President Joe Biden made his first official visit to Baltimore since becoming chief executive, making a plea to the American public in support of his social spending and infrastructure plan during a nationally televised town hall hosted by CNN on Thursday.
Biden was greeted by raucous applause from the crowd as he walked onto the stage wearing a dark suit and a wide grin. He waved at the crowd and put one hand over his eyes as he peered into the audience.
The Democratic president was peppered with questions from Marylanders on issues ranging from affordable child care and gas prices to tax rates and climate change, with host Anderson Cooper interjecting his own questions, as well.
As he answered, Biden tried to appeal to the crowd inside the 541-seat Pearlstone Theater at Center Stage in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood, repeatedly asking the attendees to evoke their own struggles or those they’ve witnessed, particularly during the pandemic.
Biden offered his legislative package as a solution, touting its provisions for child care assistance and paid parental leave as well as help with community college tuition.
“There’s a lot of pieces,” he said of the legislation early in the event.
Biden’s appearance came during a push by Democratic lawmakers in Washington to pass his legislative package, which includes efforts to boost spending on social programs, climate change mitigation and infrastructure.
The infrastructure bill is designed to improve roads, bridges, transit systems and broadband — and help fund Chesapeake Bay restoration — and the social spending package contains key elements of Biden’s agenda, including expanding child care support and health care.
The total cost of the “Build Back Better” plan, originally priced at $3.5 trillion, has proved to be a sticking point during weeks of partisan haggling over the legislation. On Thursday, White House officials and key Democrats rushed to rework several pieces, including trimming social services and climate change programs in an effort to pare back the legislative package to about $2 trillion.
As he discussed the bill Thursday, Biden’s experience negotiating during his tenure in Congress was on display. After joking that he served in the U.S. Senate for hundreds of years, the president spoke frankly about provisions of his legislation that have been cut to please moderate Democrats.
Likely to be eliminated or shaved back from the plan are tuition-free community college, a path to permanent legal status for certain immigrants in the United States, and a clean energy plan that was the centerpiece of Biden’s strategy for fighting climate change.
Officials also are rethinking plans to reverse Trump-era tax cuts and instead considering new taxes on corporations and the investment income of the wealthy to finance the package. Congressional Republicans have argued corporate tax increases would cripple American businesses.
No substantial initiatives in U.S. history have been accomplished via a single piece of legislation, Biden said.
“I’m prepared to do the things that can get done now, that can begin to change the lives of ordinary Americans and give them a fighting chance,” he said. “And come back and do the other things later.”
The audience inside the theater appeared to be largely supportive of the president. During a commercial break, the president leaned forward from the stage, greeting audience members and shaking hands.
The crowd also showed support with hearty applause for those who were selected to ask questions — including several affiliated with Morgan State University and Loyola University Maryland.
Hours before the event, audience members waited in lines to have their identification and coronavirus vaccination cards checked.
The network solicited questions from the community through institutions such as Morgan State, a Johns Hopkins University economic development program and others. CNN said the audience would include Democrats, Republicans and independents.
Sondra Guttman, a Loyola University Maryland English professor, asked about whether two years of tuition-free community college will happen.
”I’m going to get it done and if I don’t, I’ll be sleeping alone for a long time,” said Biden, referring to his wife, Jill, who teaches at a community college. He said Pell Grants could help make progress toward that goal.
“It is a start,” he said.
Arguing 12 years of school isn’t enough, Biden initially spoke about the need for free preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds but was directed by host Anderson Cooper to discuss community college.
John Meche, a doctoral student at Morgan State who is a political independent, asked why Democrats can’t “usher through” their agenda like Republicans have. Biden said the Republican agenda is just to stop him.
“It’s much easier to stop something than start something,” he said.
Outside the theater, protesters tried to send their message to the president.
Members of CASA, a regional advocacy group for immigrants wore matching red T-shirts and chanted: “What do we want? Citizenship! When do we want it? Now!”
Yury Guardado, an undocumented immigrant and activist, said CASA is hoping to send a message to Biden to support a broader path to citizenship.
“He needs to keep his promise,” the 15-year-old said. “We are asking for what is ours and we are demanding for what is ours. We have been hiding for too long.”
Other demonstrators included two people in dinosaur costumes opposed to medical testing on animals at federal labs, as well as a group with neon pink and yellow signs reading: “Keep Iran Deal.”
Several members from the Pride Center of Maryland were able to use federal government connections to get tickets to the event.
Brian Askew, a case manager and workforce development coordinator, said the group planned to “absorb the beauty and awe of a presidential arena and mindset.” Askew said he’s hoped to hear how the Pride Center could help the White House’s mission with the LGBTQ community, especially with getting people back to work.
When Tamera Trimuel received an email from Morgan State’s president asking for questions to potentially attend the town hall, she jumped at the opportunity.
The 18-year-old said if she was called upon, she would ask Biden about funding for historically Black colleges and universities like Morgan State. The college freshman, who’s studying multimedia journalism, said she finds cuts to promised funding troubling since the African American community, particularly in Georgia, helped get Biden elected.
Even if the Chicago native doesn’t get the chance to ask a question, she wants to soak up her first presidential town hall.
“I’m really looking forward to just the experience in general and hearing his answers,” she said. “We are the future generation and it’s important that we’re involved in the political conversations.”
Biden and the first lady touched down in Marine One at Fort McHenry National Monument at 7:17 p.m., where they were greeted by Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes and Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott.
A motorcade then rolled through South Baltimore and downtown, then up to Mount Vernon, where demonstrators along North Calvert Street shouted and cheered as the motorcycles and SUVs arrived.
Scott offered opening remarks that were not shown on TV. According to a copy of his speech provided by his office, the mayor praised Biden’s coronavirus efforts through the American Rescue Plan, including $641 million sent to Baltimore.
“I would personally thank the President 641 million times for every single dollar being invested in Baltimore’s future if time allowed,” Scott said, according to the prepared remarks.
During a commercial break, Scott was complimented for his speech by people sitting near him.
Biden has been eager to advance the legislative package that has been in the works for much of the year, particularly before he leaves for an overseas global climate summit next week.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has set an Oct. 31 deadline for the House of Representatives to pass the infrastructure deal, which the Senate approved previously with support from both Democrats and Republicans.
The Senate-passed version contained several provisions of specific importance to Marylanders, but it is unclear how many of those provisions will remain when the final details of the deal are hammered out. That version included five years of funding for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay program, and language allowing the Red Line — a planned Baltimore light rail system rejected by Gov. Larry Hogan six years ago — to be revisited.
Still in consideration is $500 billion to battle climate change, $350 billion for child care subsidies and free prekindergarten, a new federal program for at least four weeks of paid family leave, a one-year extension of the $300 monthly child tax credit put in place during the COVID-19 crisis, and money for health care provided through the Affordable Care Act and Medicare.
Ahead of Biden’s visit, Hogan issued a statement saying the president should take a more bipartisan approach to the infrastructure negotiations.
“America’s biggest problems cannot be fixed by one party alone,” said Hogan, a Republican. “If the president truly seeks to bring us together, then I urge him to use this town hall to focus on the bipartisan, common sense solutions to the serious problems that face us.”
Biden initially had planned to visit Baltimore for a tour of the Emergent BioSolutions vaccine manufacturing plant in Bayview. He canceled the visit after The New York Times reported that Emergent BioSolutions had profited greatly by winning government contracts for anthrax vaccines at a time when the nation’s medical stockpile needed masks and other supplies.
Baltimore Sun reporters Jeff Barker and McKenna Oxenden contributed to this article.