Biden pushes agenda in town hall; reframes goal on reopening elementary schools

President Biden's first 100 days

President Joe Biden stands on stage during a break in a televised town hall event at Pabst Theater, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

MILWAUKEE (NewsNation Now) — President Joe Biden promised a majority of elementary schools will be open five days a week by the end of his first 100 days in office, vowed to continue accelerating the country’s COVID-19 vaccination program, and touched on a range of issues at the forefront of his agenda at a Tuesday town hall.

Biden’s comments, during a televised CNN town hall in Milwaukee, marked his clearest statement yet on school reopenings, following confusion after aides said schools would be considered open if they held in-person learning just one day a week.

Biden had pledged in December to reopen “the majority of our schools” in his first 100 days but has since faced increasing questions about how he would define and achieve that goal, with school districts operating under a patchwork of different virtual and in-person learning arrangements nationwide.

“I said open a majority of schools in K through eighth 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,” Biden said.

He said comments by White House press secretary Jen Psaki earlier this month that one day a week of in-person learning would meet his goal were “a mistake in the communication.”

Asked when the nation would see kindergarten through eighth grades back to in-person learning five days a week, Biden said, “We’ll be close to that at the end of the first 100 days.”

He said he expected many schools would push to stay open through the summer, but suggested reopening would take longer for high schools due to a higher risk of contagion among older students. He also said he believes teachers should be moved closer to the front of the line for inoculation.

“I think that we should be vaccinating teachers – we should move them up in the hierarchy,” Biden said, although he noted that states, not the federal government, have the authority to decide how to prioritize vaccinations.

In the wide-ranging town hall Biden touched on issues surrounding the pandemic, China-U.S. relations, race and policing. Biden said that by the end of July there would be 600 million doses of the vaccine available, enough to vaccinate every American.

Progress on Biden’s goals were couched heavily on congressional action on his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan that includes sending $1,400 checks to most Americans. The town hall was also aimed at selling his aid package directly to the American people and refocus Congress on speedy passage of the bill now that his predecessor’s impeachment trial is behind lawmakers. The House is expected to vote on the measure next week.

“Now’s the time to go big,” Biden said, as he fielded questions from voters at the landmark Pabst Theater. “If we pass this bill alone, we’ll create 7 million jobs this year.”

Republicans have floated a $600 billion aid package, less than a third the size of the Democratic plan. Some Republican lawmakers have stressed that some past aid to state and local governments remains unspent and urged more targeted measures to help people and businesses in need; along with expressing concerns about the overall cost of the package. Even some Democrats, like Larry Summers, an economic adviser to former President Barack Obama, have warned that Biden might be spending too much.

Republican Rep. Michael Burgess said Congress should wait until all of the previous $4 trillion in pandemic relief has been spent. He said $1 trillion has yet to go out the door. “Why is it suddenly so urgent that we pass another $2 trillion bill?” Burgess demanded earlier this month.

During the town hall, Biden disclosed a moderate stance in some issues that helped win him purple states like Wisconsin in 2020. For example, he resisted a questioner’s request for his administration to embrace the progressive goal of forgiving $50,000 in student loan debt, reiterating his commitment to forgiving just $10,000. He also suggested one of the ways to improve policing was to provide more funding to police departments, running counter to calls from some progressives to defund the police. Biden added he was optimistic about passing legislation to study police reforms.

He also weighed in on the immigration bill his administration is expected to unveil this week. Biden affirmed that a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is essential for any bill he’ll support, but also suggested he’d be open to a piecemeal approach to immigration reform rather than a comprehensive bill, if necessary.

“There’s things I would do by itself, but not at the expense of saying I’m never going to do the other,” he said.

Biden seemed relaxed in his first opportunity for extended interaction with ordinary Americans since the inauguration and offered an intimate description of living in the White House, expressing his discomfort with being tended to by staff. With about a month of White House living under his belt, Biden joked that he wakes up in the morning, looks at his wife, Jill, and asks, “Where the hell are we?”

Biden landed on a slick, snow-covered tarmac to below-freezing weather about 90 minutes before the evening program. He took questions from a small audience of Democrats, Republicans and independents invited for a small, socially distant gathering at the historic theater.

President Joe Biden talks with Col. Adria Zuccaro, Commander of the 128th Air Refueling Wing, as he arrives at General Mitchell International Airport to participate in a town hall event at Pabst Theater, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Biden’s trip to Wisconsin, a political battleground state he narrowly won last November, comes as coronavirus infection rates and deaths are falling after the nation endured the two deadliest months so far of the pandemic. The White House is also reporting an increase in the administration of vaccines throughout the country after a slow start.

But Biden has stressed that the nation still has a long road ahead as thousands of Americans die each day in the worst U.S. public health crisis in a century. The virus has killed more than 488,000, and newly emerging variants are complicating the response effort.

The Biden administration is trying to get enough Americans vaccinated to achieve “herd immunity” and allow life to return to a semblance of normalcy.

Biden said he expected everyone who wanted a vaccine would be able to get one by July, when his administration will have secured enough shots to inoculate all Americans. But he also warned it would still take many months and urged people to wear masks, maintain social distance and wash hands for the foreseeable future.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this article. All reporting by Aamer Madhani/AP, Alexandra Jaffe/AP and Jeff Mason/Reuters.

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