The president on Tuesday night fielded questions from citizens and a CNN moderator on pandemic relief, the economy and America’s divisions at a town hall event in Milwaukee.
MILWAUKEE (CN) — President Joe Biden visited Wisconsin’s largest city for a town hall event on Tuesday night, using his first official trip out of Washington as chief executive to answer questions about a myriad of issues including his Covid-19 relief plan, which he said would allow every American to have access to a vaccine by the end of July.
Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater — which has been closed for nearly a year as a Covid-19 precaution — opened for the one-night event moderated by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, allowing the longtime Delaware lawmaker to field questions from a socially-distanced, invite-only audience including local business owners, educators, health care professionals and parents.
Biden’s last visit to Milwaukee was a last-minute ersatz campaign rally at General Mitchell International Airport six days before Election Day. He did not appear in person at the largely downsized and virtual Democratic National Convention based in the Cream City last August, instead accepting the party’s nomination from his campaign headquarters in Delaware.
Biden won Wisconsin over former President Donald Trump by around 20,000 votes, flipping the battleground from red to blue. The victory stood after Trump demanded a recount in the state’s two most liberal and populous counties and sued to overturn the state’s certified results.
The president’s actions in his first four weeks in office have mostly come in the form of more than 50 sweeping executive actions, 19 of which directly reversed his predecessor’s policies, including rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, halting construction on the wall along the Mexican border and ending a travel ban targeting majority Muslim countries.
Biden also rolled out his $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief plan in that time, a proposal that in part would extend pandemic unemployment benefits, send $1,400 survival checks to many Americans and invest $20 billion in a nationwide vaccination program.
The president reiterated his commitment to that plan Tuesday night, arguing that “now is the time we should be spending, now is the time to go big” with a plan he says would assuage the brittle economy and create 7 million jobs.
Nearly one year into a pandemic that has upturned most spheres of daily life, audience questions at the town hall focused on how Biden would lead the country from the grips of the virus, as well as how he would address racial and economic dilemmas and the polarized state of America’s civic discourse.
Biden said every American will have access to a vaccine by the end of July under his plan, part of a rejuvenated strategy that includes getting the vaccine to thousands of pharmacies and a deployment of mobile vaccination vans, increasing federal guidance for administering the vaccine and targeting vaccine outreach to underserved Black and Hispanic communities.
In any case, Biden pushed the vaccine hard, saying “if you’re eligible, if it’s available, get the vaccine,” but did briefly acknowledge paranoias about it, particularly nodding toward mistrust of the vaccine and the medical establishment at large in some of America’s Black communities.
Responding to the owner of a small local brewery and taproom with concerns as to how Biden’s plan would help small businesses survive the pandemic, the president said he wants $60 billion for small businesses to make capital investments so they can open safely with increased federal guidance.
Biden again emphasized his support for raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, saying “no one should work 40 hours a week and live in poverty,” but making the case that “it’s about doing it gradually.” He remained firm on limiting student debt relief to $10,000, in resisting a more progressive proposal to relieve $50,000, and shot down the idea of defunding the police, instead proposing to give more money for police work to better vet and train recruits in implicit biases and help send those arrested on drug charges to rehab rather than jail.
White supremacists, Biden said, are the greatest domestic terror threat facing the United States. He responded to an audience question about that threat and its connected extremist conspiracies by saying his Justice Department and its civil rights division will focus heavily on the issue.
Biden on Tuesday also renewed his commitment to finding a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the country and bringing back a broader approach to the nation’s refugees and asylum programs while speaking up for human rights across the globe, including repercussions for China over its human rights abuses in Hong Kong and against the Uighur population in China’s western mountains.
In typical fashion, Biden insisted America is not as divided as it seems, staking the claim that despite fringes on both ends, “it’s not nearly as divided as we make it out to be and we have to bring it together.”
At one point Cooper asked Biden when he thought the pandemic would recede and the country could return to normal. He pointed to next Christmas as a time when, maybe, the nation could be “under a very different circumstance,” while affirming that he does not want to over-promise anything and “will always level with you.”
Trump did not come up often, and when he did Biden sought to steer the conversation away from him, but the president did pointedly remark that he would not politicize the Justice Department and would leave any potential investigation of Trump up to its discretion.
The veteran senator occasionally summoned his penchant for empathetic personal connection on Tuesday night, asking a woman with a question about getting her son who suffers from a lung disease vaccinated to stick around after the town hall for a few minutes to talk about getting her help and assuring a second grader she is unlikely to get the virus and to not be scared.
Biden did not take Cooper’s bait to echo House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s charge that Republican senators who voted for Trump’s acquittal in his second impeachment are “cowards,” instead trying to look to the future and get over four years of Trump saturating the news cycle.
“The next four years, I want to make sure all the news is the American people,” Biden said.