White House hopes for light at the end of its tunnel
The White House is hopeful for a rebound after a strong week, with bipartisan support for backing Ukraine, a strong jobs report, COVID-19 restrictions eased and the confirmation process for its Supreme Court nominee underway.
President Biden, who has been plagued by low approval over high inflation and pandemic fatigue, saw his numbers rise in at least one poll after his first State of the Union address.
“I think it’s a reset moment for us. I think that this is a time for our country to pull together,” said Samar Ali, a Vanderbilt University research professor of law and political science and former White House fellow to President Obama. “I feel like in that State of the Union address on Tuesday night, Biden found his voice and he demonstrated a steady head in times of crises and chaos.”
Forty-seven percent of Americans surveyed after that speech said they approve of the job Biden is doing as president in the latest NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist National Poll, up from only 39 percent in the same poll last month.
The last time Biden had a higher approval rating was in August — his numbers have steadily dropped since the chaotic removal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, raising fears among Democrats ahead of November’s midterm elections.
“The American people saw this week that President Biden is delivering on his promises. He announced an historic Supreme Court nominee, proved that he has rebuilt relationships with international partners and allies, and presided over strong job growth,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a close Biden ally.
“On Tuesday night, we heard a clear and forceful argument from President Biden about where we are as a country and his vision to address the challenges we face at home and abroad, and I believe it’s a vision that working Americans support,” he added.
At the State of the Union, Congress showed a rare moment of unity while the president outlined sanctions against Russia and the coordinated response to its aggression among the U.S. and allies.
On Friday, news that the economy added 678,000 jobs and the unemployment rate dropped to 3.8 percent last month followed the president outlining his plan to combat inflation at the State of the Union.
Ed Pagano, former Senate liaison to Obama, argued that that is a good first step.
“I think they have a plan, and we have to see how things develop but there does feel like there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and there’s not a train coming at us,” said Pagano, a partner at Akin Gump.
Some question, however, how much public sentiment will change on inflation without clear results, such as noticeably lower prices.
“We’ve had strong jobs reports for months and the polling on his handling of the economy is poor and the inflation problem is very real,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former economic adviser to former President George W. Bush and the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “Energy prices will remain elevated and with the invasion, we have no idea for how long. I don’t see in the speech saying ‘I have a plan’ is doing him very good at all. It’s not much of a plan, for the record.”
White House chief of staff Ron Klain on Wednesday predicted approval ratings will rise if inflation improves and if COVID-19 cases continue to decrease. But Labor Secretary Marty Walsh acknowledged on Friday that the plan to combat inflation won’t produce immediate results.
“No, it’s not,” Walsh said when asked on the Fox Business Network if it’s going to kick in tomorrow. “But we also have to be realistic about the times that we’re living in. Still living in a global pandemic. Much of the inflation is caused by supply chains, manufacturing — lack of getting goods and services to our country. Now we’re … dealing with this sad situation in Ukraine, what’s happening there.”
Biden stirred up unity among U.S. lawmakers and allies while discussing the situation in Ukraine, saying at the State of the Union that Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to “divide us at home” but had failed.
Members of both parties, wearing Ukraine’s national colors of blue and yellow, applauded and cheered, the opposite response Biden received in August when he was criticized heavily from both sides of the aisle over Afghanistan.
“It’s a combination of things coming together. He has the foreign policy experience for Ukraine, he’s united NATO,” Pagano said. “He’s kind of been able to point out publicly what the plan was for an invasion before it happened with Putin and I think that transparency has helped.”
Another move that could shore up support from voters this week was the administration declaring that wearing a mask indoors is no longer recommended in much of the U.S. COVID-19 infection numbers have rapidly decreased in recent weeks after the omicron variant caused a surge in cases this winter.
Lawmakers and Biden were maskless at the State of the Union, an attempt to signal a turning point in the fight against COVID-19.
Holtz-Eakin cautioned, however, that the coronavirus fight is not over.
“Anything that makes the pandemic go away is good news for the American people. They’re really tired of it, there’s no question about that. But remember, last summer we declared victory too, and we found ourselves with a new wave and a new variant?” he asked.
The White House is also optimistic about a potential no-drama confirmation process for Biden’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who was on Capitol Hill meeting senators this week.
Democrats want her to be confirmed by April 8 ahead of a two-week recess, and she could potentially garner a couple of Republican votes. If Jackson’s confirmation process is smooth sailing, it would give Democrats a positive note to campaign on ahead of the midterms.
“I do think she’s been well-received, and that the nomination will definitely unite the Democrats and has been very good for the base and the party, which needed to be shored up, I think, in the wake of the stall in Build Back Better,” said Pagano.
The president didn’t mention Build Back Better by name in the State of the Union address, after the sweeping spending package effectively died in the Senate when moderate Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said he couldn’t support it.
Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, noted a shift in focus from Biden this week.
“Ten months ago, the speech of the joint session, the president was calling for essentially a 6 trillion [dollar] investment in massive, transformation investment. And, this State of the Union, there was a focus on signing bipartisan bills with an agenda,” he said. “There was clearly a significant refocus of the administration’s policy ambitions.”
Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist, similarly called it “a week of adjustments for the president.”
“It gave him an opportunity to reset, make some adjustments,” he said. “It really put oxygen into the mouths of Democrats who were worried about the direction we were heading in terms of the midterms and giving people a reason to be confident again in terms of what we can do.”