Early in his term, President Joe Biden told the country that he had been elected to solve problems. As he marks the anniversary of his inauguration this week, there are growing doubts over whether he can fulfill this theory of his own presidency.
The White House appears increasingly beset by the extreme nature of the challenges Biden faces at home and abroad, undermined by some of its own strategic decisions and limited by tiny congressional majorities. The administration bet on vaccines ending the pandemic by now, but inoculations became politicized and millions of Americans chose not to get their shots, while viral variants have helped prolong the emergency.
The sense of a beleaguered presidency was underscored by a volley of blows last week, including the torpedoing of Biden’s voting rights push by two moderate Democratic senators in a hit to his authority, and the Supreme Court’s striking down of vaccine and test requirements for large firms, a centerpiece of his pandemic strategy. The dual setbacks come with Biden’s signature social spending and climate change legislation also stalled — like the voting rights bills — because moderate Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona refuse to get on board.
Biden ended the week accused by critics of undermining his own inaugural vow to pursue national unity after comparing opponents of voting rights reform to segregationists. In a symbol of administration futility, the public holiday marking Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday will also stand as a blown deadline set by Senate Democrats to enshrine voting rights bills into law. Senate votes on the measures — and the rules changes needed to pass them — are certain to fail unless Sinema and Manchin change their minds, only underscoring the narrative of stalemate.
How Biden undercut his own authority
Biden’s problem-solving mission is also complicated by his own eroded political capital, which has been diminished by his repeated trips to Capitol Hill to urge his party to get behind his agenda and a series of blown deadlines to get major bills into law. Soaring inflation, meanwhile, means many Americans face higher fuel and energy bills, souring them on an economy that does have some bright spots as the pandemic grinds on.
Things are just as tough abroad. Biden’s administration is struggling to ease a crisis over Ukraine, amid fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin could invade and cause the worst geopolitical crisis in Europe since the Cold War. If Russia defies the West, Biden’s credibility will take another painful hit.
All of these crises are deepening as the midterm elections — traditionally a painful experience for first-term presidents — become center stage, further narrowing Biden’s path to legislative wins. A Republican Party and conservative media machine dedicated to destroying his presidency — much of it bought into ex-President Donald Trump’s anti-democratic personality cult — is amplifying every administration struggle and misstep.
All presidencies undergo slumps and political rough patches. The test of a president’s political skill is whether they can recover, reverse a narrative of failure, use their opponents as effective foils and begin to command events. The White House will try to do exactly that this week and is expected to use the anniversary of Biden’s swearing-in as a platform for a reset. Americans can expect to hear about the successes of the Biden presidency — including a bipartisan infrastructure law, a Covid-19 relief package that helped cut child poverty, a low unemployment rate and the President’s work to repair alliances and flush out the culture of lies from the White House after Trump’s term. The effort will include a rare formal news conference by the President at the White House on Wednesday on the eve of the inauguration anniversary.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki argued last week that the President’s difficulties were an occupational hazard of his willingness to tackle the nation’s most difficult problems and that he would keep pushing “the boulders up the hill.”
But the problem for Biden is that all of the tests he is facing may defy a quick turnaround. The legislative jam in the Senate appears insoluble and is caused partly by a small Democratic majority in the chamber. The social spending bill is meant to ease the plight of working Americans, but the White House’s poor effort to explain it has many Americans believing the President is not sufficiently focused on their immediate economic concerns.
The pandemic, meanwhile, has repeatedly made a mockery of political leaders who have tried to get it under control and target dates for a return to normality. Putin’s entire foreign-policy project is aimed at weakening US power and undermining NATO, meaning that compromise with him may be impossible without harming US interests.
These complications mean that events often appear to be controlling a President who is struggling to keep up rather than the other way around, a perilous perception for any commander in chief.
Did the White House aim too high?
Biden’s domestic problems pose the question of whether the White House has misread the nation’s political mood and the realities of a tough Washington balance of power by failing to effectively sell a massive, multitrillion-dollar reform program in the middle of the worst public health emergency in 100 years.
The difficulty of a 50-50 Senate majority is that one objection by a single senator can derail an entire legislative agenda. That situation will not change anytime soon, however many hours Biden spends cajoling Manchin and Sinema, as he did at the White House last week. And it could soon get much worse. There’s a chance that Democrats will lose their House and Senate majorities in November in a Republican rout that could leave Biden isolated in the White House and with zero chance of passing his key bills as his reelection campaign beckons.
Right now, the President’s approval ratings — in the low 40% range in some polls and even weaker in others — are well below levels that could forestall a Republican landslide in November. For Democrats, it is imperative that he recovers, but the President can do so only if he can get all of his party on the same page. As a candidate, Biden prospered because he won support from both wings of his party in a deft feat of political positioning. In power, that bargain has come unstuck.
The showdown over the “Build Back Better” climate and social spending bill has exposed a split between moderates like Manchin and Sinema and progressives. In retrospect, it appears obvious this divide would halt the effort — raising questions about the White House’s entire approach and why it believed that it could pressure the holdouts into dropping their objections.
Key Democrats offer dire status report on Biden’s signature bills
The Senate roadblock is also to blame for the failure of Democratic attempts to counter a nationwide wave of voter suppression bills in Republican-run states built on Trump’s voter fraud lies. Both Manchin and Sinema support the measures but oppose changing the chamber’s filibuster rules — the custom that means most major legislation needs 60 votes to pass — to enact two voting rights bills that would make it easier to vote and harder for politicized local officials to intervene in the results of elections.
Despite Biden beseeching both senators to change their minds last week, they only became more entrenched. Indeed, Sinema delivered an extraordinary political rebuke to the President of her own party in a high-profile Senate speech laying out her position just before he arrived in the Capitol to try to sell Manchin and her on the bills.
One of the President’s top allies, House Majority Whip James Clyburn, admitted Sunday on CNN that the two bills, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act, were in deep trouble.
“They may be on life support,” the South Carolina Democrat told Jake Tapper on “State of the Union.” “But, you know, John Lewis, others, did not give up after the ’64 Civil Rights Act. … So I’m going to tell everybody, we’re not giving up.”
The prospects for the Build Back Better Act appear just as dark. The only hope of reviving any credit for Biden may lie in paring back the measure significantly so that it can get the support of Manchin, who says he is worried that a near $2 trillion bill will make inflation ever worse. But a shrunken bill would infuriate progressives and could dampen Democratic turnout in the midterms.
“You’re right that it’s dead; the most recent version of it is not going to happen,” Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia told Margaret Brennan on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” But he added: “I still believe we’re going to find a core of this bill, whatever we call it, we’re going to find the core of the bill and pass it, and it will deal directly with some of these inflation concerns.”
By the end of his first year in office, Biden had hoped that the pandemic would be history, the economy would be on a tear before the midterm elections and his success would consign his predecessor to history. None of that has turned out. The virus is pummeling the country this winter, even if the latest Omicron variant causes less serious disease. Sustained and rising inflation has defied the White House’s predictions that price hikes were “transitory.” And Trump, his threat to democratic values even more dangerous than a year ago, is laying the groundwork for a new campaign.
It’s true that Biden’s challenges are profound, and many would be beyond the capacity of any president to handle. But a year into his term, there are growing reasons to question how he is playing the tough hand he was dealt.