The Memo: Biden's horizon is clouded by doubt

Doubts are clouding the horizon on every topic for President BidenJoe BidenPressure grows for breakthrough in Biden agenda talks State school board leaves national association saying they called parents domestic terrorists Sunday shows preview: Supply chain crisis threaten holiday sales; uncertainty over whether US can sustain nationwide downward trend in COVID-19 cases MORE as he nears the anniversary of his election.

On Capitol Hill, the push for the two bills at the heart of his legislative agenda is in peril.

The economy appears broadly on a path to recovery, but optimism was shaken by another poor jobs report on Friday. Inflation lurks in the background, too.

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And while COVID-19 infections are receding after a surge caused by the delta variant, the dangers of the winter months are looming.

Last week at least saw progress made on raising the nation’s debt ceiling and avoiding the financial earthquake that would have resulted had the U.S. neared default in mid-October. But the temporary fix agreed to between Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden's Supreme Court commission ends not with a bang but a whimper Hispanic organizations call for Latino climate justice in reconciliation Senate to vote next week on Freedom to Vote Act MORE (D-N.Y.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHoyer signals House vote on bill to 'remove' debt limit threat Biden signs bill to raise debt ceiling On The Money — Progressives play hard ball on Biden budget plan MORE (R-Ky.) means the fight will be waged all over again in early December.

All of these troubles are crowding in during a period that has already seen Biden’s popularity dip badly. 

A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday saw Biden fall to easily the lowest mark of his presidency, with 53 percent of registered voters disapproving of his job performance and only 40 percent approving.

An Economist-YouGov survey conducted Oct. 3-5 was not quite as bad, but it still made for discomforting reading for Democrats. Forty-eight percent of respondents disapproved of Biden’s actions, and 42 percent approved. 

There are even worries that Democrats could suffer an embarrassing loss in Virginia’s gubernatorial race early next month. 

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Right now, Democrat Terry McAuliffe remains the favorite to defeat Republican Glenn Youngkin, but polling shows a closer race than Biden or his party would like. McAuliffe acknowledged last week that Biden was not particularly popular in the state, despite carrying it by 10 percentage points over former President TrumpDonald TrumpMcAuliffe takes tougher stance on Democrats in Washington Democrats troll Trump over Virginia governor's race Tom Glavine, Ric Flair, Doug Flutie to join Trump for Herschel Walker event MORE in November.

Democrats see the turbulent waters surrounding Biden, and they look with trepidation toward next year’s midterm elections. The party that holds the White House almost always loses ground in the first midterms of a president’s tenure. Democrats are defending a tiny majority in the House and a 50-50 split in the Senate, where they hold the majority only through Vice President Harris’s deciding vote.

Keir Murray, a Democratic strategist based in Texas, acknowledged, “I don’t think there is any question that it is challenging for the president and the Democratic Party generally.”

Murray stressed that there was still time for a lot of change before voters turn their minds to the midterms. But, he said, absent such a favorable break, the realistic goal for the party could be “avoiding disaster and keeping losses modest” rather than actually retaining its legislative majorities in Washington.

Republican strategist Dan Judy asserted that “the bloom is off the Joe Biden rose” after about nine months in power.

From a political standpoint, “Democrats are going to need the COVID tide to recede and the economy to surge forward if they really are to have any chance of keeping their majority, at least in the House,” Judy said. “The Republicans could take over the House almost by accident with such a small majority for the Democrats right now.”

But Judy also acknowledged that such a turnaround on the two biggest, and intertwined, issues of COVID-19 and the economy could take place.

Biden got bad news on the economy on Friday, when new data from the Labor Department showed just 194,000 jobs had been added in September — the lowest monthly figure since December.

The economy is broadly moving ahead, having suffered a seismic shock when the pandemic first hit in March 2020. Jobs are coming back, even if in fits and starts, and many Americans have savings to spend as the travel and hospitality industries reopen. But inflation, slow job growth and even the ending of expanded unemployment benefits last month could hinder the recovery — with negative political repercussions for Biden. 

White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiPressure grows for breakthrough in Biden agenda talks Sunday shows preview: Supply chain crisis threaten holiday sales; uncertainty over whether US can sustain nationwide downward trend in COVID-19 cases Biden giving stiff-arm to press interviews MORE, asked about the president’s eroding poll numbers at Friday’s media briefing, blamed them on “a really tough time in our country.”

"We’re still battling COVID,” Psaki added, saying there was "no question that’s having an impact.”

The latest coronavirus data is relatively positive. New infections are running at just under 100,000 a day, according to New York Times data — well down from the 175,000 daily new cases in the middle of last month. 

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The question of whether COVID-19 will continue its fadeout or come back with a vengeance as more Americans are cooped up indoors during the winter is politically huge — and, at this stage, unanswerable.

Politically speaking, “the administration is facing some significant headwinds, but I think they’ll be in pretty good shape if and when they manage to finally wrestle COVID to the ground,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, a former aide to ex-Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDemocrats brace for tough election year in Nevada The Memo: Biden's horizon is clouded by doubt Fight over Biden agenda looms large over Virginia governor's race MORE (D-Nev.).

Manley added that he assumed the state of the fight against COVID-19 would be the “key indicator” of what happened in next year’s midterms.

Long before that, however, the fate of Biden’s push for massive investment in infrastructure and social spending will be decided.

The divisions between progressives and their more conservative colleagues in the Democratic Party are on stark display. Biden faces a delicate task in trying to reconcile the ambitions of progressives like Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersPressure grows for breakthrough in Biden agenda talks Sanders, Manchin escalate fight over .5T spending bill Sanders blames media for Americans not knowing details of Biden spending plan MORE (I-Vt.) and much of the rest of the party, with two skeptical Senate holdouts, Sens. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinPressure grows for breakthrough in Biden agenda talks Climate activists target Manchin Hoyer signals House vote on bill to 'remove' debt limit threat MORE (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten SinemaKyrsten SinemaPressure grows for breakthrough in Biden agenda talks Sanders, Manchin escalate fight over .5T spending bill Biden gets personal while pitching agenda MORE (D-Ariz.).

The rhetoric across the Democratic trenches has become angrier in recent weeks, even as most in the party admit failure to reach a deal would be a political disaster.

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“It is important for the president to be able to rally his side,” said Murray. “But I also think it is important to demonstrate that government is capable of working, of delivering results. 

“I think there is a broad cynicism that exists in the American public that government doesn’t do anything,” he added. “To the extent that the Biden administration can show we are delivering results, I think that is very important.”

Any number of these events could break in Biden’s favor, reversing the slide he has endured since the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

But right now, he faces stiff challenges on every front.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.