The Memo: Troubles pile up for Biden

Troubles are piling up for President Biden, raising the stakes even higher for his push to pass two major pieces of legislation.

Biden’s approval ratings have been on a downward path since the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August.

Since then, the administration has had an almost unbroken run of bad news.

Job creation in September was the lowest this year. The latest figures on inflation, released Wednesday, were worryingly high. Gas prices are on the rise. Unauthorized immigration along the southern border remains at or close to two-decade highs. 

Some long-simmering problems, such as disruptions to the global supply chain, are coming to a boil. On Wednesday, the White House announced that the Port of Los Angeles would go to a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week schedule to try to help address that issue.

Biden tweeted that the opening of the port on a 24/7 basis “has the potential to be a game-changer.” But White House press secretary Jen Psaki avoided ruling out delays in holiday season shipping when she spoke to reporters at Wednesday’s media briefing.

Looming over it all are Biden’s efforts to pass a $1 trillion bill funding traditional infrastructure and a much bigger bill expanding social spending. 

The fate of both pieces of legislation is uncertain, bogged down in Congress. An impasse has yet to be broken between most Democrats who want a large social spending measure and a small number of their more conservative colleagues — most notably Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — who want a less ambitious plan.

If that effort were to fall apart, it would spell political disaster for Biden, undermining the basic promise of competence on which he ran and dispiriting the voters on whom he most depends. 

The negative shocks would almost certainly reverberate into the midterm elections that are now little more than a year away.

But some Democrats and progressives argue that the predictions of doom and gloom are overdone — so long as Biden and his party can pass the bills, and do so at an effective size.

Sean McElwee, the executive director of Data for Progress, a left-leaning polling firm and think tank, noted that the constituent components of Biden’s social spending plan, which include expanding Medicare and making community college tuition-free, are popular. The overall proposal, he said, has not suffered the effective attacks that undermined former President Obama’s Affordable Care Act more than a decade ago.

McElwee also argued that the biggest peril to Biden on the social spending bill came not from going too big but from going too small. 

“The biggest concern is that the longer this thing is out in public being attacked by Manchin and Sinema — the more these centrist Democrats cut away at the most popular aspects of this — the harder it will be for Democrats to run on that stuff,” he said.

Still, the basic math of the Senate, where Democrats cannot afford to lose a single vote from their own party, hands Manchin and Sinema enormous power — even as they come under withering criticism from progressives who say the duo are being evasive about what exactly they would cut.

Meanwhile, polls make mostly grim reading for the White House.

A Quinnipiac University poll released last week showed Biden’s job performance winning the approval of only 38 percent of adults, compared to 53 percent who disapproved. It was by far Biden’s worst showing so far in a Quinnipiac poll.

An Economist-YouGov poll released Wednesday was barely any better, indicating 40 percent approval and 50 percent disapproval.

There are other concerns for Democrats, too. A Pew Research Center poll recently showed erosion of support for Biden among key demographic groups, including young voters, Latinos and African Americans.

Meanwhile, the gubernatorial race in Virginia is closer than might be expected in a state Biden carried by 10 points last year, even as Democrat Terry McAuliffe remains the slight favorite to prevail. 

Republicans assert that Biden is in serious trouble and see the public as increasingly questioning whether he will be able to uphold the pledges on which they elected him.

Doug Heye, a GOP strategist and former communications director for the Republican National Committee, said that the president’s political weakness, “starts with the fact that every bit of news touching on this administration is bad, and that has now been the case for two months, starting with Afghanistan.”

Other challenges, such as inflation and supply chain disruptions, Heye added, undercut “the general sense of Biden not living up to his core promise to voters — which was that Biden was competent and his team of pros would not make the same mistakes that Donald Trump and his Addams Family team would make. Ultimately, that is why Joe Biden ran, and there is nothing to show for that.”

Still, all is hardly lost for Biden yet. The biggest issue affecting the country, the COVID-19 pandemic, appears to be in retreat, at least for now. 

The opinion polling is volatile  two surveys in recent days, from CNN-SSRS and Reuters-Ipsos, showed Biden’s approval ratings at a more healthy level than other polls, with the public roughly evenly divided.

Progressives like McElwee also argue that many persuadable voters do not pay particular attention to every twist and turn, but pick up on general perceptions of a president’s performance.

“Regardless of the precipitating events, if the news is covering a ‘presidency in crisis’ that is bad. But if the Build Back Better Agenda passes, the media coverage will be ‘real success’ for Biden.”

But even that theory rests on passage of the key legislation. 

Right now, everything hangs in the balance.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Afghanistan Barack Obama Donald Trump Immigration Infrastructure Jen Psaki Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema

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