Biden hits one-year mark in dire straits
President Biden will face reporters for his first news conference of the year on Wednesday with serious questions about his agenda and the health of his presidency as he nears the first anniversary of taking office.
Biden has been unable to move members of his own party to back his most ambitious goals, with Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) stiff-arming the president in ways that left the White House looking ineffectual.
Biden’s climate and social policy package, the top priority of the White House and Democrats in Congress, appears doomed — unless parts of it can be broken up and salvaged.
The president’s push for voting rights bills has similarly fizzled at the hands of Manchin and Sinema, who rejected Biden’s calls to make an exception to the filibuster.
“It started off really strong, but at some point they started hitting a brick wall, the problems started piling up, and they’re now looking for their footing as we start the second year,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), of Biden’s first year.
The White House’s effort to quell the coronavirus pandemic has also been snarled, most recently by a ruling of the conservative Supreme Court that struck down Biden’s vaccine-or-test mandate for large businesses.
Inside the White House, there is a strong sentiment that a shift in strategy is needed. Sources close to the White House say Biden will find ways to speak directly to the people to more effectively communicate the work that is being done. Democrats also expect Biden to draw a sharper contrast with Republicans, which he has started to do in the new year.
“I think there is a recognition that some things have to change and change quickly,” said one Democratic source who speaks directly with White House officials. “Some of the things they have done haven’t worked.”
A Democratic strategist who is also in contact with the White House said that much needs to change in terms of winning back public confidence and building a cohesive message to Americans.
“The problem is rooted in the fact that we’ve gone from one extreme to another,” the strategist said. “We went from Trump’s unique brand of style and communicating to Biden’s, and both leave something to be desired from the general public.”
“With Biden, it’s a sense of prioritization,” the strategist added. “Is it the pandemic? Is it Build Back Better? Is it the economy? And oh yeah, is it voting rights? … No one knows what we’re supposed to be worked up about. What? Which?”
To be sure, Biden has had some wins, and some Democrats don’t believe he’s getting enough credit. On the legislative front, he ushered through a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package in his first two months in office and beat expectations by signing into law a bipartisan infrastructure bill.
“Compared to where we were a year ago, I think it’s an A,” Navin Nayak, president and executive director of the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund, said of Biden’s first year, citing the job creation, wage gains and COVID-19 vaccinations that occurred under the president’s watch.
“There’s a lot of work left to do,” Nayak said. “I don’t think anyone came into this thinking that the agenda he laid out on Jan. 20 would be completed within a year.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, in a nod to the looming one-year mark since Biden’s inauguration, opened Tuesday’s briefing with statistics she argued underscored the strength of the president’s first year in office.
She cited the “dramatic” improvement of the U.S. economy, driven by strong job growth and declining unemployment. And she noted 74 percent of adults in the U.S. are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 after the shots were just being rolled out a year ago.
“The job is not done yet, but we have a plan to address the challenges we are facing,” Psaki said.
But those accomplishments have done little to lift Biden’s deflated poll numbers, which show the president increasingly unpopular, including among those in his own party. Many have blamed Biden’s dip in the polls on the public’s fatigue with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic as well as frustrations about higher costs of goods.
Nayak said there is a path for Biden to rebound in the polls once the pandemic begins to recede, given the positive news on the economic recovery and Biden’s likeability compared to former President Trump.
“People really disliked [Trump], and I don’t think there was really any path for him to win over those people he had lost,” Nayak said. “People still like Joe Biden. This is not a personal thing.”
Democrats are bracing for losses in the midterm elections unless Biden can turn things around. There is a sense among some Democrats that the party has thus far failed to deliver on key promises from the 2020 campaign on health care, climate change and getting the pandemic under control.
Some have also questioned Democrats’ strategy on pushing forward on voting rights bills, even as it was guaranteed to fail in the Senate because of the filibuster.
“I guess I don’t blame him for trying, but the reality is unless you have Sinema and Manchin — and you don’t — it’s not going to happen,” said Manley, who argued Democrats should have focused on negotiating a bipartisan compromise on voting rights legislation early on.
There is chatter among lawmakers that Democrats should pass whatever pieces of Biden’s Build Back Better package can get enough support in the Senate in order to have some kind of legislative win to point to in the new year. But in the absence of a breakthrough, strategists believe Biden must tailor his message around what his administration has managed to get done.
“Inflation is a serious problem, and no Democrat should ever minimize it. But it’s also true that many other economic indicators are extraordinarily good,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of the centrist think tank Third Way.
“If Trump had this economy, he’d be calling it the greatest ever. There’s high inflation, but low unemployment and a booming stock market,” Bennett said. “So I think they need to be a little more aggressive about addressing the things people really care about and making sure people know what Biden has achieved.”
While Biden’s poll numbers remain low and even some Democrats worry that his legislative agenda is all but dead, others say it’s too early to make any judgments.
David Litt, a bestselling author who served as a speechwriter in the Obama White House, said he knows what it feels like to be counted out.
“In the Obama administration, there were a lot of moments when people counted us out before all the innings had been played,” Litt said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. A lot can change in a couple of months.
“There’s not a huge indication that it’s the bottom of the ninth with any of these things,” he said. “If the last two years have taught us anything it’s that the future is hard to predict.”
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