It was certainly not the one-year anniversary Joe Biden had hoped for.
On January 19th – the eve of Biden’s first year in office – the president gathered a press corps armed to the teeth with evidence of a presidency failing.
Such gatherings have been somewhat of a rarity for Biden, holding only two domestically in his first year. Yet, with a swelling of anxiety and frustration within his own party and the public at large, the president recognised the need to face his critics.
For nearly two hours, the president was bombarded with questions about the state of his domestic legislative agenda – now stalled in Congress – a mounting foreign policy crisis in Ukraine, rising inflation, resurgent Covid-19, and his progress in uniting a nation that just days before his inauguration saw its Capitol ransacked by a violent mob of insurrectionists.
The backdrop of the meeting was particularly dire. Week’s prior, Biden’s signature social care and climate Bill, formally know as Build Back Better, crumbled in the Senate in the face of opposition from Democratic Senator’s Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who refused to give Biden the 50-50 voting split that would allow Vice President Kamala Harris to cast the deciding 51st vote.
With one humiliation came another, this time seemingly self-inflicted. In an attempt to pivot away from the stalling Build Back Better bill, the president delivered a fiery speech on January 11th in Atlanta, focusing his attention on the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Enhancement Act, bills that ultimately seek to prevent voter suppression. Pouring scorn on those in opposition to the bills, Biden asked, “How do you want to be remembered”, “do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor?” – a prominent white supremacist politician.
Although Biden’s frustration was understandable given the nationwide assault Republicans have launched on voting rights over the last year, critics quickly labelled the president’s tirade as further evidence of political incompetence, accusing him of clumsily falling into the old trap of presenting anyone in opposition to his voting rights bills as raging racists (namely Bull Connor), though others suggested Biden simply had no other choice but to play hardball.
But whatever strategy Biden took, the outcome of the votes was inevitable. Hours after the marathon press meeting, a Senate majority – composed of Democratic Senator’s Manchin and Sinema – blocked the bill by failing to support changes to the filibuster (the rule that requires 60 votes for legislation to be passed).
Perhaps wrongly, the president has placed the blame for these legislative failings at the feet of his Republican colleagues, colleagues he sees as shackled by Trump and a perverse desire to cripple his legislative agenda for political retribution. “Think about this”, the President said, “What are Republicans for… I honest to God don’t know what they’re for”, he admitted. Even for Biden, an institutionalist who’s run for office was founded upon an unshakeable belief in the power of compromise, his patience seemed to wear thin; his limitless idealism quickly dissipating and leaving a trail of frustration in its wake.
Beyond these failings, Biden has a much bigger problem on his hands: the polls. Hovering around the 40% mark, Biden is by historical standards performing very poorly. Only Mr Trump, who stood at 39% at the same point in his tenure, has ranked worse. The omens do not look good.
And with mid-term elections looming in November, the stakes are about to get much, much higher.
Although Biden’s poor performance in the polls surely relates to forces largely outside of his control, notably inflation and the persistence of the coronavirus, there are a number of steps the president could, should, and likely will take to correct-course before November.
Firstly, it’s worth noting that despite several failings (Afghanistan, Build Back Better, voting rights, poor coronavirus messaging, to name a few), Biden has passed some hugely significant legislation. The problem, however, is that it feels as if it’s the best kept secret in Washington. Aside from a successful rollout of the vaccine, his administration passed a widely popular 1.9-trillion Covid relief package, 1 trillion dollar infrastructure bill, have overseen a precipitous drop in unemployment, rising wages, rising GDP and strong consumer spending. Sure, the demand triggered by the increased spending has outstripped supply, adding inflationary pressure, but this is surely a better predicament to be in than lower employment and less growth.
Biden also realises the need to celebrate what has been achieved, and rally support behind what has not, plainly telling reporters at Wednesday’s briefing that voters “want me to be the President and let Senators be Senators”, promising to “go out and talk to the public” and “make the case on what we have already done, and what will happen if they support what else I want to do”.
But simply getting Biden out of the Oval Office won’t be the administrations silver bullet. Rather, as is becoming clear, the president must take the scalpel to his signature Build Back Better legislation, cut away “big chunks” of it, and “come back and fight for the rest later”. By erring on the side of practicality, the President can both pass substantive parts of the package, but crucially give Democrat’s something to campaign on in 2022 and 2024 if the remaining parts cannot be passed. Crucially, whatever is passed, the Democrats must remain enthusiastic about. “The one thing I’m not going to do is lament the pieces that we didn’t get in and call that a failure,” as Iowa’s Democratic Representative Cindy Axne said.
So too must the president tackle with increased competence the issues plaguing every American: the Coronavirus and inflation, the latter of which is both eating away at the wage growth experienced by many Americans, and Biden’s popularity, as recent YouGov/CBS polling suggests. After all, while voting rights reforms are a hugely important Democratic goal, it doesn’t top the priorities list of most American’s. Indeed, if voters head to the polls this November weary and mask-clad, Biden may face an uphill battle in convincing them he has tackled the pandemic effectively.
Ultimately, a year that begun with words of unity and hope has ended in bitter frustration for the Biden administration. Perhaps voters expected too much, not realising the constraints inherent of the President’s office. After all, it was always going to be an uphill (if not impossible) battle to base a transformative presidency on majorities as razor thin as the Democrat’s. Equally, perhaps the president promised too much, and in overpromising and underperforming, straightjacketed himself.
In truth, it is probably a mixture of both. Perhaps the Democratic party nor its supporter’s expectations ever truly mapped onto the political reality that transforming America with a one-vote majority is an extremely difficult task. But it is not too late; there are still 11 months before voter’s head to the polls. The future of the Democrat’s majorities, Biden’s legislative agenda, and perhaps the very presidency itself, rests upon what Democrats can achieve in this time.