President Joe Biden was pressed on a range of issues Tuesday evening as he fielded questions from voters during a CNN town hall in Milwaukee.
The President addressed everything from coronavirus vaccine equity to police funding in his first face-to-face engagement with voters since taking office.
Multiple participants — including two who voted for former President Donald Trump — said they felt Biden answered their questions, even if it wasn’t exactly what one of the Trump voters wanted to hear.
The event started with Kevin Michel, a mechanical engineer and political independent who asked a question about resuming in-person learning. Michel told CNN that Biden had answered his question “quite well.”
Biden had told Michel that “there are certain things that make it rational and easy to go back to the brick-and-mortar building,” before pointing to the administration’s guidance on smaller classroom pods and an accelerated timeline for K-8 schooling compared with high school and college.
Mitchel told CNN he was happy to hear that Biden was “a big proponent” of getting kids back in schools and that while the President had spent some time on “arbitrary” numbers in his answer, the response was “what I was looking for.”
In one of the night’s more personal moments, Jessica Salas — a graphic designer from Milwaukee — told Biden that her two young children often ask her about whether they will get Covid-19 and die.
She stood next to her 8-year-old daughter, Layla, as she spoke about how the pandemic is especially frightening for children who don’t fully understand what is happening.
“Don’t be scared, honey. Don’t be scared. You’re going to be fine, and we’re going to make sure mommy’s fine, too,” Biden said, addressing the second-grader.
Layla told CNN Wednesday that she was nervous to talk to the President, but that he made her feel better.
“It made me feel better that I would be safe in this pandemic,” she told CNN’s John Berman on “New Day.”
Layla, who has also been in virtual school with her brother since March, also told Berman what she misses most about learning in person.
“I’ve missed actually being in contact with people around me. I also miss just learning there in person, because to me, it’s better to learn there in person than virtual,” she said.
Salas told CNN after the town hall that Biden addressing her daughter like that was a “totally unexpected” moment.
“And that was really, really awesome. Afterwards she was like, ‘Mommy, he told us everything’s gonna be OK.’ Which, obviously wasn’t his exact words, but the fact that she felt his sentiment meant a lot,” Salas said.
She added that she wished Biden had committed to looking more at vaccines for children as his inoculation effort ramps up, emphasizing that her kids are “genuinely interested in getting the vaccine.”
“I mean, because he is such a genuine person and that really came across, I can only hope that that is his intention. He just didn’t say it,” she said.
Kerri Engebrecht, whose teenage son is immunocompromised by his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also asked Biden about his vaccine strategy.
“He does all he can to protect himself,” Engebrecht told Biden of her son. “Last month, he even removed himself from the campus of UW Madison, as he feels it’s safer, and he has less exposure here at home. We’ve tried all we can to get him a vaccine. I hear of others who are less vulnerable, getting it based on far less.”
She asked if Biden had a plan to vaccinate those who are most vulnerable sooner, and the President explained that he can’t tell the states to prioritize certain groups of people but he can make certain recommendations and he would like to help her.
“If you’re willing, I’ll stay around after this is over and maybe we can talk a few minutes and see if I can get you some help,” the President said.
Engebrecht told CNN: “Do I feel he answered my question? Yes. But we aren’t looking for any favors. We aren’t looking for my son to necessarily just get a vaccine. We’re looking at a change in the whole process in how vaccines are distributed.”
Her son, she explained, “would love a vaccine and it would get him back to living a typical college life and being with his peers. He’s not even sure that, given the opportunity, he would accept it because that was not the point.”
“We’re not just looking for a handout or a favor. We’re looking for a change in the process,” she said.
Engebrecht told CNN that while she didn’t talk with Biden immediately after the event, he has her contact information and she’s hoping to hear from him soon.
Biden also addressed racial disparities in enforcement of drug use Tuesday evening, telling town hall participant Dannie Evans — a pastor and member of the Wisconsin Racial Disparity Task Force who voted for Trump — that he believed no one should be imprisoned for using an illegal drug.
“How can we be sure that we don’t over-legislate police officers so that they can do their job to protect the law-abiding citizens who live in these high-crime neighborhoods and yet train officers to police with compassion?” Evans had asked.
“By, number one, not defunding the police,” replied Biden.
Evans told CNN that he appreciated the way the President had “made that absolutely clear.”
“He answered my question. He was firm when he said don’t defund the police. And that’s what I really was hoping that he would say.”
Randy Lange — another independent who supported Trump in the 2020 election — told CNN that Biden’s answer to his question about raising the minimum wage and small businesses was “what I thought he would say.”
The President had defended his administration’s call to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour but hedged that “it’s about doing it gradually.”
Lange told CNN of Biden’s response: “I understand his position. I respect it, but think it’s going to have consequences.”