On a snowy night in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, President Joe Biden stood in front of a masked, socially distanced crowd at the Pabst Theater, taking questions from moderator Anderson Cooper and Americans, those who voted for him and those who did not vote for him, at a CNN town hall event.
The event was aimed at selling his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief measure directly to the American people ("Now is the time we should be spending,” Biden said, emphasizing that America can come “roaring back” if this bill is passed. "Now is the time to go big.”), but the president ended up making a number of headlines about education, COVID-19 vaccines, his predecessor, and divisions in America.
Here are 10 takeaways from the event:
Biden said very definitively that everyone who wants a COVID-19 vaccine will be able to get one “by the end of July this year,” touting the recent commitment from Pfizer and Moderna to secure another 200 million doses.
"By the end of July we'll have over 600 million doses, enough to vaccinate every single American,” Biden said.
When pressed further by Cooper, Biden clarified that enough doses will be available, but that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone will be vaccinated by then. The president said that one of the biggest issues was not just the
"Now we have made significant strides increasing the number of vaccinators,” Biden said. “I issued an executive order allowing former retired docs and nurses to do it. We have over a thousand military personnel.”
“We have gotten the National Guard engaged,” Biden added, “plus we have opened up a considerable amount of locations where you can get the vaccine.”
Cooper followed up with a question – referencing Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is currently seeking Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA, he asked the president if once vaccine supply increases, should states drop priority requirements and open access to as many people as possible.
Biden echoed the response of his White House COVID-19 response team, emphasizing that if it is available to you, “get the vaccine.”
“It may be that a certain vaccination for a certain strain may reduce from 95% to a lower percentage of certainty that it will keep you from getting it,” Biden added. “But it will still be effective. So the clear notion is, if you're eligible, if it's available, get the vaccine. Get the vaccine," he continued.
When asked when things will go back to normal, Biden was more cautious: "Be careful not to predict things,” he said, “because then you'll be held accountable,” but added: "By next Christmas, we'll be in a very circumstance, God willing, than we are today.”
"I don't want to overpromise anything here," Biden added. "I will always level with you."
"We don't know for certain, but it is highly unlikely that by the beginning of next school year we are not significantly better off than we are today,” he said, before imploring people to wear masks and wash hands to save lives.
"It matters whether you continue to wear that mask,” Biden said. “It matters whether you continue to socially distance. It matters whether you wash your hands with hot water. Those things matter."
Biden opened the town hall asking about Anderson Cooper’s 9-month-old baby, quipping, “Everybody knows I like kids better than people.”
Children, and families, were a major focus of the night.
In a powerful moment, Kerri Engebrecht talked about her college-age son, who is immunocompromised and has COPD.
"He does all he can to protect himself. Last month, he even removed himself from the campus of UW Madison, as he feels it's safer, and he has less exposure here at home. We've tried all we can to get him a vaccine. I hear of others who are less vulnerable, getting it based on far less,” she said.
She asked the president he has a plan to vaccinate people who are more vulnerable sooner to give them priority.
Biden said that priorities are up to the states, but he offered to speak to her after the show and personally offered to help her get her son an appointment: "If you're willing, I'll stay around after this is over and maybe we can talk a few minutes and see if I can get you some help."
Later on, Jessica Salas, a graphic designer who said her children are very scared of catching coronavirus, wanted to know when children will get the vaccine.
Biden spoke directly to her second-grade daughter, Layla, explaining to her that it’s rare for children her age to get COVID-19.
"We haven't even done tests yet on children as to whether or not the certain vaccines would work or not work or what is needed," he said.
"I wouldn't worry about it, baby, I promise you,” he told Layla. “Don’t be scared.” “You are going to be fine and we are going to make sure mommy is fine, too."
Justin Belot, an English teacher, pressed Biden about how he proposes a return to in-person learning, and whether or not he believes staff should be vaccinated before doing so.
"I think that we should be vaccinating teachers,” Biden said. “We should move them up in the hierarchy.”
The CDC recently released new, specific guidelines for reopening K-12 schools on Friday, long-awaited guidance promised after the administration made it their goal to bring the majority of kids back for in-person learning.
The new guidelines include five key mitigation strategies – masking, distancing, hand washing, cleaning and contact tracing – plus specific recommendations based on the number of cases of COVID-19 in the surrounding community.
Biden was asked to clarify what qualifies as a school reopening; he called reports that a school is considered open if it’s open just one day a week a “mistake in the communication.”
Cooper said to Biden “your administration had set a goal to open the majority of schools in your first 100 days. You're now saying that means those schools may only be open for at least one day a week."
"No, that's not true," Biden replied. "That's what was reported. That's not true. That was a mistake in the communication, but what I'm talking about is I said opening the majority of schools in K-8th grade because they're the easiest to open, the most needed to be open in terms of the impact on children and families having to stay home. "
Randy Lange, the co-owner of a woodworking company, asked the president about raising the minimum wage to $15."
"It's about doing it gradually,” Biden said of raising the minimum wage to $15. "We're at $7.25 an hour. No one should work 40 hours a week and live in poverty.”
“The vast majority of the economists and there are studies that show by increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, it could have an impact on a number of businesses, but it would be de minimis, et cetera," Biden said.
“I think there is equally as much, if not more, evidence to dictate that it would grow the economy and in the long-run and medium run, benefit small business and large businesses,” he said, despite the Congressional Budget Office saying it eliminate more than a million jobs.
Biden pushed back against the report: “there are an equal number of studies that say it wouldn't have that effect. And particularly in terms of how gradually you do it.”
“I think there is equally as much, if not more evidence to dictate that it would grow the economy and, long run and medium run, benefit small businesses as well as large businesses, and it would not have such a dilatory effect, but that's a debatable issue,” Biden added.
