WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden sat down with The Associated Press to discuss the state of the economy, his concerns about the national mood and his commitment to standing up to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
Takeaways from Biden’s first news media interview since February:
Pain at the pump
Biden on Thursday blamed gas prices for the nation’s economic pessimism, saying before prices started rising, “Things were much more, they were much more optimistic.”
The Democratic president acknowledged that Americans are paying vastly more to put food on their table and fuel in their cars and that it was putting a dent in his approval rating.
“If you want a direct barometer of what people are going to talk about at the kitchen table and the dining room table and whether things are going well, it’s the cost of food and what’s the cost of gasoline at the pump,” he said.
But while Biden said his message to oil companies was “Don’t just reward yourselves,” he has few tools at his disposal to meaningfully bring down prices in the near term.
The U.S. has no choice but to stand up to Russia
Biden said he didn’t consider the domestic political impact from U.S. efforts to sanction Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, particularly how it would roil the economy.
Without such action, he said, “I fear what would happen next is you’d see chaos in Europe.” He added: “It’s not about my political survival. It’s about what’s best for the country.”
Biden suggested that he’s willing to pay a political price as a result, saying his advice to young people interested in public service is, “Unless you know what’s worth losing over, don’t get engaged.”
Biden wants to buck up the national mood
After more than two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, Biden said the American people are “really, really down.” He emphasized that the need for mental health in America “has skyrocketed because people have seen everything upset.”
Biden maintained that he’s optimistic about the country’s future, and that Americans should feel it too — even as the majority of voters say the country is on the wrong track.
“Be confident, because I am confident we’re better positioned than any country in the world to own the second quarter of the 21st century,” Biden said. “That’s not hyperbole, that’s a fact.”
Still, it wasn’t clear whether Biden’s rhetoric would have a tangible impact on the nation’s glum outlook.
He still has hopes for a domestic spending bill
Still smarting over the December collapse of a massive Democratic package to expand the social safety net and address climate change, Biden suggested he was hopeful that a slimmed-down bill could pass before the midterms.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s objections torpedoed the earlier efforts over inflation concerns. Biden needs all 50 Democrats to support a package in order to get around GOP opposition under the Senate’s budget rules.
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“There’s more than one way to bring down the cost for working folks,” Biden said. “Gasoline may be up to $5 a gallon, but somebody who has a child with stage two diabetes is paying up to 1,000 bucks a month for their insulin. We can reduce it to 35 bucks a month and get it done.”
He added: “We have the votes to do it. We’re gonna get that done. I can’t get it all done.”
Biden also suggested there was consensus on providing tax credits for winterizing homes, which would help lower utility bills, and to boost domestic semiconductor manufacturing to address supply chain issues that have driven up prices.
And for gun control
Biden was optimistic about a bipartisan framework to address gun violence by tightening some background check requirements for young firearm purchasers and incentivizing states to establish “red flag” laws to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.
As lawmakers draft the legislative text, momentum appears to be building in the Senate after decades of inaction and mass tragedies. Biden acknowledged the progress, albeit limited.
“We’re going to get gun safety,” he said, adding, “We’re not going to get what I wanted.”
Biden has some thoughts about Republicans
Despite years of political differences, Biden said he still views Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as a Republican he can work with — something he said he considered an endangered species in today’s GOP.
The president said that when he took office, he knew that there “were probably, probably 15 sort of traditional, mainstream, conservative Republicans left. And I include in that — and I’m going to get myself in trouble, gonna get him in trouble, probably — the minority leader from Kentucky.”
Biden added of McConnell, “He’s a solid, mainstream guy.”
The president, who has taken to branding other Republicans as “ultra-MAGA,” said examples included Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson and Florida Sen. Rick Scott.
By ZEKE MILLER and JOSH BOAK