NEW YORK — Early Thursday, President Joe Biden issued a statement announcing a raid by U.S. armed forces that resulted in the death of the leader of ISIS.
Two hours later, he sat down to pray with lawmakers at the Capitol.
Hours after that, he jetted off to New York City for meetings with teachers and police.
All presidents are forced to balance competing priorities and demands. But rarely do the days leap between the global, ecumenical and domestic in such a short timespan as they did for Biden on Thursday.
“Mr. President, life is all about showing up,” said New York Gov. Kathy Hochul as she sat next to Biden inside One Police Plaza, the headquarters of the New York City Police Department. “On a day when you had to deal with an international incident, when the rest of the country was riveted on the news that was coming out of the White House, you still found the time to show up.”
It was a triumphant, if not frenetic, 24 hours for the White House — perhaps the most dizzying of his presidency — and it began on Wednesday evening around 5 p.m.
As Biden was finishing an unrelated call with French President Emmanuel Macron, he received updates on the raid that would result in the death of ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi from his national security adviser Jake Sullivan. Sullivan ran back and forth from the Situation Room to brief the president until Biden was able to join everyone to watch a video feed. The room remained mostly silent and tense, as one senior administration official described it, until General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared the mission appeared to have been a success as U.S. forces were beginning exfiltration from the site of the raid in northern Syria.
Word of the raid, which had been planned for months and authorized on Tuesday, came the next morning in a formal statement from Biden. But before he would speak before the cameras, he left to pray.
On Biden’s schedule Thursday morning was the National Prayer Breakfast, a yearly event that brings lawmakers together on the first Thursday of February. There, the president called for a return to a time when members of Congress “really get to know each other.” To demonstrate his own commitment to the concept, he touted his friendship with Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader obstructing much of his agenda. After finally appearing before cameras to talk about the strike in Syria, Biden jetted off to New York, where he’d repeat the theme of unity again, calling for consensus around his initiatives to fund police and community intervention programs.
That rapid succession of wildly different events seemed to jolt an administration that has spent most of its time in its first year grappling with a pandemic and its vast impacts. It also seemed to provide a sense of relief, and a feeling inside and out of the White House — however fleeting it may turn out to be — that progress was being made.
“There are very few presidential days that are transformational for someone’s political fortunes — 9-11 was one and there haven’t been a hell of a lot of others,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of the moderate think tank Third Way. “But this has been a pretty good day and it has allowed Biden to recast himself a little bit and show some steel.”
Being able to use the bully pulpit, and use the power of the presidency in national security, and talk about things like crime on his own terms, is helpful,” Bennett added. “He could use more days like this.”
When Biden eventually arrived in New York City — for stops his White House said were meant to underscore his record of “supporting local cops programs” and pursuing police reform as “a step that will help rebuild trust in communities” — he appeared at ease.
At the first event, Biden was surrounded by city and state police, and members of New York’s congressional delegation, as he vowed his support for a city and its police force that are reeling from a rise in crime and recent deaths of NYPD officers. It was a place he had been before. As vice president, Biden was dispatched to New York to deliver a eulogy for Rafael Ramos, the NYPD officer who was shot and killed by a man seeking revenge for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner — two Black men killed by police who were ultimately not charged. Being a cop, Biden said at the time, was not just what they did for work, but “who you are.”
When Biden ran for president in 2020, many of the country’s police unions sided with Donald Trump. And they remained fearful that the Biden White House would pursue far-reaching reforms to address police brutality and killings of Black people.
But Biden has tried to straddle the line: supporting (now failed) policing reform efforts in Congress while continuously re-stating his opposition to proposals to defund police departments. On Thursday, he tried to allay those concerns further. Everyone he grew up with, Biden said, became a police officer, a firefighter or priest. “I wouldn’t qualify for any of them so here I am,” he joked to laughter.
Biden struck somber notes too. He took a moment to commend NYPD Officer Sumit Sulan, the third officer who responded to the domestic dispute call in Harlem that left two other New York police officers dead.
“Six NYPD officers have been victims of gun violence so far just this year,” Biden said, as Sulan sat behind him among other officers. He added that across Philadelphia, Wilmington, Del. and Washington, D.C. some 64 children had been “injured by gun violence so far this year, 26 killed.”
“Enough is enough because we know we can do things about this but for the resistance you’re getting in some sectors of the government,” he said. “The answer is not defunding the police.”
Joining Biden at his stops across the city was the city’s newly elected mayor, Eric Adams, who the White House believes echoes and personifies the president’s holistic approach to crime and policing.
Adams did his part to play up the partnership, declaring himself again “the Biden of Brooklyn,” and adding that he and Biden were “on the same page.” Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.) said Biden was “smart” to align himself with Adams, whom he described as both a former officer who is clearly supportive of police but also someone who from a young age has been behind police reforms. Suozzi also said Biden was wise to get out of the White House and speak directly with the voters, noting that once Biden dropped his scripted material and spoke freely about crime and guns, “the audience really warmed to him.”
“Between Covid and some of his handlers, the president has been too walled off from the people,” Suozzi said. “The challenge for Democrats … is they’ve got to talk about what the people care about. And in New York right now people care about crime and they care about taxes and they care about the economic recovery post-Covid. They don’t want to hear about this esoteric, theoretical, crazy far-right and extreme far-left debate.”
The White House, Souzzi noted, has “gotta let Biden be Biden.”
For as frenetic as the day was for Biden, he spent a lot of it listening.
At a later stop at P.S. 111 Jacob Blackwell school in Queens — which teaches kindergarten through 8th grades — Biden stood with his arms crossed or in his pockets as others described the challenges the school and its students face. He engaged with the school’s principal Dionne Jaggon, and K. Bain, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Community Capacity Development. Adams and Gov. Hochul stood nearby.
Biden appeared keenly interested in the work being done by the school, asking the principal to define a rating the school previously held of being “persistently dangerous.” But one issue in particular kept nagging him: What kind of participation did the school have from parents? “You haven’t talked at all about the home and what impact that has on what you’re doing,” he said.
Bain explained that through their violence intervention program, “outreach workers” and “violence interrupters” become semi-guardians for at-risk kids, providing food and routine homework help.
As press were ushered out of the room, Biden continued to dissect the work being done in the school. He would eventually have to depart for JFK airport, where he would get on a plane so that he could return to D.C., where his social spending bill — the one that would fund such community violence intervention programs — remains stalled in Congress.