily with domestic questions and in particular with the crisis on the southern border of the United States in the light of the increasing number of immigrants from Central America trying to enter it. Republicans have criticised the new president for being responsible for the uptick in the numbers of people trying to reach the United States, and the US media, even those outlets which have been more or less supportive of Biden thus far, have started questioning the ability of the administration when it comes to dealing with the challenge of immigration.
At the conference, Biden said that the recent surge of Central American migrants was not a consequence of his policies, or because he was a “nice guy,” but was due to the fact that living conditions and the security situation in their countries of origin have not changed. He emphasised the fact that the migrants have been leaving their countries out of economic desperation and owing to the lack of security. He said he had asked US Vice-President Kamala Harris to oversee the federal response to the situation on the southern border of the United States.
The comparison between the way the Biden administration has been managing the border crisis and the tough policies employed by the former Trump administration in this regard was uppermost in the minds of everyone in the East Room during the press conference, including that of Biden himself. This was probably the reason why he said that the “truth of the matter is that nothing has changed” and that migration from Central America to the US border with Mexico “happens every single solitary year.” He vowed he would commit to transparency as far as immigration is concerned, and he answered a question in this respect.
Foreign policy did not figure at the top of the questions during the press conference. But the questions that were raised nevertheless did ask about China, Afghanistan and North Korea after the latter tested missiles last week for the first time since the Biden administration came into office.
The long political experience that Biden has had in holding public office in the US, in the Senate and then as vice-president of former president Barack Obama from 2009 to 2017, was apparent in the way he dealt with reporters during his first press conference as president. He made a point of expressing his desire to work in a bipartisan way with the Republicans if they are ready to cooperate, and, if not, he said he would do without them. It was interesting to hear him speak about the support he enjoys among Republican voters in the US, unlike from their representatives in Congress. He was specifically asked about his personal relations with the Senate minority leader and whether he would meet him soon. He did not rule it out.
He said that his Republican colleagues “are going to determine whether or not we want to work together, or they will decide that the way in which they want to proceed is to divide the country and continue with the politics of division.” He stressed that he was “going to move forward” and reaffirmed that success in politics is “the art of the possible.”
Concerning the proposed changes that the Republicans want to introduce at the state level in voting rights, Biden showed some disdain and called them “un-American.”
Throughout the press conference, he made sure to reaffirm that he was elected to get results. He pointed out that he had decided to run for the White House for three reasons. The first was to restore the American political system to its original foundations. The second was to try to rebuild the backbone of America, namely, the middle class, and the third was to unite the country, he said.
The foreign policy questions at the conference dealt with Afghanistan, China and North Korea. When would American troops leave Afghanistan? Not by 1 May as was agreed in the peace accord that the former Trump administration signed with the Taliban last year. Without committing his administration to a specific date, Biden said that by next year American troops would not be staying in Afghanistan, however. He said that the United States was coordinating with its allies in this regard.
As far as his administration’s policy towards North Korea is concerned, Biden said that he is open to diplomacy if the endgame is the denuclearisation of North Korea. If the North escalates the crisis, the United States will respond, he said, without elaborating what kind of response Washington would adopt. He said that the United States was in consultation with its allies with regard to North Korea.
On China, Biden talked about his past contacts with Chinese President Xi Jinping when he was vice-president under Obama and called him a “smart man” who believes that “autocracy is the wave of the future.” He referred to a two-hour phone call he had had with the Chinese president in which he had told him that he would uphold in his relations with China the values that the American people hold dear, in other words, freedom and human rights. Biden also spoke of re-establishing America’s alliances, recalling the Quad Summit that took place on 12 March with Japan, Australia and India. But he cautioned that the re-establishment of alliances did not mean the construction of an anti-Chinese front in the region.
Biden made it clear that American-Chinese relations would not be confrontational but they would be competitive. He said that China was working to become the leading power in the world, as well as the wealthiest and the most powerful. But he said that this would not happen under his watch.
In his campaign for president last year, Biden spoke of forming an “alliance of democracies.” In his press conference, he said he would host a “summit of democracies,” expressing his conviction that the world would witness a struggle between two forms of government, democracy versus autocracy. He left no doubt that the United States and its allies would push for democracy to prevail.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly