The President is confronted by a slew of intractable domestic and global crises he has no power to quickly fix, a bunch of political crunches caused and exacerbated by his own choices and a deepening sense of a White House under siege.
Mounting problems test Joe Biden's presidency and Democrats' hold on power
Rising gasoline prices and inflation, a global supply chain backup that could empty Santa's sled, and a pandemic Biden was elected to end but that won't go away dominate a testing political environment. The economy seems to have forgotten how to get people back to work. That's largely due to a summer Covid-19 surge powered mostly by conservatives who refuse to get vaccines and who view masking and mandates as an act of government oppression.
Biden has been in Washington nearly 50 years, so he may be more sanguine than most about the boom and bust cycle of presidencies that has been rendered more extreme by social media and corrosive national polarization. Yet with his approval ratings slipping fast, the President faces a political imperative to impose his authority amid a nagging national sense that a lot is going wrong. Democrats already fear midterm elections next year will be a Republican rout.
Successful presidents are able to rebound, to dig deep in crises and turn around their fortunes, and not get defined by nightmares as happened to Jimmy Carter with the Iran hostage crisis or George W. Bush with the foundering Iraq war.
But the pile of challenges on Biden's Oval Office desk is daunting -- and they extend overseas, where Beijing's relentless pressure on Taiwan is worsening an already tense multi-front standoff between the US and China.
On at least one domestic issue, Biden's hands appear tied. No amount of pleading, cajoling or hectoring by Biden, for example, would have worked with conservatives who have refused to get the vaccine or follow basic public health guidance. The President betrayed his frustration anyway last week, telling vaccine holdouts: "Our patience is wearing thin. And your refusal has cost all of us."
Biden's huge political agenda -- including a historic $3.5 trillion spending package on health care, education and climate change -- and a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan is, meanwhile, stalled. Feuding Democrats, not obstructionist Republicans, are the problem here.
A sense by progressives that the spending plan must count comes as their other priorities -- including a failed bipartisan police reform bid, changes to immigration law and a sweeping voting rights bill -- have been blocked by Senate Republicans. And a Democratic loss in a tighter-than-expected Virginia governor's race next month could trigger all out panic in the party. It could also identify problems connecting with the suburban moderates and independents that helped Biden realize his life-long dream of the presidency.
While he tried to unite the nation, Trump attempted a coup and convinced millions of supporters of the lie that the election was a fraud because his fragile ego could not bear the truth. A relentless conservative propaganda machine pumps out falsehoods about the alternative reality in which Trump supporters prefer to dwell 24 hours a day. And fears are rising the now autocratic party of Lincoln will succeed in stealing the White House in 2024.
In a sign they will do anything for power, Senate Republicans all but sent the economy spinning into default last week to score political points and may do so for real in December after warning they won't acquiesce in raising the federal borrowing limit again to pay for Trump's massive debts. A government shutdown also looms if Biden can't pass a funding bill by then.
How Biden is authoring his own misfortune
The President presided over a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in which American service members died. His rhetoric was at odds with events and he tried to blame others for the mess that allowed the GOP to portray him as weak. The harrowing scenes seem to have robbed him of any credit for ending America's longest war -- a distinction that eluded three previous presidents.
Even if his leadership contrasts with Trump's benign neglect, Biden hasn't been perfect on the pandemic either. His White House has sometimes spun mixed messaging on masks and public health guidance. Even as he declared partial victory over the virus on July Fourth, it was already clear that the invading Delta variant meant his "Mission Accomplished" moment was premature. The failure of the administration to nominate a commissioner for the Food and Drug Administration remains a mystery in the depths of a pandemic.
Biden and Democrats in Washington -- after the success of an early $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill -- haven't so far effectively wielded power. House progressives made a power play, but haven't yet shown they understand government is about compromise. Moderate Senate Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema adopted a my-way-or-the-highway approach that left Biden's agenda on a knife-edge. The President may need to be far more proactive. His laid-back -- critics might say absent leadership style -- that helped him in 2020 doesn't fill the bully pulpit. And questions about his rigor will always be sensitive since, at 78, he's the oldest US President.
If the bills fail, Democrats may also rue their tactics. Since Biden was seen by many 2020 voters as a moderate, was he wise to author a multi-trillion dollar spending spree easy for the GOP to portray as radical? And was such a gamble asking too much of tiny congressional majorities that always meant comparisons to Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt were overwrought?
Biden's big bet was rooted in a need to show working-class Americans -- including those seduced by Trump's populist nationalism -- that the government they believe ignored them can still help. Democrats, who are favorites to lose the House next year and have an unappealing slate of Senate seats to defend, were always going to go for broke if they had the chance, fearing their lease on Washington power may be short. But unless Biden can unite his party soon, he may have alienated more moderate voters who picked him in 2020 for nothing. And the idea that voters will reward Democrats even if the bills do pass remains an untested theory.
Trump creates a picture of chaos
The administration's handling of immigration -- one of the most toxic political issues -- has also been haphazard.
An influx of undocumented migrants pouring toward the US southern border offers an opening for Republicans almost every day. GOP claims that millions make it across are outlandish. But the White House often seems to ignore a serious situation. And Vice President Kamala Harris has apparently had little impact on conditions in Central America that spur migration -- in a mission assigned by Biden. The deportation, meanwhile, of hundreds of Haitian refugees back to a violence-plagued homeland many left years ago ripped divisions inside the administration and caused angry splits inside the Democratic Party. As did the failure of a bipartisan police reform push in memory of George Floyd.
"Violent criminals and bloodthirsty gangs are taking over our streets, illegal aliens and deadly drug cartels are taking over our borders, inflation is taking over our economy, China's taking over our jobs, the Taliban has taken over Afghanistan, lunatic leftists are taking over our schools and radical socialists are taking over our country," Trump said at a rally in Iowa Saturday night that underscored his continuing grip on the Republican Party.
Trump has no governing power, so it's easy to carp. Biden, however, faces a situation all presidents encounter. Whereas in the campaign he was the foil to Trump's failed presidency, contempt for democratic values and volcanic temperament that rocked the world, Biden is now being judged on his own terms. Therefore, outside events he can't control can be especially damaging, and leave little room for missteps on situations that should be within his control.
Still, there is more than a year before the midterms, even if prevailing public sentiment does tend to get baked in months ahead of time. Presidents of both parties often get frustrated at media narratives of decline and of their White Houses being under siege, viewing Beltway journalists as score keepers who miss deeper trends and the reality of life in the country. But news coverage does help shape impressions of a presidency -- one reason politicians spend so much time trying to shape it -- especially for voters who don't spend all their time following events.
But if the President can crack heads in his party and get infrastructure and a smaller but still meaningful social spending program passed, he will construct a legacy that eluded several predecessors. Most crucially, his political standing depends on the pandemic finally easing. If vaccines for kids and new treatments kick in, ease infections and perhaps even mitigate Covid-fueled political fury, his fortunes could rebound. A true pandemic end game would boost the economy and hiring just in time for the midterms -- and an ebbing of the disease worldwide could untangle broader economic kinks. If that happens, the environment may not seem quite so primed for a GOP midterm sweep and a Trump comeback.
"Our focus is on getting the pandemic under control, returning to life -- a version of normal -- so people can have security in going into work and dropping their kids off and knowing people will be safe," Psaki said.
"And that's where we think we should spend our time and energy."
1 sentence that sums up Joe Biden's mounting political problems
Which brings me to President Joe Biden and this quote from a Washington Post story detailing the mounting frustration swirling around him -- particularly in the Black community, one of the pillars of the Democratic base:
That's W. Mondale Robinson, who runs the Black Male Voter Project out of Georgia. And while Robinson is talking about Black voters in particular, it's a sentiment that appears to be growing among the broader electorate toward Biden too.
In a Quinnipiac University national poll earlier this month, a majority of Americans -- 54% -- said that Biden had not been competent in running the government. That finding mirrored the 53% who disapproved of the job Biden was doing. (Four in 10 voters approved of how Biden was handling the presidency.)
It's not hard to figure out why Biden is languishing. Just 41% of voters approve of how Biden has handled the economy. Just 39% approve of his handling of taxes. And a meager 26% like what he has done on the issue of immigration.
Those numbers closely correlate to the deciding lack of action on what people perceive to be the major issues facing the country.
Consider that, at the moment, the Biden administration is at an impasse with Democrats in Congress over the bulk of its domestic agenda: A $1 trillion "hard" infrastructure plan and a larger "soft" social safety net measure that could cost upward of $3 trillion.
The last few months have been consumed with a battle between liberals and moderates within the Democratic Party over which of those bills should be a priority and how much each of them should cost. To the consternation of many moderates (and even some liberals), Biden has been unwilling to put his foot down on either side of the debate -- choosing instead to offer vague assertions that everything will, in the end, work out.
The problem for Biden and his party is that voters -- of all political leanings -- know that Democrats are in charge of everything in Washington right now. And fair or not, they expect that control to mean results -- things getting done that Biden said he would get done.
Aside from a coronavirus stimulus bill passed early in his term, there's precious little for Biden to show for his time in office.
As the Post notes, liberals are disappointed that Biden hasn't pushed harder for a $15 minimum wage and that he appears to be unwilling to call for the elimination of the legislative filibuster. Moderates within the party can't believe that Biden didn't lean more heavily on House and Senate leadership to get the "hard" infrastructure bill passed -- and seems to still not have a plan on how to get liberals on board to vote for the bill.
