Joe Biden just sat down for his first TV interview since the election, and at one point the president-elect seemed to be on the verge of tears.
US president-elect Joe Biden has given his first TV interview since winning the election, facing questions on the state of the presidential transition and what he intends to do with his first hundred days in office.
Mr Biden sat down for a chat with Lester Holt, the host of NBC Nightly News, a short time after introducing several of his nominees for Cabinet posts to the public this afternoon.
Several of his choices are alumni of the Obama administration. Earlier today, Politico reported that had caused some resentment among some of Mr Biden’s longtime loyalists, who fear they are being overlooked.
“People are pissed,” is how one senior official put it.
Holt alluded to that tension early in the interview.
“This line-up, those you’ve selected so far – a lot of familiar faces among them. What do you say to those who are wondering if you’re trying to create a third Obama term?” he asked.
“This is not a third Obama term. Because we face a totally different world than we faced in the Obama-Biden administration,” Mr Biden said.
“President Trump has changed the landscape. It has become America First, which means America alone. We find ourselves in a position where our alliances are being frayed. It’s totally different.
“That’s why I’ve found people that represent the spectrum of the American people as well as the spectrum of the Democratic Party.”
Mr Biden stressed there were “a lot more appointments” still to be announced. Holt asked whether he had considered nominating any Republicans – perhaps even one who voted for Donald Trump – as a unifying gesture.
“Yes,” the president-elect said.
“I want this country to be united. We can’t keep this virulent political dialogue going.”
“Should we expect an announcement?” asked Holt.
“No,” said Mr Biden.
“Not ever, or not soon?” said Holt.
“Not soon,” he clarified.
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Another talking point here is the relative lack of Democratic Party politicians among Mr Biden’s nominees.
That may change as he announces more of them. For now though, Senator John Kerry is the only politician who has been named to serve in Mr Biden’s Cabinet, and he will fill the niche role of climate envoy.
This is somewhat unexpected. A prestige role like secretary of state, for example, is often given to a prominent politician.
The man currently in the job, Mike Pompeo, is a former Republican congressman. Barack Obama gave the gig first to then-senator Hillary Clinton, and then to Mr Kerry.
Mr Biden has gone for Antony Blinken, a man you have likely never heard of who served as deputy secretary of state under Mr Obama.
Before the election, there was talk that Mr Biden might give Cabinet posts to some of his vanquished rivals for the Democratic nomination.
Senator Elizabeth Warren was floated as a potential treasury secretary. Senator Bernie Sanders has openly expressed interest in the position of labour secretary. Former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg has been mentioned as a potential secretary for veterans’ affairs.
Again, Holt addressed the issue head-on.
“What about former rivals from your own party? Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren – have you talked to them about Cabinet positions?” he asked.
The answer was quite obviously no, though Mr Biden didn’t put it quite so bluntly.
“Look, as I said, we already have significant representation among progressives in our administration, but there’s nothing really off the table,” he said.
“But one thing’s really critical. Taking someone out of the Senate, taking someone out of the House – particularly a person of consequence – is a really difficult decision.
“I have a very ambitious, very progressive agenda, and it’s going to take really strong leaders in the House and the Senate to get it done.”
If he were to choose a serving senator, such as Mr Sanders or Ms Warren, their seat in the Senate would be vacated and then contested in a special election, potentially sapping the Democrats’ numbers for an extended period.
Hence, don’t expect a Cabinet post for either of them.
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Mr Biden’s interview came a day after the General Services Administration (GSA) allowed the transition process to formally begin, releasing funds and enabling members of the president-elect’s team to make contact with their counterparts in the Trump administration.
It took a few weeks longer than usual to reach that point, with Mr Trump refusing to concede defeat and the relevant official at the GSA backing him up.
Nevertheless, Mr Biden told Holt he was satisfied his incoming administration would be able to get up to speed before Inauguration Day on January 20.
“Immediately, we’ve gotten outreach across the board. They’re already working out my ability to get presidential daily briefs (and) meet with the COVID team in the White House,” he said.
“I think we’re going to be not quite so far behind the curve as I thought we might be in the past. I must say, the outreach has been sincere. It has not been begrudging so far, and I don’t expect it to be.”
For context here, Mr Biden has been receiving intelligence briefings since he became the Democratic nominee earlier this year. The presidential daily brief – the same thing Mr Trump gets every day – is a more comprehensive document to which he could not be given access without the GSA’s approval.
