MILWAUKEE, Wis. -- President Joe Biden would only commit to a return to normal by next Christmas during a CNN town hall on Tuesday, saying he did not want to boost Americans' hopes when he could not be certain of a still-early vaccine rollout.
The prediction of nearly another year in pandemic-dampened conditions was admittedly not optimistic. But Biden still said it was as good as he could offer with any level of confidence.
"As my mother would say, with the grace of God and the goodwill of the neighbors, that by next Christmas I think we'll be in a very different circumstance, God willing, than we are today," Biden said. "A year from now, I think that there'll be significantly fewer people having to be socially distanced, having to wear a mask."
He added: "I don't want to over promise anything here."
Speaking during his first outing from Washington after nearly a month in office, Biden sought to make a clean break with Donald Trump -- whom he said is his only living predecessor not to reach out in support -- including by making what he said were realistic predictions about the pandemic.
Biden described a national fixation on Trump that, now that the 45th President's second impeachment trial is over, he was intent on breaking.
"For four years, all that's been in the news is Trump," he said. "The next four years, I want to make sure all the news is the American people. I'm tired of talking about Trump."
His primary goal in Milwaukee was to pitch his massive COVID-19 relief plan, which he insisted must "go big." But pressed on the foremost question for many Americans -- when life can be restored to what it was before the coronavirus began ravaging the country -- he aimed low.
"Be careful not to predict things you don't know for certain because then you'll be held accountable," he said, describing the advice he said he'd received on predicting the trajectory of the pandemic.
Refocusing on COVID-19
No longer encumbered by his predecessor's trial and eager to seize the national spotlight, Biden's first work trip outside Washington signaled his intent on making a public sales pitch for his agenda. Aside from COVID-19 relief, Biden affirmed his support for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, said more money was needed for police departments and insisted he wouldn't interfere in the Justice Department's work.
Aides said beforehand the President, known for his outgoing style with voters, was eager to escape the White House, which he described during the event as a "gilded cage." That style was on ample display, including when he sought to reassure a second-grader who feared catching COVID-19.
"Don't be scared, honey," he told her. "You're going to be fine"
But the event was mostly focused on the substance of his plans to provide relief to the American people after nearly a yearlong pandemic. He offered a more bullish timeline for vaccines, touting a scaled-up vaccination program he claimed was woefully inadequate when he entered the White House.
"There was nothing in the refrigerator, literally and figuratively," Biden said, promising there would be enough vaccines available for nearly every American by the end of July, even if the process of actually administering them might take longer.
He said teachers should move ahead in the line to receive shots in order to reopen many classrooms five days a week by the end of April, attempting to clarify an administration stance he acknowledged had become muddled over the last week.
Biden said he wanted kindergarten through eighth grade schools open five days a week, and suggested some schools should remain open over the summer to make up for lost time. He said he believed his goal could be accomplished within his first 100 days in office.
"We have a significant percentage of them being able to be open," he said. "My guess is they're probably going to be pushing to open all summer."
Pressed on how he would return students to classrooms, Biden said he would emphasize getting vaccines to teachers: "I think we should be vaccinating teachers. We should move them up in the hierarchy," he said.
But he acknowledged there has been miscues coming from his administration on reopening schools, saying it was a "mistake" to say his goal was only to reopen classrooms one day a week, which his press secretary said last week.
His primary goal, however, was to promote his American Recovery Plan, his debut legislative effort. White House aides insist the $1.9 trillion proposal is popular with a wide swath of Americans, including Republicans, even though Biden has not secured support from any GOP senators. By taking his pitch on the road, and fielding questions from Americans, he hoped to highlight the relief the plan would bring nearly a year into the pandemic.
"Now is the time to be spending, now is the time to go big," he said. The package includes direct payments to families of up to $1,400, money for state and local governments and more funding for vaccination efforts.
The White House hopes for final passage of the plan by mid-March, when certain unemployment benefits expire. House committees have begun writing individual sections of the measure before it is compiled into one bill. Democrats are using a procedural process that would allow it to pass by a simple Senate majority -- which the Democrats hold -- rather than requiring 60 votes to overcome an all-but-certain GOP objection.
The visit to Milwaukee is Biden's first real trip as president, though he did travel home to Wilmington two weekends ago. He flew aboard the iconic jumbo jet typically used as Air Force One for the first time after using a smaller model to fly to Delaware.
Employing the traditional symbols of the presidency to advance his agenda is one of the perks of the job; Biden will use it again on Thursday when he travels to Kalamazoo, Michigan, to tour a Pfizer vaccine manufacturing facility.
He admitted on Tuesday that he was in awe of the White House, which he said exuded history. Despite serving as vice president for eight years, he said he'd spent almost no time in the presidential residence on the third floor of the White House. He said it was an adjustment to have a full-time staff of "decent" people whose job is to serve him.
"I find myself extremely self-conscious," he said.
The famously gregarious politician had been itching to get out of Washington and engage with the public, interactions that have been limited amidst the ongoing pandemic. A senior official said Tuesday's trip would likely be the first of several as Biden continues to drum up support for the relief package.
Typically, new presidents lay out their legislative priorities in an address to a joint session of Congress, a State of the Union-like speech carried live on television and closely watched for signals of the administration's priorities. Biden still intends to deliver such a speech once the COVID-19 relief package is passed, according to the White House, but doesn't expect it to happen this month.
That's later than typical, leaving the town hall and other upcoming events as Biden's primary platform for advancing his agenda.
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