The Memo: Two months in, strong Biden faces steep climbs
President Biden has got off to a strong start in office, but there are several dark clouds ahead that could dampen his political fortunes.
The growing troubles at the border, ongoing polarization and racial strife, as well as any setback in the national recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, all pose big risks for the president.
There is, too, always the possibility of an international crisis erupting out of nowhere. Biden is already dealing with tense relationships with China and Russia, as well as the complexities caused by the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union.
Perhaps the biggest problem of all is how he moves the other parts of his agenda forward. The Senate is split 50-50 and, if the filibuster remains, he will need 60 votes to advance many of his other priorities. It is not at all clear where those votes can be found, if at all.
Biden’s competent early stretch has, at least, built him a cushion against any unwelcome shifts in fortune.
The president marked two months in office on Saturday. A Reuters-Ipsos poll conducted March 17-18 showed 65 percent of adults approving of his actions on the coronavirus. An Economist-YouGov poll put that figure at 59 percent.
Biden’s overall approval rating was 59 percent in the Reuters poll, a significant shift from his predecessor, President Trump, who never broke 50 percent in the major polling averages.
The nation has made real progress on the fight against COVID-19 during Biden’s first two months. The number of daily vaccinations now averages around 2.5 million, compared to fewer than 1 million in January. Infection rates and death rates are declining.
Biden has insisted that states make all adults eligible for vaccination by May 1 and has brought forward the date at which he expects there to be enough doses for the entire adult population. He now expects that key metric to be hit at the end of May, rather than in July as he had previously said.
Mark Longabaugh, a longtime Democratic strategist who worked for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) 2016 presidential campaign, praised Bidden for his strong start.
While Longabaugh acknowledged there was some disappointment on the left that the goal of a $15 per hour minimum wage was left out of Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, he added, “When it comes to the two big agenda issues, he has addressed and tackled both.”
Longabaugh was referring to COVID-19 and to its economic impact.
The relief bill, which passed without any Republican support, is overwhelmingly popular with the public, according to polls. Many Americans have already received checks under the legislation. Other politically potent measures, such as an expansion of the child tax credit, will come on stream over time.
Economic growth as the nation eases COVID-19 restrictions could strengthen the wind at Biden’s back.
Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, predicted a “boom-like” economy in the short to medium term.
“I think the economy is going to be rip-roaring over the next 6-12 months, as the pandemic winds down and as that unleashes a lot of pent-up demand among households that have saved up a lot while sheltering in place.”
Zandi argued that any rise in inflation is likely to be temporary.
Others, including former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, are not quite so sure of that. Yields on U.S. treasury bonds have moved up in recent weeks, reflecting inflationary worries and causing turbulence in the stock market.
Any number of the other concerns pressing in on Biden could make his political trajectory tougher.
The rapid influx of migrants at the southern border — many of them children without the accompaniment of parents or other guardians — is a real problem for which there is no easy or politically palatable solution.
Republicans have tagged the situation as “Biden’s border crisis.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) led a delegation of GOP lawmakers to El Paso, Texas, last week to further spotlight the issue.
Legislatively, Biden is likely to turn his attention to issues such as infrastructure spending in the coming weeks. But Republicans contend this topic is a Trojan horse to pass climate change measures with which they disagree.
“I don’t see Republicans cooperating with Democrats on anything,” said Longabaugh. “How does he move an agenda with an evenly divided Senate where has to get to 60? I don’t know. With all these things, that’s the challenge: How does he move it?”
The likelihood of gridlock in the Senate in some ways reflects the deep fissures in the country at large. Despite Biden’s positive polls right now, there is a sizable segment of the population that is beyond his reach.
The same Economist poll that showed his COVID-19 handling approval at 59 percent also indicated that 37 percent of adults — including 74 percent of Republicans — believe his victory in November’s election was illegitimate.
Other divisions are just as explosive and sometimes deadly.
On Friday, Biden and Vice President Harris traveled to Atlanta after a gunman had killed eight people, six of them Asian women. Hate crimes against Asian Americans have been increasing during the pandemic.
Broader issues of racial equality and justice before the law will also be under scrutiny as the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd gets underway in earnest. Much of last week was taken up with jury selection for that trial in Minneapolis. A verdict perceived as unjust could spark more street protests, with unpredictable results.
Biden at the two-month mark is in a position any politician would envy.
But there are plenty of issues and flash points that could knock him abruptly off course.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.
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