The other thing Mr Biden hasn’t had yet is a conversation with the President. The pair have not spoken since the election.
“I believe that his chief of staff and my chief of staff have spoken, but no, I have not heard anything from President Trump,” he said.
“It’s a slow start. But it’s starting, and there’s two months left to go. So I’m feeling good about the ability to get up to speed.”
Holt asked what, exactly, Mr Biden planned to do with his first hundred days in power.
“Some of it is going to depend on the kind of co-operation I can or cannot get from the Congress,” he said.
The Republicans are likely to hold a majority in the Senate, unless the Democrats manage to win both upcoming run-off elections in Georgia – an unlikely feat. That means Mr Biden will need to secure at least a couple of Republican votes to pass legislation.
“I will send an immigration bill to the Senate with a pathway to citizenship for over 11 million undocumented people in America,” said Mr Biden.
“I will also be moving to do away with some of the very damaging executive orders that have significantly impacted on making the climate worse and making us less healthy.
“There’s also things that I want to do that relate to the ability to make sure we get immediate assistance to state and local governments to keep them from basically going under.
“There’s multiple things that are going to have to be taking place at the same time.
“But the most important thing, I think, is to focus on those folks who are always – when the crisis hits, they are the first ones hit, and when the recovery comes they’re the last ones in. That’s minority communities, who’ve been hurt very badly.
“Making sure we get the aid that was voted on in the House and passed by the Senate and some cases, and much of which has not passed, get the kind of help to keep people afloat.”
For months, Republicans and Democrats in Congress, along with the Trump White House, have been unable to reach an agreement on a second coronavirus relief package, which would help Americans who are struggling economically amid the pandemic.
The two sides have been unable to agree on the scope or content of such a package, meaning nothing has been passed. Meanwhile, the initial relief measures passed in the early months of the crisis have expired.
Mr Biden appeared to tear up at this point, and he had to take a moment to gather himself before launching into an anecdote about his own father’s economic struggles.
“I remember … I remember my dad being restless. And I remember, one night, feeling – I could hear my dad, you could just feel the bed moving. So the next morning I said, ‘Mum, what’s wrong with dad?’” he recounted.
“She said, ‘He’s worried. He just lost – he moved jobs, he lost his health insurance. He doesn’t know what to do.’
“Think of all the people, all the people, who are laying awake at night, staring at the ceiling, thinking, ‘God forbid. What happens?’ We have to act. We have to act to guarantee they have access to affordable health insurance.
“This is more than just a financial crisis. It’s a crisis that is causing real mental stress for millions of people. Millions of people. And it’s within our power to solve it.”
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The incoming administration’s other initial focus will, of course, be rolling out vaccines to the general public as efficiently as possible.
“Allegedly the administration has set up a rollout, how they think it should occur, what will be available when and how. And we’ll look at that, we may alter that. But that’s in train now. We haven’t got that briefing yet,” said Mr Biden.
He referred to his conversations with state governors from both political parties.
“We’ve talked extensively about the need to co-operate and get the vaccine into places where you can actually get vaccinated,” he said.
“I think we should be focusing obviously on the doctors, the nurses, the first responders. I think we should also be focused on trying to open schools as fast as we can. I think it can be done safely.
“The hope is this administration can begin to distribute it before we’re sworn in. So it’s all in train now. But I’m feeling good now that we’ll be able to get all the hard data we need.”
Holt asked what Mr Biden could do, as president, to change people’s attitudes towards the pandemic – to stop them from ignoring medical advice, for example – that he couldn’t do as a candidate.
“I hope as president – and many of the Republican governors and mayors felt the same way – I hope we’re going to be able to have a united voice on the need to mask, socially distance, testing and tracing. They’re critical, critical pieces to dealing with bringing down this virus into a more manageable place,” he said.
“The words of a president matter.”
Finally, Holt asked how Mr Biden would deal with the calls from some Democrats for Mr Trump to be prosecuted after leaving office.
There are currently multiple active investigations of Mr Trump and his businesses at the state level. Once he is no longer in office, prosecutors could conceivably try to indict him.
“I will not do what this President has done and use the Justice Department as my vehicle to insist that something happen,” Mr Biden said.
“There are a number of investigations that I’ve read about at a state level. There’s nothing at all I can or can’t do about that.
“I’m focused on getting the public back to a place where they have some certainty, some knowledge they can make it. The middle class are being crushed. That’s my focus.”