Continuing efforts to combat COVID-19 in the United States dominated Joe Biden’s news conference at the White House on Wednesday, as the US president urged Americans to get their jabs and promised that things will get better.
Biden, whose presidency will hit the one-year mark on Thursday, also touted his government’s recent push to scale up coronavirus testing as infections linked to the Omicron variant are rising across the country.
But the US president’s agenda continues to hit roadblocks in the US Congress, and a poll released earlier on Wednesday showed Biden’s approval rating has fallen to a new low of 40 percent amid the impasses in Washington.
Here is a look at five key takeaways from Biden’s news conference, from COVID-19 to Russia tensions and the future of the Iran nuclear deal:
COVID-19: ‘It will get better’
Biden has faced criticism in recent weeks for long lineups outside coronavirus testing facilities in the US, which is seeing rising numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths linked to Omicron.
“Should we have done more testing earlier? Yes. But we’re doing more now,” he said on Wednesday, the same day that a new website allowing Americans to order free, at-home test kits went fully online.
Biden, who took office as the US’s vaccine rollout began to pick up steam, stressed that nearly 210 million people in the US now are fully vaccinated.
“Omicron has now been challenging us … But while it’s cause for concern, it’s not cause for panic. We’ve been doing everything we can, learning and adapting as fast as we can, and preparing for a future beyond the pandemic,” he said.
The US has the highest number of deaths linked to COVID-19 in the world, at more than 845,000 fatalities, according to Johns Hopkins University data. “It will get better,” Biden said. “We’re moving toward a time where COVID-19 won’t disrupt our daily lives.”
Russia: ‘Ready to impose severe costs’
Biden’s administration has been engaged in weeks of intensive diplomatic efforts to defuse tensions over Russia’s military buildup near its border with Ukraine, and the US president spoke to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin twice last month.
On Wednesday, Biden once again reiterated that Russia would face unprecedented sanctions should Putin decide to invade Ukraine.
“If they actually do what they’re capable of doing with the force amassed on the border, it is going to be a disaster for Russia if they further invade Ukraine,” he said. “Our allies and partners are ready to impose severe costs and significant harm on Russia and the Russian economy.”
Biden’s news conference came just hours after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv as part of a hastily arranged diplomatic push to address the growing crisis.
Blinken will meet his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, on Friday in Geneva.
Putin has denied Russia is planning to attack Ukraine and has demanded a list of security guarantees, including ruling out the expansion of NATO eastward. The US and NATO have said only members of the transatlantic alliance can decide when other countries can join.
Voting rights: ‘We have not run out of options’
Last week, Biden endorsed an effort to change US Senate rules to pass legislation that Democrats say is needed to counter Republican-led efforts to put restrictive voting laws in place at the state level. The push to change the “filibuster” has stalled, however, after two key Democrats in the evenly divided Senate said they would not back it.
Advocates have urged the president to do more to make sure voting rights are protected, especially among Black and other communities of colour that have been historically disenfranchised in the US.
When asked about the issue on Wednesday, Biden said he believes minority voters would be “willing to stand in line and defy attempts to keep them from being able to vote” in midterm congressional elections later this year.
He acknowledged that passing voting rights protections is going to be “difficult” amid Republican opposition in Congress, but he suggested that the door remains open. “We’re not there yet. We have not run out of options, yet. We’ll see how this goes,” Biden said.
Our democracy stands in its final hour. Unless President Biden applies the same level of urgency around voting rights as he did for BBB and infrastructure, America may soon be unrecognizable. #VotingRights
— Derrick Johnson (@DerrickNAACP) January 11, 2022
Iran nuclear talks: ‘Not time to give up’
Asked whether ongoing indirect negotiations in Vienna could revive the Iran nuclear agreement, Biden said on Wednesday: “It’s not time to give up.”
The US and Iran are engaged in indirect talks in the Austrian capital to revive the 2015 multilateral accord, which saw Tehran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for a lifting of sanctions against its economy.
Former US President Donald Trump had nixed the deal in 2018, and started a maximum pressure campaign against Iran. Biden vowed to return to the deal, but months of negotiations have failed to revive the agreement.
“There is some progress being made. The P5+1 is on the same page. But it remains to be seen,” Biden told reporters, referring the original signatories to the deal: the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the US, UK, Russia, China and France – plus Germany.
US infrastructure: ‘Better jobs for millions’
A key plank of the Biden administration’s agenda in its first year was a bipartisan infrastructure bill, formally known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a $1.2 trillion piece of legislation that the US president signed into law in November after much political wrangling.
Biden hailed the law – which aims to help rebuild bridges, roads and other key infrastructure across the US – as a rare show of bipartisanship in a country still reeling from deep political divisions in the aftermath of Trump’s presidency.
On Wednesday, the president said the legislation will allow his administration to “make a record investment in rebuilding America” and create “better jobs for millions of people”.
In a statement before the news conference, the White House also said the administration added more than 6 million jobs in its first year while the US unemployment rate went from 6.2 percent when Biden took office to 3.9 percent.