The coronavirus pandemic Biden thought he had tamed this spring continues to deny Americans a return to normal life and is disrupting the economic recovery by crimping job growth, even as it fuels higher-than-expected inflation. The harrowing withdrawal from Afghanistan has also raised doubts about his international leadership at a time of rising tensions with China.
All of it has eroded the President’s public standing, slowed momentum for his domestic agenda in Congress and made the 78-year-old president appear ineffective. Leaders on Capitol Hill insist they can unite the party behind his infrastructure, social policy and climate change objectives by the end of the month, but anxious Biden aides want a faster result.
“We are going to wrap it this week, or deploy a new approach” to getting something done, a senior administration official told CNN.
The White House’s impatience is fueled by the specter of losing the ability to achieve its goals for the balance of Biden’s term. Democratic political strategists warn the collapse of his legislative agenda would quash the party’s uphill fight to protect its razor-thin House and Senate majorities in next year’s midterm elections. The President’s top aides know that time is not on their side.
Two months of travails have pulled Biden’s public approval ratings below the 50% mark he had consistently exceeded during his early months in office. By historical standards, the decline is not dramatic.
But the partisan polarization of contemporary politics almost never produces wide polling swings. Biden’s drop so far — from the low 50s to the mid 40s — could make the difference between a presidential tailwind and anchor for Democratic candidates under fierce Republican attack if it persists into next year.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki downplayed concerns inside the White House when pressed by CNN’s Kaitlan Collins on how Biden views the array of challenges facing his administration.
“We don’t get too glum around here even if things get challenging. Our view and his view is to continue to press forward and address the challenges the American people are facing,” Psaki said.
Neither a short-term decline in approval nor even the loss of Congress dooms a presidency. Bill Clinton won reelection in 1996 after Republican put him on the ropes by sweeping both chambers of Congress two years earlier. Barack Obama, whom Biden served as vice president, secured a second term after the Tea Party-fueled Republican landslide in 2010.
But regaining his footing depends on Biden restoring public confidence that he’s up to the job. Even more than passing his economic agenda, that means shoring up what had been his bedrock asset: The belief that his steady focus on economic relief and Covid-19 vaccinations was restoring calm, stability and normalcy after turbulence and rancor of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Erosion of that strength underscores the significance of a judgment call that may prove more politically consequential than any other he has made this year, from legislative strategy to the Afghanistan withdrawal: The decision to go slow on vaccination requirements to avoid inflaming Republican adversaries.
By the time lingering resistance to voluntary vaccinations pushed the White House toward mandates in mid-summer, the Delta variant had begun blotting out the light at the end of the long pandemic tunnel.
“The Biden administration should have adopted proof of vaccination from the very start,” said Dr. Leana Wen, the former Baltimore public health chief who is now a CNN health analyst. “We would be in a very different place right now.”
The hope for Biden and his party now is that the possibility of inflection points on both his principal challenges.
In recent weeks, Biden’s sterner approach toward vaccinations for both the government and private business has begun paying dividends. Declining infections, hospitalizations and deaths suggest the Delta variant may be following the same cycle of decline that earlier Covid surges.
Former US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb has even speculated that the “pandemic phase” will draw to a close by year’s end.
At the same time, recognition that Democrats will sink or swim in unison has produced movement in behind-the-scenes legislative negotiations, even as Congress has been away on recess. Discussions now center around a $2 trillion price tag for the Democrats-only economic package that Biden has paired with the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which passed the Senate over the summer.
A letter House Speaker Nancy Pelosi circulated publicly on Monday hinted at resolution of one critical decision — to focus, as ambitions for the Democrats-only package shrink, on amply funding fewer objectives rather than scattering money on more of them.
Negotiators are touting positive signals from Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the two recalcitrant Democratic senators who remain the biggest headache for Biden and party leaders.
“People working on this are optimistic,” a House Democratic leadership aide told CNN. “Both say privately they want to support the second bill.”
“We will have a bill,” added a Democratic senator, though reaching a compromise may not come as fast as the White House wants. “I don’t think end of the week is likely, or necessary.”
The Democratic candidate for Virginia governor, Terry McAuliffe, shares the Biden team’s urgency for a display of governing competence. His closely fought off-year battle against Republican opponent Glenn Youngkin concludes in three weeks.
“Here’s my message to everybody in Washington: Pass this infrastructure bill. We are desperate in the states,” McAuliffe said on Sunday to CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union.”
“We need these roads and bridges fixed. … Get in a room, here’s what we need and here’s what it’s going to cost. This should not be so difficult.”
Democratic political strategists don’t consider this week a critical milestone for 2022. What matters, they say, is success by the time midterm campaigns get underway in earnest.
“Things don’t look great right now,” acknowledged Mark Mellman, a leading Democratic strategist. “But things change. If by next year the pandemic is fading, Democrats look like legislative geniuses for passing two transformative bills with narrow majorities, and money is coursing through the economy, the picture will be much brighter.”
Yet change can’t come fast enough for a White House under mounting pressure. That’s driving the search by Biden aides for a potential Plan B.
When asked what happens if Democrats can’t come to a compromise deal this week, the senior administration official said only: “Let’s see what’s next.”
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