The Memo

The Memo: Biden struggles to impose his will as problems multiply

President Biden’s biggest vulnerability isn’t any single issue. It’s the risk that he could be seen as losing control of events.

Six months into Biden’s presidency, illegal crossings of the southern border are at a two-decade high. Violent crime rates are marching upward. And the Taliban are resurgent in Afghanistan as U.S. forces withdraw.

The sea of troubles raises the stakes for the administration’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic, too.

The response to COVID-19 has been Biden’s strongest issue so far. But as the pace of vaccination slows and the highly transmissible delta variant becomes dominant, defeat could yet be snatched from the jaws of victory.

Republicans are already stitching these disparate events together to make the argument that Biden is not taking charge in the way that presidents need to do.

“We’re seeing an absolute disaster on every front,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said in a July 1 Fox News interview in which he compared Biden with former President Carter, who was cast as weak by his opponents and defeated after a single term.

“I believe Joe Biden is Jimmy Carter 2.0. We’re five months into the Biden administration. We already have a gas crisis, gas lines, an inflation crisis [and] war in the Middle East,” Cruz said.

An Economist-YouGov poll this week found the nation closely divided on whether Biden is a strong or weak leader. Fifty-two percent of adults said he was strong and 47 percent weak. 

Predictably, the president was admired by Democratic voters and scorned by Republicans. But independents broke against Biden, with 50 percent calling him weak and only 40 percent seeing him as strong.

“All presidents are overrun by events. That is the nature of the job,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “But I do think it is important for presidents to show they are effective as things come their way and not to give the impression things are out of control. That’s the last thing voters want, and that is the danger Biden wants to avoid.”

Every recent president offers a salutary lesson in the dangers of being perceived as adrift. Some of the setbacks were of the commander in chief’s own making. Others were acts of God. But the political scarring was significant either way.

Former President George W. Bush saw the Iraq War go ruinously wrong and was blasted for his response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. 

Former President Obama was blamed by some voters for the sluggish recovery from the Great Recession. He also faced questions — including from his elder daughter, Malia, he said  — about his inability to stop the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which dragged on for almost five months in 2010. 

Former President Trump’s failure to counter the pandemic was likely the single biggest factor behind his failure to win reelection. Voters who had seen their daily lives so drastically curtailed were ill-disposed to give a second term to a president who had suggested they might inject themselves with bleach.

It all points back to former President Truman’s maxim: When you’re behind the desk in the Oval Office, the buck stops there — fairly or otherwise.

“Every president faces challenges, and they are judged by whether or not they rise to meet them,” said GOP consultant Alex Conant. “Americans want real leaders to sit behind the Resolute Desk. When the president doesn’t have a grasp on a situation, that unnerves the public.”

Biden, who has spent his entire adult life in national politics, is well aware of this history — and of the stakes for his presidency.

On Thursday, he defended the withdrawal from Afghanistan in strident, and sometimes irritable, terms.

There is “zero” valid comparison between the chaotic U.S. pull-out from Vietnam and what is going on now, he said. 

But the tough questions will only sharpen if the Taliban restore themselves to power. 

According to The New York Times, the militant movement has taken control of 150 of Afghanistan’s 421 districts in little more than two months. The Taliban now claim to control 85 percent of Afghanistan’s territory, according to a Reuters report on Friday.

Immigration and crime are also demanding attention.

Biden has sought to hand off the immigration issue to Vice President Harris, who has struggled with it. Her June trip to Mexico and Guatemala became bogged down in controversy over her rhetoric and her refusal — remedied soon afterward — to visit the border. 

But the bigger question is how the Biden administration can quell the flow of migrants. Customs and Border Protection agents encountered about 180,000 attempts to cross the southwestern border in May, the highest number in more than 20 years.

Crime has become a far more politically salient issue within the past few months, even though murder rates began spiking last year, when Trump was still in power. 

Homicides and shootings have continued their rise this year, muddling the political calculus. A report from the Major Cities Chiefs Association, based on data from 63 cities, found murders rising almost 30 percent in the first quarter of this year.

Biden has tried to get his arms around the topic, but, given the devolved nature of law enforcement, his options are limited. In a major speech on the issue delivered late last month, he focused mostly on curbing the trade in rogue weapons and encouraging local authorities to use COVID-19 relief funds to hire more law enforcement personnel.

There are other concerns, too, including the growing threat from ransomware attacks and simmering worries about inflation.

The idea of weakness “certainly is a perception that could come out of the range of domestic and foreign policy challenges that the Biden administration is facing, an assertion that the president himself is not as fully engaged as he could be, and that the problems we face are getting worse rather than better,” said political consultant and pollster Douglas Schoen. “It is not a certainty, but it is a possibility.”

It is, to be sure, important not to underestimate Biden or exaggerate his difficulties.

His approval ratings have been solid and largely stable since he took office. The administration handily met the challenge on the logistics of the initial coronavirus vaccine rollout. And, crucially, the economy has been strong. 

The latest data showed 850,000 jobs being added in June — a robust figure that weakened the argument, heard primarily from conservative commentators through the spring, that overly generous unemployment benefits were discouraging people from seeking employment.

But the president’s difficulties are many in number. Combined and left unaddressed, they add up to a general sense of chaos that offers an inviting target for his opponents.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags afghan war afghan withdrawal Coronavirus coronavirus pandemic Donald Trump Douglas Schoen Immigration immigration policy Jimmy Carter Joe Biden Ted Cruz violent crime War in Afghanistan

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