New challenges emerge for Biden after strong start

President Biden is facing serious challenges as he grapples with the border crisis and confronts racial turmoil and domestic extremism in a country that has been torn apart by cultural differences.

The headwinds are all the more stark coming on the heels of recent political victories. 

Biden has recently felt the wind at his back after exceeding his interim goal for vaccine distribution and signing into law a hugely popular COVID-19 relief bill that appears primed to jump-start the economy following a yearlong shutdown. 

That’s given optimism to congressional Democrats, who are now bullish about their chances to buck history in the 2022 elections as they seek to maintain ultra-slim majorities in the House and Senate. While the president’s party is typically in line for a thrashing in the first midterms, Democrats believe they have an opportunity to potentially gain seats if they can stay the course on the coronavirus pandemic and sell a message of economic optimism to voters.

At the same time, Biden is under attack from both the left and the right for his administration’s handling of the growing humanitarian crisis at the southern border.

And his visit to Atlanta on Friday, where he spoke about the shooting deaths of six Asian women, underscored the pressure he faces to address extremism and anti-Asian violence.

Those new challenges come as Biden also faces demands for racial justice, a reckoning on sexual assault and harassment that has ensnared New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), and high-stakes debates over censorship, misinformation and the outsized influence of social media and Big Tech that have contributed to the nation’s worsening polarization.

“It’s a weird political moment and everything seems to be moving so quickly,” said former Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), who served in the Senate with Biden for nearly two decades. 

“I think Biden is off to a great start, although he hasn’t been able to secure bipartisan support in the Senate. He faces a huge challenge with the extreme partisanship that no president has faced at this level in a long time. It’s difficult when you only have a VP-majority in the Senate, and the president usually loses seats, so he’s got to do all he can in his first two years,”  he said.

Almost 60 days into his first term, Biden has been enjoying an extended honeymoon due largely to his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the relief package that is sending money directly into the bank accounts of tens of millions of Americans.

Biden’s average job approval rating sits at 54 percent in the RealClearPolitics average, essentially unchanged from his first day in office.

But according to historical data from Gallup, that level of popularity might not be enough for Democrats to keep their majorities in Congress next year.

Gallup figures show that the president’s party loses an average of 14 congressional seats in the first midterm even if that president’s approval rating is above 50 percent. If the president’s approval rating is below 50 percent, the party loses an average of 37 seats. 

Democrats can only afford to lose five seats to maintain their majority in the House, and they can’t lose any in the 50-50 Senate.

“We are going to be selling the Biden-Democratic agenda,” said Danielle Butterfield, the executive director for Priorities USA, the largest super PAC supporting the Biden presidency. “We know how people perceive these accomplishments is going to have a tremendous impact on whether they show up to vote in 2022.”

But there are plenty of pitfalls ahead that could slow or even reverse Biden’s political momentum.

His response to racial strife and the growing concern about domestic terror following the Jan. 6 siege on Capitol Hill and the killing of eight people, including six Asian women, is being closely watched by an activist base that has centered much of its political worldview around race and identity. 

Those dynamics were driven home on Friday in Atlanta, where Biden addressed residents mourning the Atlanta shootings that has drawn new attention to the violence and rhetoric targeting racial minorities.

Cornell Brooks, former president of the NAACP, told The Hill that while Biden, 78, might not be fluid in the shifting language of racial politics, his ability to connect with people emotionally would leave him well-equipped to sidestep potential landmines in the fast-changing culture wars around race and identity. 

“Biden grew up in the era of busing and the Brown decision when race in public schools was the big issue and there was a whole different language and vocabulary,” said Brooks, who is director of the William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice at Harvard University.

“Now he arrives at the White House at a moment of racial tumult. Is he fluent in the language and events of the times? Maybe in his own way. There’s a different vocabulary around anti-racism and racial equity than there was in the 1970s when he first came to the Senate, but he’s fluent in the language of compassion, and that means he can be persuasive on issues of race and identity,” he said.

The influx of migrants at the border, however, presents a different challenge entirely. 

The U.S. is in custody of 14,000 unaccompanied minors. In seeking to implement a more “humane” immigration policy than Trump, Biden has allowed for young people to stay in the U.S. while their immigration status is adjudicated.

The government is struggling to deal with the swell of migrant children, and thousands are being kept in Customs and Border Protection facilities for days longer than is legally allowed.

There are no easy fixes for an issue that has vexed numerous administrations, and no signs of the border surge subsiding anytime soon. 

“The situation at the border is a humanitarian crisis and could become a political crisis, depending on how they handle it,” said DeConcini. 

And while Biden has had some success legislating out of the gate, the congressional battles will only grow more difficult as the midterm elections draw closer.

Biden has promised to work with Republicans in an effort to unite the country, but there are no indications of a budding relationship.

On the other side of the aisle, many Democrats are eager to eliminate the filibuster and take full advantage of their control in Washington. Those aspirations are being restrained by a handful of centrist Democrats who are pumping the brakes, to the frustration of progressives. 

“There are some battles down the road that will be very tough,” said Mark Longabaugh, a veteran Democratic strategist. “[Biden’s] in a situation where there will have to be a battle over the filibuster if he really wants to pass the big pieces of his agenda. That will be a real dilemma for the White House and Senate Democrats.”

Tags 2022 midterms Andrew Cuomo Atlanta shootings border surge Joe Biden

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