The Memo: Biden’s big problem is reacting, not directing
President Biden is facing a host of problems, but one overarching difficulty is undercutting his standing and could crater his party’s chances in November‘s midterm elections.
Biden seems caught in the posture of reacting to events rather than directing them. He increasingly seems to be appealing forlornly for action rather than making things happen.
For a commander in chief, it’s a perilous position.
The pattern is replicated in one way or another on virtually every one of the major issues facing the White House: inflation, gas prices, the infant formula shortage, immigration and even mass shootings.
Recently, that’s left Biden sounding plaintive rather than presidential.
On Wednesday, the president addressed the intertwined topics of rising gas prices and broad-based inflation. But his message amounted to an acknowledgement of his own relative powerlessness.
“There’s a lot going on right now, but the idea we’re going to be able to click a switch, bring down the cost of gasoline, is not likely in the near term. Nor is it with regard to food,” he said.
“We can’t take immediate action that I’m aware of yet to figure out how we’re bringing down the prices of gasoline back to $3 a gallon. And we can’t do that immediately with regard to food prices either,” he added.
To some, that might seem like a bracing or politically brave acknowledgement of reality.
But it is also cold comfort to the millions of Americans who feel a serious pinch every time they fill up their cars or grocery carts. And it certainly doesn’t answer the question of why discontented voters should back Democrats in November.
On Thursday evening, Biden made a prime-time address to the nation about gun violence, following a horrific stretch that has included the murder of 10 people in a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y.; the killing of 19 children and two adults at a school in Uvalde, Texas; and, on Wednesday, the killing of four people at a medical center in Tulsa, Okla.
But even on that issue, Biden is largely reduced to pleading with recalcitrant Republican members of Congress to back some kind of legislation around gun reform, however modest.
“We can’t fail the American people again,” Biden said, branding the anti-reform stance of most Republicans “unconscionable.”
Some Democrats believe a deal is possible on the most incremental measures, such as expanded background checks and red flag laws.
But Biden has seemed a bystander to that push, at least to the public.
“Let’s meet the moment. Let us finally do something,” he said. But he can offer no guarantee anything will happen.
The pattern is so dangerous for Biden in part because it cuts against his central appeal.
After the tempestuous four years of former President Trump, Biden was elected to put the nation back on an even keel — and also because his long experience as a senator and as former President Obama’s vice president purportedly made him savvy about how to best use the levers of power.
Instead, his main legislative push — the battle for the huge social spending bill known as Build Back Better — ran aground late last year amid Democratic divisions and recriminations. And it’s been almost all downhill from there.
To be sure, Biden does face many issues that are enormously difficult to resolve.
The obvious tool to fight inflation, for example, is the power to raise interest rates — a power wielded by the Federal Reserve rather than the White House.
Biden has promised to respect the independence of the Fed. He is therefore reduced to taking action around the edges, such as trying to strengthen America’s supply chains or talking up the likely impact upon inflation of policies he favors, such as reducing prescription drug prices or controlling child care costs.
Similarly, the immigration issue has defied presidents’ best efforts to resolve it for decades.
On the vexing issue of Title 42, Biden is caught between progressives who view the policy as an unjust instrument from the Trump era and moderates who fear lifting it is certain to increase border crossings from levels that are already historically high.
Gas prices are being driven up by a combination of vastly increased demand for oil as the nation emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic and the knock-on effects from the war in Ukraine.
That said, it is not bad luck alone that has dogged the White House.
In recent days, the administration has struggled with its message on the infant formula crisis. Biden himself said Wednesday he was not aware of the problem until early April — even though the crisis has its roots in the closing of a Michigan manufacturing facility back in February.
The blizzard of difficulties, which has extended for months, has left Biden’s approval ratings in the doldrums. In the RealClearPolitics polling average Friday, about 54 percent of Americans disapproved of Biden’s job performance, while about 41 percent approved.
The White House appears to at least recognize the problem.
It has been increasingly leaning into an attempt to sell its economic record.
There is a case to be made there. The unemployment rate is very low, at just 3.6 percent, and there have been more than 8 million jobs created during Biden’s tenure. The latest jobs figures, released Friday morning, showed another 390,000 jobs had been created in May.
The president has also sought to paint the GOP as beholden to what he terms the “ultra-MAGA“ wing that surrounds Trump.
But if Biden is seeking to link the GOP to an unpopular former president, Republicans are trying to do the same to him.
The GOP draws parallels with former President Carter, who was rejected by voters after one term when issues like inflation and the Iran hostage crisis sapped the public’s belief in his leadership capabilities.
Biden will be desperate to avoid that fate.
But right now, he risks falling victim to the same kind of malaise.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.