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.
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.
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.
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
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.
“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.