However, Biden conceded that it is “not illegitimate as a small business person to worry about whether or not increasing it at one fell swoop would have that impact.”
"I'm tired of talking about Donald Trump and I don't want to talk about him anymore," Biden said, talking about previous administration's handling of small business (PPP) loans that were part of the first economic relief bill.
He also referred to Trump as “the former guy” earlier in the town hall.
When asked about the impeachment trial, Cooper asked if Biden agreed with he agreed with House Speaker Nancy Peolsi’s sentiment that Republican Senators who voted to acquit Trump are “cowards.”
“I’m not gonna call names out. Look, for four years, all that's been in the news is Trump," Biden said. "For the next four years, I want to make sure all the news is about the American people,” echoing once more: “I’m tired of talking about Trump.”
Biden said that he would not stand in the way of his Justice Department investigating Trump, nor would he tell the Justice Department who to prosecute or not to prosecute, reiterating his commitment to not politicize the DOJ.
"I will not ever tell my Justice Department — and it's not mine, it's the people's Justice Department — who they should and should not prosecute,” Biden said. “Their prosecutorial decisions will be left to the Justice Department, not me.”
Joel Berkowitz, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, asked Biden what his administration will do about threats from white supremacy and similarly-aligned conspiracy theories, citing the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Biden called domestic terrorism the “greatest threat” to the United States: “It's complex, it's wide ranging, and it's real.”
"I would make sure that my Justice Department and the Civil Rights Division is focused heavily on those very folks, and I would make sure that we, in fact, focus on how to deal with the rise of White supremacy," Biden said.
The president called those who support white supremacist ideals “dangerous” and “demented” and said that his administration will review the rise of white supremacy among the military and former police officers.
When asked if he wants to see a pathway for the over 11 million undocumented immigrants, President Biden simply said “yes.”
“There is a reasonable path to citizenship,” Biden said.
The president said that a path to citizenship is essential to any bill he signs, but "there's things that I would deal by itself” in terms of immigration, separating them out into their own bills.
“I would, if you had a refugee bill by itself, I’m not suggesting that, but there’s things I would deal with by itself,” Biden said. “But not at expense of saying I’m never going to do the other.”
Responding to a question about expanding his student loan forgiveness beyond the $10,000 Biden’s administration promised to $50,000 Biden made it clear he “will not make that happen.”
"I'm prepared to write off the $10,000 debt but not $50 because I don't think I have the authority to do it by signing,” Biden said, instead pushing for community college and alternative programs to working off debt.
"I wake up in the morning and ask Jill, 'Where the hell are we,” Biden said of waking up in the White House, revealing that he has never been in the White House residence despite serving as vice president for eight years and decades in the Senate before that.
“I find myself extremely self-conscious,” Biden said of being waited on and attended to by the White House staff, who he called “wonderful” and “decent.”
"It's a little like a gilded cage in terms of being able to walk outside and do things,” Biden said, in comparison to the vice president's residence.
"I didn't want to be President to live in the White House but to be able to make the decisions about the future of the country,” he added, but said he was honored to serve as president.
“I literally pray that I have the capacity to do for the country what you all deserve need be done,” he added.
“One thing I learned after eight years with Barack is no matter how consequential the decision, I got to be the last person in the room with him literally on every decision,” Biden said. “I can make a recommendation, but I walked out of the room and it was all him, man. Nobody else. Buck stops there. And that's where you pray for making sure you're looking at the impact on the country and a little bit of good luck at the judgment you're making.”
When Cooper asked if he’s spoken to former presidents, Biden said, ”all of them, with one exception, picked up the phone and called me as well, giving the moderator a look – to laughter from the audience.
Dessie Levy, a registered nurse, asked Biden if addressing racial disparities in receiving COVID-19 vaccinations is a priority, and how it will be addressed.
Biden responded by saying that it’s a priority to address racial disparities, saying that “the biggest part of this is physical access.”
The president touted three parts of his plan to help reach areas with larger populations where it is tougher to get vaccines, including mobile vans and units, which will help people who may not know how to register for vaccination appointments, “particularly in rural areas that are distant or in inner city districts,” sending 1 million vaccines a week to community centers that take care of the “toughest of the toughest neighborhoods in terms of illness,” and making vaccines available in thousands of pharmacies “because almost everyone lives” near one.
"How can we be sure that we don't over legislate police officers so that they can do their job to protect the law-abiding citizens who live in these high crime neighborhoods and yet train officers to police with compassion?" Pastor Dannie Evans, a member of the Wisconsin Racial Disparity Task Force, asked Biden.
"By number one, not defunding the police,” Biden said, instead emphasizing the need to “put more money in police work," need to utilize community policing, and “need to provide for more African American and more Hispanic police officers.”
Biden also said that “no one should go to jail for a drug offense. No one should go to jail for the use of a drug. They should go to drug rehabilitation,” to applause from the crowd.
"We should be in a position where we change the system of sentencing system," he added.
Biden also emphasized the need for police to be kept safe: ”Every cop when they get up in the morning and put on that shield has a right to expect to go home to their family that night.”
“Conversely,” Biden added. “Every kid walking across the street wearing a hoodie is not a member of of a gang and about to knock somebody off.”
"The nation is not divided,” Biden said, responding to a question asking about his plan to address division in America. “You go out there and take a look, you talk to people. You have fringes at both ends but it's not nearly as divided as we make it out to be, and we have to bring it together.”
"There are so many things that we agree on,” Biden said. “We don't condemn the things that are so obviously wrong.
“We have to be more decent, treat people with respect,” he added.