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Politics & Government

Politics Chat: Biden Calls Armenian Mass Killings Genocide

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER HUMMING)

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

And that is the hum of a helicopter as President Biden walks to it without taking questions. He was on his way to Delaware yesterday, and we were waiting to see if he was going to break with recent precedent by using the word genocide to describe the 1915 massacre of a million and a half Armenians by Ottoman forces. And that's where we'll start today's roundup of political news, this week with NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Good morning, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Franco, Biden did use that word, but we don't have any tape of it because he did it in a written statement. So explain why, beyond the tragedy of so many deaths, this is such a politically fraught move.

ORDOÑEZ: It really is. You know, this was fulfilling a campaign promise to formally recognize these deaths, as historians have, as a genocide. But it's really a touchy subject for Turkey, an important NATO ally, which really rejects this label and says the deaths came amid widespread conflict. Turkish officials actually denounced the decision very quickly, even calling the U.S. ambassador in Ankara, according to state-run media, to complain about how this has opened a wound that will be tough to fix. And the reason why is - and that's why so many recent presidents have avoided this. Only Ronald Reagan, you know, referenced, quote, "the genocide of Armenians," and that was in a proclamation remembering the victims from the Nazi Holocaust.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We've got a long take on immigration elsewhere. Even though it is sort of, you know, overwhelming the administration in some sense, I'm going to ask you instead about another big White House story, and that's Biden's global summit on climate change.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. Biden used the opportunity to reclaim U.S. leadership on the issue. And while doing that, he also upped the ante, committing the United States to cut half of its climate emissions by 2030. Leaders in Brazil, Japan, Canada made their own commitments, and even Russia. President Vladimir Putin pledged to significantly reduce the country's carbon emissions, which, you know, Biden applauded.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, I'd like to also note something that happened this week, which was that Vladimir Putin just pulled back troops that he was massing at the border with Ukraine. How significant is that? How is the White House looking at this?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. It is very significant. It was very interesting timing as well, to come at the same time of this talk on cooperation on the climate. And as you know, I mean, there's been a lot of concern about the possibility of new war in Europe, so there's been a lot of attention on that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK. Let's shift our gaze here to Washington because Wednesday is Biden's first presidential speech to a joint session of Congress. This is a big moment in any presidency. What should we be expecting?

ORDOÑEZ: It is a really big moment, but we're going to - it's going to be kind of a different kind of event than we're used to. Usually you have the members of Congress, cabinet leaders, Supreme Court justices, all crammed into the House chamber. But this year it will be a much sparser crowd because of COVID precautions. They will not, for example, be having that, you know, traditional first lady's box, you know, filled with special guests and - you know, who represent the priorities the president's going to talk about. White House press secretary Jen Psaki did tell us reporters on Friday that Biden is still working on the speech, but that he'd touch on things like his efforts to rebuild the economy, fight the pandemic and expand access to health care.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Familiar themes. And Wednesday also marks Biden's 100th day. This is an administration that came in sort of hot, trumpeting a 10-day plan. Now that we've reached the more traditional deadline for big acts and signature moves, how is the Biden administration measuring up?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, by most measures, he's had a pretty good start. Polls show he has good approval ratings. He gets high marks for his work fighting the pandemic, distributing vaccines, also his COVID relief bill. But look; there is a big partisan divide in Washington, in America, and there are some big, big challenges ahead. There are new coronavirus variants to be dealt with. His more than $2 trillion infrastructure plan is far from out of the woods. He has another ambitious spending and tax (ph) package, his American Families Plan. That's going to be tough to pass.

And I know you're going to talk more about the border, but as you mentioned, it is really hard to ignore in this situation. The border crisis, addressing the needs of thousands of unaccompanied children has been a tremendous challenge for this administration. The White House continues to struggle with striking the right balance between implementing a more humane policy and encouraging migrants to stay home. And it's led to some tough, tough criticism politically from both Republicans and Democrats.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Thank you very much.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.