Biden's muscle questioned amid falling polls

President BidenJoe BidenSunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as country struggles with delta variant Did President Biden institute a vaccine mandate for only half the nation's teachers? Democrats lean into vaccine mandates ahead of midterms MORE’s sagging approval ratings, especially among independents, are raising questions about his ability to move his agenda through a House and Senate where centrist and liberal Democrats are battling one another.

Democrats aren’t running away from the president, but the approval rating hit could make it tougher for Biden to muscle moderates such as Sens. Kyrsten SinemaKyrsten SinemaOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Emissions heading toward pre-pandemic levels Biden discusses agenda with Schumer, Pelosi ahead of pivotal week Biden goes after top 1 percent in defending tax hikes MORE (Ariz.) and Joe ManchinJoe ManchinBriahna Joy Gray: Push toward major social spending amid pandemic was 'short-lived' Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Emissions heading toward pre-pandemic levels Biden discusses agenda with Schumer, Pelosi ahead of pivotal week MORE (W.Va.) who are balking at the $3.5 trillion cost of his budget reconciliation measure.

Some Democrats note that Biden’s approval rating at this point in his presidency is still significantly higher than former President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger says Trump 'winning' because so many Republicans 'have remained silent' Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE’s was in August of his first year in office. A GOP House and Senate later in 2017 still managed to pass Trump’s signature tax-cut bill.

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But Republicans say Trump had much more intense support from his party’s base, which helped him move Republican votes in Congress.

“He’s got totally different numbers than Trump’s. Trump’s base of support was much more intense than Biden’s ever was,” said Jim McLaughlin, a Republican pollster.

Biden’s poll numbers have fallen as he faces intense criticism for his handling of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The fall of the U.S.-backed government was much swifter than Team Biden had anticipated, and 13 U.S. service members were killed in a suicide bombing last month as the administration sought to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies from the country.

The White House has expressed confidence that most Americans support the decision to end the nation’s longest war, and that Biden will not take a long-term political hit.

But the administration is also dealing with a stubbornly persistent pandemic that has seen coronavirus cases, deaths and hospitalizations reach levels not seen since November. Biden has centered his presidency on effectively handling COVID-19, and the seemingly unending fight is of real political concern to the White House and Democrats ahead of the 2022 midterms.

“I wish the election were today,” said McLaughlin, pointing to the Biden poll numbers.

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An NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll published last week showed Biden’s approval rating dropping to 36 percent in August from 46 percent in July among independents, while a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed 36 percent of independents approve of Biden overall while 57 percent disapprove. The polls showed Biden’s overall approval rating at 43 percent and 44 percent, respectively, the lowest of his presidency.

“Certainly, the honeymoon’s over,” said former Democratic Rep. Ron Klink (Pa.), a senior policy adviser at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, a legal and advocacy firm based in Washington, D.C.

“Right now, just about everything that can go wrong is going wrong,” he added, noting the wildfires in the West, the severe hurricane damage in Louisiana, New Jersey and New York, on top of the coronavirus and Afghanistan.

Some Democrats are relatively calm about the run of bad news for Biden.

Former Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who was a key centrist during former President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaOur remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Clinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Chelsea Manning tests positive for COVID-19 MORE’s first year in office, said “when you start being president it’s not unusual for your numbers to drop.”

Yet he also criticized Biden on Afghanistan, saying the administration should have foreseen that pledging to pull troops from the country by a certain date would turn out to be a mistake. 

“We all knew setting a date for withdrawal was fraught with trouble,” he added, acknowledging that Biden was put in a tough spot by Trump’s deal with the Taliban to withdraw all U.S. troops by May.

Biden is dealing with a complicated political problem when it comes to the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package meant to unlock significant spending on health care, child care and other liberal priorities.

Republicans are attacking the bill as a form of socialism but can’t stop the measure since budgetary rules prevent them from filibustering it.

Yet Democrats can’t afford a single defection in the Senate, giving enormous clout to lawmakers such as Manchin, who has called for a pause on the bill.

Liberals such as Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as country struggles with delta variant Democrats urge Biden to commute sentences of 4K people on home confinement Briahna Joy Gray: Push toward major social spending amid pandemic was 'short-lived' MORE (I-Vt.) have no interest in reducing the size of the package, and House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiRepublicans caught in California's recall trap Raise the debt limit while starting to fix the budget   'Justice for J6' organizer calls on demonstrators to respect law enforcement MORE (D-Calif.) on Tuesday said she disagreed with Manchin’s call for a pause.

“I’m pretty excited about where we are. Everybody’s working very hard, the committees are doing their work. We’re on a good timetable, and I feel very exhilarated by it,” she said.

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Still, other Democrats say Biden and liberals may have to bend on the $3.5 trillion figure.

“I don’t know that anybody has the political strength to get $3.5 trillion so I suspect there will be some negotiating along the way to come up with another number or maybe in steps over the next three or four years. That’s a daunting number,” Nelson said.

Other Democrats also see the $3.5 trillion spending target going out the window.

“Regardless of what his approval ratings are, I think we’ve seen enough indications that $3.5 [trillion] is probably not where it’s going to end up,” said Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, and a former senior aide to Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden discusses agenda with Schumer, Pelosi ahead of pivotal week CEOs urge Congress to raise debt limit or risk 'avoidable crisis' If .5 trillion 'infrastructure' bill fails, it's bye-bye for an increasingly unpopular Biden MORE (D-N.Y.).

“You’ve heard from enough members of Congress that it seems like the number’s going to be somewhat less,” he added.

Getting all Democrats back on the same page once both the House and Senate are back may leave Biden relying heavily on Schumer and Pelosi.

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“The package is going to have its own long and winding road to the president’s desk,” Kessler predicted.

Kessler said he thinks Biden will be able to get the bill passed along with a separate $1.2 trillion infrastructure package already approved by the Senate. Liberals in the House want the larger $3.5 trillion measure to move before the smaller infrastructure bill.

“Along the way it’s going to look like it’s going to fail dozens of times. We’re now entering the bleak period of reconciliation dynamics in which it just looks like it’s going to come apart and red lines are being drawn and different factions of the party are at each other’s throats, but through it all you’ve got three of the most skilled politicians at the helm,” Kessler said.

“You’ve got Biden, Pelosi and Schumer and they’ve proven very adept at landing the planes. They’re going to land these planes, [but] I don’t know at which airport,” he added.