By BEN GITTLESON, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — For President Joe Biden, it’s all about timing.
Faced with an unprecedented array of crises, from the coronavirus pandemic to gun violence, Biden this week made clear that is looking back through the long lens of history as he formulates his agenda.
“Successful presidents — better than me — have been successful, in large part, because they know how to time what they’re doing — order it, decide and prioritize what needs to be done,” he said during a news conference Thursday.
After two major mass shootings in a week, Biden made clear that crises he viewed as secondary would not deter him from staying laser-focused on his top priorities: ending the coronavirus pandemic and repairing the economy.
Next up, he said, would be rebuilding America’s infrastructure, a not-so-flashy task that, if he’s successful, could have a lasting impact on his legacy in line with consequential presidents before him, like Franklin D. Roosevelt and his “New Deal” or Dwight Eisenhower and the interstate highway system.
Biden’s pragmatism is born out of his decades of passing bills on Capitol Hill, and it stands in stark contrast to his predecessor, former President Donald Trump.
Trump often bounced from one issue to the next chasing headlines, with little interest in figuring out how to actually move his proposals across the finish line at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
“It’s a matter of timing,” Biden said Thursday, explaining why he did not think now was the time to spend his political capital on gun control.
“When I took office,” he told another reporter, “I decided that it was a fairly basic, simple proposition, and that is: I got elected to solve problems. And the most urgent problem facing the American people, I stated from the outset, was COVID-19 and the economic dislocation for millions and millions of Americans. And so that’s why I put all my focus in the beginning — there are a lot of problems — put all my focus on dealing with those particular problems.”
Biden called the issues of immigration reform, climate change, voting rights and gun control “long-term problems” that have “been around a long time.”
“And what we’re going to be able to do, God willing, is now begin, one at a time, to focus on those as well,” he said. But, he added, the “fundamental problem” was how to help people regain their financial well being.
The president met earlier this month with a group of historians, which White House press secretary Jen Psaki said was a chance to for Biden to have “an open conversation about the challenges” the United States is facing while “looking back at history.”
“It’s a moment to step back and reflect and use it as lessons moving forward,” Psaki said Wednesday.
After gaining passage of a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package earlier this month, Biden said his next big push would be improving the nation’s infrastructure — “so that we can compete and create significant numbers of really good-paying jobs,” he explained Thursday.
With the United States inching out of a historic pandemic and reeling economically, Biden may seize on the moment to go big with a transformative spending plan that could have a lasting impact on the country’s bridges, roads and tunnels and put thousands of Americans back to work.
This week, administration officials prepared to present the president with a massive economic plan, covering infrastructure and other domestic priorities, with a total cost as high as $3 trillion, according to a White House official.
Axios, which first reported on the president’s meeting with historians, said it was clear during the meeting that Biden “knew a lot about Franklin D. Roosevelt” and asked questions about the president who brought the United States the massive relief programs and transformative policy changes that made up the 1930s New Deal.
White House officials did not respond to specific questions about the meeting, which Axios reported lasted over two hours and also touched on former President Lyndon B. Johnson.
But presidential historian Douglas Brinkley told ABC News that while Biden may be interested in the impact Roosevelt’s New Deal had, Biden faces far greater constraints than the wildly popular, four-term Roosevelt did, nor does he enjoy a large majority of Democrats in the Senate like Johnson had.
While Democrats have a slim majority in the House of Representatives, the evenly split Senate — with ties broken by Vice President Kamala Harris — means that the opposition of any one Democrat could prevent a bill’s passage.
“The truth of the matter is, Biden is like a third Obama administration,” Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University, said, referring to the obstructionism President Barack Obama faced from congressional Republicans. “We are a deeply divided country, and the idea of getting a legislative agenda done without any Republican help is very hard.”
While people familiar with the $3 trillion spending plans stressed they were preliminary — as was the price tag — if Biden moves forward, he is likely to face stiff opposition from Republicans in Congress.
The president was unable to garner even one GOP vote in favor of the COVID-19 relief bill.
“I would like Republican — elected Republican support,” Biden said Thursday, “but what I know I have now is that I have electoral support from Republican voters. Republican voters agree with what I’m doing.”
On Thursday, Biden dismissed Republican opposition to one issue, immigration reform, by nodding to the lasting impact Trump has had on the GOP.
“I know they have to posture for a while,” Biden said. “They sort of got to get it out of their system. This is a — but I’m ready to work with any Republican who wants to help solve the problem and make the situation better.”
But Biden is running up against the time crunch of the traditional “honeymoon period” for new presidents, where their typically higher approval ratings allow them to push through more ambitious agenda items. Obama, for example, tackled major healthcare reform soon he took office.
“Since Franklin D. Roosevelt unleashed his 100 days of the New deal, there’s been pressure on presidents to deliver results quickly, because the press starts saying, ‘What did you do in your first 100 days?"” Brinkley said. “This is just part of a media culture that’s developed particularly now with TV, especially in the 1950s with television. It starts becoming this big litmus test.”
That dynamic is likely fueling Biden’s infrastructure goals, he said. The 2022 midterms, too, are bearing down upon the president.
“There used to be a honeymoon period for presidents,” Brinkley said. “If that exists anymore, it’s only for a couple of months. And so you’re naturally trying to get out of the gate with something big quickly.”
ABC News’ Rachel Scott and Molly Nagle contributed to this report.
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