The Memo: Biden searches for a path through deepening gloom

The dust is only beginning to clear after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) all but doomed President Biden’s hopes on Capitol Hill — and it’s not at all obvious where the White House goes from here.

Manchin’s declaration that he would not support the Build Back Better Act set off a chain of recriminations across the Democratic Party.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki sought to calm the waters on Monday, declining to “relitigate” the tumultuous events of the weekend, and insisting that Biden was going to “work like hell” to get his domestic agenda accomplished.

But it is undeniable that Biden and his party have suffered a massive blow.

“It is incredibly damaging because it is a cornerstone of the Biden agenda,” Democratic strategist Basil Smikle told this column. 

Referring to Manchin, Smikle added, “as a Democrat, how do you become the one person that thwarts the entire agenda, and the years’ worth of organizing to get to this point? … This is a hard pill for the party to swallow and it’s a hard pill for the administration to swallow, because they now have to figure out how to bounce back.”

The White House is not giving up hope, but it seems plain that any measure capable of winning Manchin’s approval would be a shadow of the big bill, which included an extended child tax credit, an expansion of Medicare coverage, universal pre-K and significant action on climate change.

Dropping any — or, more likely, several — of those priorities would infuriate progressive Democrats in Congress as well as much of the party’s activist base.

Progress on other, separate issues will be no easier. Biden has begun emphasizing the importance of voting rights, but legislative progress on that score hinges on reform of the Senate filibuster — something that Manchin and his centrist colleague Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) both oppose.

Some Democrats are increasingly coming to the view that next year’s midterms will have to be fought only on things the president and his party have already accomplished — the COVID-19 relief package that passed months ago and the more recent infrastructure bill, as well as Biden’s efforts to return the nation to an even keel after the stormy seas of the Trump era.

“They have done a lot. They just don’t do a very good job of letting people know about it,” said Jerry Austin, an Ohio-based Democratic strategist. “They think one press release or one statement from the press secretary is enough. But this is about branding and about selling — it’s a campaign and the campaign never ends.”

The White House has, in fact, rolled out a number of events trying to sell the infrastructure package. In addition to Biden himself, Vice President Harris and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg are among those who have joined that effort.

But the attempt to lay the ground for a midterm campaign based on Biden’s record to date is made significantly more complicated by inflation and, above all, by the pandemic’s uncertain course. 

Infections from the omicron variant are surging, with health officials declaring it the most common variant in the U.S. as of Monday afternoon. Omicron’s severity remains uncertain but it arrives at a time when the delta variant is still inflicting serious damage. 

Together, the two variants have left Americans facing yet another holiday season muted by fear of illness. 

Biden will deliver a speech on the pandemic from the White House on Tuesday.

All this trouble arrives at a time when Biden’s approval ratings are mired at a far lower point than is healthy for any president, especially one still in his first year. A new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released Monday indicated that just 41 percent of Americans approve of the job he is doing, while 55 percent disapprove. It was Biden’s lowest score to date in that poll.

If the president wants to stage a comeback, he will have to cool the factional tensions that have reached a boil in the wake of Manchin’s announcement.

Progressives have reacted with fury to the West Virginia senator’s declaration, saying their suspicions that he was acting in bad faith all along have been vindicated.

Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said Monday that Manchin’s “lack of integrity” was “stunning.” 

The previous day, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) had described Manchin’s rationalizations for his actions as “bullshit” during an interview with MSNBC’s Ali Velshi. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), retweeting Omar’s comments, said that Manchin had been “promising” to kill the bill for months, “and some folks didn’t want to believe him.”

It will take all of Biden’s conciliatory skills to just lower the temperature, never mind actually get something done. 

The president had made a big bet on his own abilities to make a deal with Manchin, and he has suffered a blow to his credibility now that effort has foundered.

Meanwhile, Republicans are gleeful about the bill’s apparent demise, as they watch Democrats in the midst of an internal squabble.

“You only fight your own party when you are not doing well, so it speaks to what they think their chances are” in the midterms, said Matt Gorman, a former communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee. 

The Biden administration, Gorman contended, is heading into the holiday season “completely listless. They have no momentum.”

Biden must have had cause in recent days to ruefully think about the old adage that anyone who wants a friend in Washington should get a dog.

The president did so, with a new puppy, Commander, appearing at the White House on Monday.

It was the one piece of good news for a president who right now seems like he can’t catch a break.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Build Back Better Child tax credit Ilhan Omar Jen Psaki Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Pete Buttigieg Pramila Jayapal Rashida Tlaib
See all Hill.TV See all Video