WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden marked six months in office with a crowded Cabinet meeting, a gathering meant to symbolize both a return to normalcy due to vaccines and a display of the federal government doing the people’s business.
But the moment was shadowed by the uncertain fate of a key Biden legislative priority, the bipartisan infrastructure plan, and a virus that has begun to surge anew.
Biden crammed 25 Cabinet-level officials, as well as another 18 senior staffers, into the ornate West Wing space on Tuesday to hear the president extol his administration's actions after taking office during a once-in-a-century pandemic.
“The bottom line is we’re delivering on our promises,” Biden said. “We have to deliver on all the promises we made, because I think we’re in a situation where the vast majority of the public agrees with the essence of what we’re trying to do.”
The Cabinet members were packed tightly around a table for their first full meeting in the Cabinet room, with a group of journalists squeezed in shoulder-to-shoulder at the outset to chronicle the event.
The White House held a rehearsal for the meeting several weeks ago to ensure that all the Cabinet-ranked officials could fit around the table and be seen in photos.
“Time flies when we’re having fun,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki quipped at her briefing, previewing the six-month-mark meeting.
Biden was flanked by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Vice President Kamala Harris sat across the table while some of the president’s most influential aides, including national security adviser Jake Sullivan and domestic policy adviser Susan Rice, lined the walls.
The scene looked far different from Biden’s first Cabinet meeting, held in March, which took place in the more spacious East Room to allow for social distancing. All attendees that day, including the president, wore masks. There were none in sight on Tuesday.
The meeting lacked the over-the-top praise of the chief executive that defined former President Donald Trump’s Cabinet meetings. But Biden took the opportunity to push for his two-track legislative plan, believing that it was key to jump starting “an economic boom for some time to come.”
“The American people are overwhelmingly supportive of our plan,” the president said. "That’s the part that a lot of our friends on the other team kind of miss.”
Though Biden enjoys largely positive public polling, there are clouds on the horizon.
As he convened his Cabinet, the three top aides who have negotiated the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal were not there, having rushed to the Capitol to try to save a deal that appeared on the verge of falling apart.
Biden's March meeting came just days after he signed into law a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill and he has poured his legislative energy since then into the infrastructure package despite calls from some in his own party to focus on issues like voting rights and immigration.
And while the pandemic had receded since March, the nation’s vaccination effort has stalled and a new more contagious strain of COVID-19, the delta variant, had sent infections rising across the country. It largely impacts the unvaccinated — though the White House announced Tuesday that some vaccinated staffers had tested positive — and its spread has prompted several major cities to reinstitute mask mandates.
The White House, so far, has not followed suit.
Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writer Zeke Miller contributed to this report.