It’s been a rough couple weeks for Joe Biden. His approval rating reached a record low. Inflation reached a 40-year high. A coal baron-turned-senator tanked his climate change plan. Then, he came down with COVID-19.
These recent travails have marked an inflection point in an increasingly difficult presidency.
When he took office last year, Mr. Biden mapped out a surprisingly ambitious agenda: previously thought of as a cautious incrementalist, the President instead backed sweeping new laws to expand the country’s social safety net, fight climate change and protect voting rights.
He had some early success, pushing a US$1.9-trillion pandemic relief package and a bipartisan US$1.3-trillion infrastructure-building law through Congress.
But for several months, other signature policies have been stalled in the Senate. Conservative Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have blocked efforts to implement paid parental leave, universal prekindergarten and free community-college tuition.
Then, Mr. Manchin, a West Virginian who made a fortune in his state’s coal industry, torpedoed legislation meant to boost renewable electricity generation and incentivize electric vehicles.
“Congress is not acting as it should” and has “failed in this duty,” Mr. Biden said this week, giving vent to his frustration as much of the country broiled in temperatures over 40 degrees. “Climate change is an emergency.”
Many of Mr. Biden’s problems are caused by the circumstances in which he finds himself. His party holds only 50 of the Senate’s 100 seats and the Republicans mostly obstruct his legislation, meaning he needs every Democrat on board to get anything done.
The Senate’s filibuster rule also effectively requires a 60-vote supermajority to move most bills forward. Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema opposed changing the rule earlier this year, dooming legislation meant to make voting easier and stop some states from disenfranchising minority voters.
Some of the President’s allies, however, say he should be doing more to keep his agenda moving.
Steny Hoyer, the Democratic majority leader in the House of Representatives, contends that Mr. Biden must be “more forceful” in selling his policies to voters as he puts pressure on the Senate to act.
“I don’t think he’s done enough,” Mr. Hoyer told The Globe and Mail at the Capitol. “The President needs to make sure that he’s conveying to the public that he is leaning forward on these issues. I think he is. But I think there are some in the public who think he’s not.”
For Mr. Biden, the stakes are both immediate and long term. His approval rating fell to 36 per cent in an Ipsos poll this week, weighing down his party as it struggles to keep control of Congress in midterm elections this autumn. He also faces the prospect that his historical ambitions, for a presidency that would achieve domestic policy transformations on the scale of Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson, are slipping away.
It also hasn’t helped that the White House has been gripped by a non-stop series of crises: the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Supreme Court rolling back abortion rights and a series of mass shootings. The courts have also blocked Mr. Biden’s efforts to end some of former president Donald Trump’s restrictions on asylum seekers at the border with Mexico. Spiralling inflation, meanwhile, has reached a punishing 9.1 per cent.
“It feels in many ways like the President is responding to problems and issues and emergencies rather than being able to change things,” said Rebecca Eissler, a political science professor and expert on the presidency at San Francisco State University.
Mr. Biden has received high marks for leading the democratic world in arming Ukraine and imposing sanctions on Russia. He also managed to negotiate a limited bipartisan gun safety law. Substantial legislation bringing the U.S.’s lax gun control in line with that of other developed countries, however, is blocked in Congress. Same with a bill codifying abortion rights. And Mr. Biden scored an own goal last week by fist-bumping Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman despite having previously characterized him as a murderous despot.
Ms. Eissler argues that Mr. Biden has also missed opportunities to mobilize his base by moving too slowly on important issues. His initial response to the Court’s abortion decision was muted, for instance, and it took weeks for him to issue an executive order protecting access to abortion pills and contraception. On the key campaign pledge of cancelling student debt, meanwhile, he is still trying to decide what to do.
“The public could put pressure on Congress to take action,” she said. “But when that core constituency doesn’t feel included, doesn’t feel they’re being listened to, there’s a portion of the Democratic base that’s just not going to do anything.”
At a White House event celebrating the signing of the gun law last month, Manuel Oliver, whose son was gunned down in 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., interrupted Mr. Biden’s speech. “You have to do more,” he shouted.
One crucial test of Mr. Biden’s willingness to take action will be on climate. He vowed this week to start rolling out executive actions after Mr. Manchin blocked his plan in Congress.
Lena Moffitt, chief of staff at environmental group Evergreen Action, says there are several things the President can do unilaterally, including cutting pollution from power plants, ending new fossil fuel leasing and infrastructure projects, tightening tailpipe emissions standards and bringing in new energy efficiency rules for buildings.
The President, she said, could have been significantly more aggressive in dealing with Congress. Last year, for instance, he agreed to pass the infrastructure law separately from his social and climate legislation, reducing his leverage in negotiations.
“Joe Biden started out really strong, with the boldest climate platform of any U.S. President. But he hasn’t gone far enough, fast enough,” she said. “We keep hearing that climate will come next – we’ve been hearing that for a decade.”
It’s unclear whether a more aggressive strategy would work. Mr. Manchin was reportedly upset after the White House pilloried him last year for walking away from negotiations on social policy legislation. And Mr. Biden did push through the infrastructure bill and other legislation using low-key negotiation.
“The White House did a good job. It was better to try to work with outliers in the caucus rather than ostracizing them. I’m not sure how making members of your own party feel isolated would have made anything better,” said Rodell Mollineau, a Democratic political strategist who advises a pro-Biden political action committee.
Despite cutting his teeth in the Senate during the comparatively bipartisan 1970s, Mr. Biden is well aware of the difficulty of achieving major policy aims in the increasingly polarized current political climate. As vice-president, he saw then-president Barack Obama pare back his ambitions to get his signature health care expansion passed in 2010, despite holding a larger Senate majority than Mr. Biden does now.
“Every president comes in with an overly optimistic view of their ability to woo the other side into crafting sensible bipartisan legislation. Each election cycle, it gets tougher and tougher to do that as the battle lines have hardened,” said Mr. Mollineau, who served as an aide to Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid during the Obamacare debates.
For now, Mr. Biden is isolating in the White House after testing positive for the coronavirus this week. In social media postings, he says he is using the time to plow full-steam ahead with the work his agenda requires.
“Keep the faith,” he said in one short video. “It’s going to be okay.”
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