Six months in, two challenges could define Biden's presidency

Six months into his first term, President BidenJoe BidenHouse Democrat threatens to vote against party's spending bill if HBCUs don't get more federal aid Overnight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Haitians stuck in Texas extend Biden's immigration woes MORE is finding himself faced with two major domestic challenges: getting both parts of his infrastructure plan passed and handling the resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whether the president can succeed in handling these crises individually and collectively will determine whether Democrats can maintain control of their unified government in the 2022 midterms. 

Infrastructure

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Since Wednesday, bipartisan infrastructure talks have been trapped in limbo. Senate Republicans blocked moving forward on the debate over the bipartisan bill, which they say is because the terms of the legislation are still being negotiated.

Indeed, issues still linger over funding mechanisms for the bill, and the clock is ticking until the Senate’s August recess — the deadline the Democratic leadership has set to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill, along with the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill

By tying the two bills together, Biden and the Democratic leadership are engaging in a tricky and potentially detrimental tactical balancing act.

The $3.5 trillion proposal would vastly expand governmental social, environmental, educational and health care programs, all of which would be paid for by tax increases on the wealthiest Americans and American businesses. The proposal is staunchly opposed by Republicans, and moderate Democrats will likely support the reconciliation bill only if the bipartisan infrastructure bill is passed first — if even then.

Biden and Schumer need 50 Democratic votes in the Senate to pass the $3.5 trillion plan through budget reconciliation. Thus, they need all Senate Democrats — including moderates such as Sens. 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 (D-W.Va.) and 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 (D-Ariz.) — to get on board. 

Yet if the tenuous bipartisan deal falls apart, Schumer almost certainly won’t be able to get Manchin, Sinema and other moderate Democrats to sign on to the massive reconciliation bill. Thus, the Democrats’ maneuver could easily backfire and leave Biden with nothing: no reconciliation bill and no bipartisan infrastructure deal.

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COVID-19

In addition to infrastructure, Biden is also finding himself faced with the resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 cases are once again rising across the country as the more contagious delta variant spreads. 

Though a strong majority of new cases are concentrated in areas with low vaccination rates, there is also concern about breakthrough cases of COVID-19 among fully vaccinated Americans. 

These latest developments have led major U.S. cities such as Los Angeles to reinstate indoor mask mandates and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to rethink its guidelines on masking for fully vaccinated Americans.

And to be sure, as much as this is a health crisis for the Biden administration, it is also becoming a public relations crisis. The administration’s mixed — and arguably misleading — messaging on the effectiveness of vaccines was evident during a presidential town hall on Wednesday night when Biden was asked questions about vaccinations and the new variant.

Biden’s answers even prompted Leana Wen, a CNN medical analyst, to criticize the president for mischaracterizing the effectiveness of the vaccines.

“I was actually disappointed by President Biden’s ... answers tonight because I actually thought that he was answering questions as if it were a month ago,” Wen said, following CNN’s Anderson Cooper’s observation that some of Biden’s assertions were “factually wrong.” 

“He’s not really meeting the realities of what’s happening on the ground,” Wen said in reference to the rise in cases across the U.S. as a result of the delta variant. 

In terms of the health care-related challenges of this resurgence, the Biden administration is now faced with an urgent call to get booster shots for the COVID-19 vaccines approved under Food and Drug Administration (FDA) emergency use authorization (EAU) — which vaccine manufacturers say would ultimately reduce the risk of breakthrough infections and prolong the effectiveness of the vaccines. 

To that end, the next critical step for the Biden administration is to ensure that these booster shots get approved under EUA — and likewise that the original three vaccines receive full FDA approval — so that the vaccines can continue saving American lives. 

Vaccinations, which were made possible in large part by the innovative developments of Pfizer and BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson, have become the key to freedom for Americans. Yet current vaccines appear to be less effective against the delta variant than against previous strains.

But as pharmaceutical innovation leads to the development of better and more effective inoculation against the new variants, it is inevitable that these boosters will be widely available and deployed.

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In addition, in the longer term, Americans are facing higher insurance premiums and prescription drugs costs, medical conditions that were left untreated during the pandemic, and potential long-hauler medical issues from COVID-19. Thus, the administration must also prioritize health care and prescription drug affordability, especially in a post-COVID-19 environment, in which chronic conditions may be heightened.

With the midterms less than 18 months away, Biden’s handling of these two enormous and high-stakes challenges will determine the Democrats’ fate in the 2022 elections — and may also define Biden’s presidency.

Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an advisor to President Clinton and to the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael BloombergMichael BloombergWithout drastic changes, Democrats are on track to lose big in 2022 Bidens, former presidents mark 9/11 anniversary The tragedy of 9/11 — an inflection point in American history MORE. His new book is “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.”