Biden heads out of D.C. for town hall

MILWAUKEE —President Biden arrived in Milwaukee on Tuesday for his first major trip since taking office, kicking off a new phase of his presidency that attempts to move past the impeachment of his predecessor and toward a more aggressive selling of his coronavirus relief plan.

Speaking at a CNN town hall, Biden pledged that any American who wants a vaccine will have access to one by the end of July. He said he wanted many elementary and middle schools to be open five days a week by the end of April. And he said that “by next Christmas, I think we’ll be in a very different circumstance.”

Still, the timeline in many ways remains unclear, with Biden hedging on some commitments and openly stating uncertainty about some goals. There can be a gap between when vaccine doses are distributed and when they are administered; restrictions might be in place long after they are available; and the precise meaning of schools being “open” has sometimes been murky.

And even as he expressed some optimism, Biden cautioned, “I don’t want to overpromise anything here.”

His appearance at the town hall, in a swing state that he won by about 20,000 votes, unfolded as the White House mounts a push for a $1.9 trillion proposal to help fund school reopenings, stem state and local government cuts, and inject more money into vaccination programs.

It came nearly four weeks after Biden was sworn into office and three days after the Senate voted to acquit former president Donald Trump on a charge that he incited the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6. It also came at a critical moment for Biden’s first legislative push, which will test his ability to navigate the modern-day Congress and his pledge to usher in an era of unity and bipartisanship.

Biden often tried to sidestep questions about Trump, at one point calling him “the former guy.” “I’m tired of talking about Donald Trump,” he said at another. “I don’t want to talk about him anymore.”

Much of the town hall focused on the fears of the coronavirus and the challenges that it presents to a nation on edge after a year of economic struggles and a deadly pandemic that has upended millions of lives.

Biden alternated between touting his policy proposals — defending his call for gradually increasing the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour — and addressing the raw emotions expressed by many in the audience.

A mother with her 8-year-old daughter standing next to her said her children often ask whether they’ll catch covid-19, whether they’ll die from it, and when they’ll get vaccinated.

Biden addressed the young girl directly.

“I know it’s kind of worrisome,” he said. “You don’t get to go to school. You don’t get to see your friends. And so what a lot of kids — and I mean, and big people, too, older people — their whole lives have sort of changed.”

“When things change, people get really worried and scared,” he added. “But 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.”

Biden said that he was trying to increase the number of sites providing vaccinations, and that he had worked to increase the supply and press for additional workers to administer shots.

The town hall format put Biden, whose political career has been built on a chatty demeanor and personal connections with voters, in direct contact with Americans for the first time as president.

“God bless ya, no purgatory to you,” Biden said to a man who said he had four school-aged children. “God love ya,” he said to a man who teaches high school English.

Biden reaffirmed his goal of creating a “reasonable path to citizenship” for many undocumented immigrants, as well as expanding the country’s refugee program. He also said that white supremacists were “demented” and posed a grave danger to the country that his Justice Department would address.

“The nation is not divided. You go out there and take a look and talk to people, you have fringes at both ends. But it’s not nearly as divided as we make it out to be,” Biden said. “And we have to bring it together.”

Since becoming president, Biden has taken weekend trips to his home in Wilmington, Del., and to the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland. But his visit to Milwaukee is his most significant trip as president yet, and it comes amid a pandemic that makes presidential trips riskier than usual.

With the impeachment trial in the rearview mirror, Biden’s outing to a snowy Midwestern city marks a more concerted attempt to woo the public and coax moderate Republicans who have been open to working with him but skeptical of the size of the relief package.

It also marks the start of a more active travel schedule. On Thursday, Biden is scheduled to travel to Kalamazoo, Mich., to tour a Pfizer plant that makes the company’s coronavirus vaccine. On Friday, the president plans to remotely address the Munich Security Conference, a prestigious annual gathering of world leaders to discuss matters of war and peace.

But even as Biden begins to deploy more traditional aspects of the presidency, he’s doing it in a way that makes clear that normalcy has not returned.

While he traveled to Wisconsin, Biden went only to a theater where audience members maintained social distancing — with no plans for the informal stops at coffee shops or ice cream parlors that any president, but especially Biden, might normally make.

When he goes to Michigan, Biden will be visiting a plant producing a vaccine to combat the pandemic. And when Biden addresses the Munich forum on Friday — an event that in years past he often attended in person — it will be done virtually.

And it remains unclear when, or how, Biden will deliver his first joint address to Congress, a presidential tradition, akin to the State of the Union address, that he originally expected to undertake in February but now may not happen until next month.

When the speech does take place, there will almost certainly be far fewer lawmakers in the chamber, if Biden is able to visit the Capitol at all.

Ahead of Biden’s trip on Tuesday, the administration announced that the federal government would increase distribution of coronavirus vaccine doses from 11 million to 13.5 million per week. The government is also expanding a previously announced program to provide vaccines to local pharmacies, with 2 million doses expected this week. The initiative is planned to grow to 40,000 pharmacy locations nationwide.

Biden also signed an executive order that extends through June 30 a foreclosure moratorium that prevents banks and other mortgage lenders from ousting homeowners struggling to pay their mortgages.

Biden’s advisers believe his ability to restrain the coronavirus will be the biggest factor in determining the course of his presidency. In the days before the inauguration, he announced a $1.9 trillion relief proposal that included $1,400 stimulus payments to individuals, additional funding for schools, and more aid for coronavirus testing and vaccine distribution.

The House is laying the groundwork for a vote on the bill next week, after which it would be taken up by the Senate. Democrats are largely united behind the legislation, and they are proceeding through a budget reconciliation process that would enable them to pass the bill using a simple majority in the Senate, instead of the 60 votes usually needed.

Biden has been attempting to persuade Senate Republicans to support the package, but he has also said he is willing to move ahead without them. White House officials in recent weeks have been making the case that the plan is bipartisan because it has widespread support among the public, even if Republican lawmakers don’t vote for it in the end.

Some 68 percent of those surveyed supported Biden’s plan in a recent survey by Quinnipiac University. The legislation had support from 97 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of independents and 47 percent of Republicans.

Although for most of the day there was little obvious activity in Milwaukee in anticipation of Biden’s visit, with most residents instead focused on digging out from the latest snowstorm, landmarks in the city’s downtown were awash in red, white and blue lights.

The site for the town hall was the Pabst Theater, a historic Victorian Baroque edifice filled with Greek statues and a two-ton chandelier. But in deference to distancing guidelines, only a fraction of the 1,339-seat theater was slated to be filled. The last live headliner in the theater was apparently comedian Dave Chappelle, who performed in March before the country-wide shut down.

Toward the end of the event, Biden marveled at the experience of living in the White House, recounting the sense of history while longing for some of the wooded privacy — and the swimming pool — at the vice president’s residence he used to occupy, compared to what he called “a gilded cage.”

“I get up in the morning and look at Jill and say, ‘Where the hell are we?’ ” Biden joked.

He said he was less daunted than he once was by the presidency, having seen seven chief exectives up close, adding that he has been in touch with most of his living predecessors.

“All of them have — with one exception — picked up the phone and called me,” Biden said.

He paused and chuckled along with the audience, who knew which president Biden had not spoken to, and is trying not to speak of.

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