On the eve of the one-year anniversary of his inauguration, President Joe Biden held a formal news conference at the White House Wednesday, fielding reporter questions on his handling of the pandemic, the economy and his legislative agenda, characterizing the country as unified -- but not as much as it could be -- and raising eyebrows by saying Russia was likely to invade Ukraine.
"It's been a year of challenges, but it's also many years of enormous progress," Biden said to begin, ticking through his administration's successes before fielding questions from reporters.
With Biden facing the limits of what he can accomplish with an evenly-divided Senate, unable to get either his signature social spending package or major voting rights reform through Congress in recent weeks, and with the pandemic still raging well into its second, his approval rating in polls has hit an all-time low. A Jan. 12 Quinnipiac poll found his approval rating to be 33%, a 3-point drop from November.
Questioned at one point on the falling numbers indicating Americans are unhappy with his job performance, Biden replied bluntly, "I don't believe the polls."
The president touted wins over the last year to kick off the news conference, including administering more than 200 million COVID-19 vaccine doses and hitting record-low unemployment rates in many states.
"Should we have done more testing earlier? Yes," Biden said in his opening remarks. "But we're doing more now. We've gone from zero at-home tests a year ago to 375 million tests on the market just this month."
He said the bottom line on COVID-19 is the country is "in a better place than we've been and have been thus far" and reiterated his position not to go back to lockdowns and school closures.
"Some people may call what's happening now a new normal. I call it a job not yet finished," Biden said with confidence. "We're moving toward a time that COVID-19 won't disrupt our daily lives or COVID-19 won't be a crisis, but something to protect against and a threat. Look, we're not there yet. We will get there."
The first question to Biden was on whether he believes he overpromised to the American public what his administration could achieve in office one year in.
"Look, I didn't overpromise," a defensive Biden replied. "I have probably outperformed what anybody thought would happen. The fact of the matter is that we're in a situation where we have made enormous progress."
Then, he acknowledged a weakness.
"One thing I haven't been able to do so far, is get my Republican friends to get in the game of making things better in this country," Biden said. "I did not anticipate that there'd be such a stalwart effort to make sure that the most important thing was that President Biden didn't get anything done."
In an answer to ABC News Senior White House Correspondent Mary Bruce, Biden said, at first, there's no need to scale back his agenda despite the appearance that Democrats aren't getting their priorities through -- before conceding he'd be willing to break up policy items in order to pass provisions that do have bipartisan support.
"I'm not trying to -- I'm not asking for castles in the sky," Biden replied. "I'm asking for practical things the American people have been asking for for a long time, a long time. And I think we can get it done."
Biden told Bruce, "I'm confident we can get pieces -- big chunks of the Build Back Better law signed into law" -- appearing to back breaking up the landmark legislation publicly for the first time.
Asked later on to follow up on whether he would split up Democrats' proposed expansion to the social safety net, Biden said, "It's clear to me we're going to have to, probably, break it up."
"I'm not going to negotiate myself as to what should and shouldn't be in it, but I think we can break the package up, get as much as we can now, and come back and fight for the rest later," he added. The massive package includes items from free universal pre-K to paid federal family and medical leave.
"But I also think we will be able to get significant pieces of legislation -- if we don't get it all now -- to build to get it so that we get a big chunk of the John Lewis legislation (John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act) as well as the fair elections act (For the People Act)," Biden said.
On foreign policy, Biden said for the first publicly that he thinks Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely invade Ukraine -- but warned that he would "pay a serious and dear price for it."
However, in a couple of answers on Ukraine, NATO, and Russia, Biden all but admitted NATO is not united on how to respond and seemed to draw a red line short of an all-out invasion for a unified Western response -- potentially giving Putin space for something less than troops crossing the border, but still highly destabilizing for Ukraine.
While Biden said he still believed Putin still did not want "any full blown-war," Biden said he believes Putin will "test" the United States as significantly as he could.
Not long after Biden finished speaking, White House press secretary Jen Psaki issued a statement attempting to clarify Biden's assertion that a "minor incursion" might not elicit such a severe NATO response.
"President Biden has been clear with the Russian President: If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that’s a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our Allies. President Biden also knows from long experience that the Russians have an extensive playbook of aggression short of military action, including cyberattacks and paramilitary tactics. And he affirmed today that those acts of Russian aggression will be met with a decisive, reciprocal, and united response."
Speaking to his personal performance, Biden outlined three things he would do differently in his second year in office. He said he intended to get out of Washington more often to meet with Americans face to face, welcome "more advice from outside experts" for constructive criticism and become "deeply involved in these off-year elections" as the midterms approach.
Questioned later on 2024 ambitions, Biden said Vice President Kamala Harris would be his running mate.
He closed the nearly two-hour press conference by acknowledging it's the first time he's been in this role, while he's been in Washington for more than five decades, and that he needs to change his approach.
"And one of the things that I do think that has been made clear to me speaking of polling, is the public doesn't want me to be the President Senator. They want me to be the President and let senators be senators. And so, if I've made -- I’ve made any mistakes, I'm sure. If I made a mistake, I'm used to negotiating to get things done, and I've been in the past relatively successful in the United States Senate, even as vice president. And I think that role as president is a different role," he said.
Psaki, one day earlier, set up a preemptive defense for the president, telling reporters, "You don't get everything done in the first year."
"But what we feel good about ... is that coming into an incredibly difficult circumstance, fighting a pandemic, an economic a massive economic downturn, as a result, an administration that was prior to us that did not effectively deal with a lot of these crises, that there's been a lot of progress made," she added.
"We need to build on that. The work is not done, the job is not done, and we are certainly not conveying it is, so our objective and I think what you'll hear the president talk about tomorrow is how to build on the foundation we laid in the first year, Psaki said.
White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield cited the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief law, the American Rescue Plan, and a major, bipartisan infrastructure package as two achievements Biden will highlight in an appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" Wednesday. But she also acknowledged the president can do more on other issues.
"He has been laser-focused on taming COVID and growing the economy. He would be the first to say we're not where we need to be on those," Bedingfield said.
Wednesday's session marks just the second time Biden has held a solo formal press conference at the White House. The first such news conference was held March 25, 2021.
Since then, he held five news conferences on foreign trips, and three in partnership with other foreign leaders at the White House, for a total of nine news conferences. While Biden often answers questions shouted by the press at other events, his tally of formal news conferences is the lowest for any president since Ronald Reagan, according to data from University of California Santa Barbara's American Presidency Project.
ABC News' Conor Finnegan contributed to this report.