All of it looks bad. It looks as though, even with his party in control of everything, Biden can't make good on his promises to the public.
(Sidebar: Democrats are far less in control of Washington than it might seem to the average observer; narrow majorities in the House and Senate coupled with the existence of the legislative filibuster tie the party's hands more often than not.)
But what's clear is this: Democratic waffling about what to pass -- if anything -- of Biden's agenda badly handicaps their chances of holding on to the majority that they barely cling to at the moment. In politics, doing nothing -- when voters expect you to do, well, something, is a recipe for political disaster.
Joe Biden's climate credibility hangs by a thread as the clock ticks to Glasgow
The US President pledged to take America back to the climate agenda front-rank after Donald Trump but splits in his own party mean the clock is ticking, writes Richard Kessler
President Joe Biden is racing the clock to win passage of two bills in Congress that would fund most of his ambitious climate agenda and allow him to present a concrete and credible package of legally-binding US energy transition plans at the fast-approaching COP26 conference.
Failure to do so would likely undermine Biden’s ability to keep a pledge that the US will lead again on climate after four years of Donald Trump, but also public confidence in his central argument that democratic governments are best placed to lead the fight against global heating.
With his prestige on the line at home and overseas, Biden is struggling to unite fractious Democrats behind the Senate-approved bipartisan $1 trn Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Build Back Better – his even more expansive partisan $3.5 trn spending package for climate and other domestic priorities.
“We really need Congress to get its act together and pull through to pass these major investments. It would bring us into Glasgow on a very firm footing as a leader,” said Mike Williams, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a prominent left-leaning public policy think tank in Washington, DC.
If fully funded and implemented, the bills’ policies and processes would slash US greenhouse gas emissions 45% from 2005 levels by 2030 – within striking distance of Biden’s 50-52% goal, which is consistent with the Paris agreement, according to an analysis by the staff of Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat.
“With regulatory actions the administration could take, not to say easily as there is a lot of work to get there, we could meet that commitment,” said Williams, citing as examples tougher energy efficiency standards and a crackdown on emissions of methane, a powerful planet warming gas, at oil industry wellheads. State policies will also continue to play a key role.
Biden contends that the two pieces of legislation would set the US on a firm path toward his other headline climate-related targets: 30GW of offshore wind by 2030, a carbon-free electric grid by 2035 and net-zero emissions by 2050.
However, the ascendent Democratic left in the House of Representatives so far won’t vote for the infrastructure bill even though it funds an unprecedented number of initiatives tied to carbon removal, clean energy development and grid upgrades, and will overhaul slow-moving federal permitting processes for transmission development.
Won't vote for it, that is, until Congress first passes elements of Build Back Better that they champion. These include hundreds of billions of additional dollars for climate action, and to develop US clean energy manufacturing capability to compete with China, as well as a historic expansion of federal programmes for public education, health, and social services.
The progressives largely represent safe Democratic districts and have held firm in their strategy to hold the infrastructure bill hostage. Party moderates from swing districts, however, face stiff challenges from Republicans in November 2022 mid-term elections. For that reason, they are anxious to showcase their support for legislation that promises to create numerous jobs and fuel economic development.
The moderates do have a key card to play – numbers. Given that Democrats have razor-thin majorities in the House and Senate, neither bill can pass without their support. No more than 20 Republicans are expected to vote for infrastructure, and they oppose Build Back Better in the belief that additional spending will add to record federal budget deficits and stoke inflation, now at the highest level in 30 years.
With the two sides deadlocked and publicly sniping at each other, the impasse threatens to also torpedo Biden’s domestic agenda when he badly needs a big political win given his already low national approval ratings.
“Everybody is frustrated. That’s part of government, being frustrated,” said Biden referring to the lack of tangible results thus far in the House legislative process. He sought to project confidence that it will eventually bear fruit.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s in six minutes, six days, or in six weeks. We’re going to get it done,” he said, without referring to the start of COP26 on 31 October. “There is no reason why both these bills couldn’t pass independently except that there are not the votes to do it that way. It’s a simple proposition. I support both, and I think we can get them both done.”
After dithering with the nation watching, Biden sided with the party’s left flank and embraced its dual-track approach, calling it “just reality.” However, in a concession to moderate Democrats, he told progressives they will need to trim the larger bill from $3.5trn to reportedly between $1.9trn and $2.3trn.
Even those lower numbers are too high for Senators Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona) and Joe Manchin (West Virginia), who will determine the fate of Build Back Better in the upper chamber. Biden remains hopeful the harder-line Manchin will accept spending more than $1.5trn that he earlier proposed. “Sure sounds like he’s moving. I hope that’s the case,” he said.
Finding the hard middle ground
As Biden looks to broker a compromise, his challenge with climate is to protect as much funding as possible to retain credibility on the issue in Glasgow. How this will play out is unclear. For starters, infrastructure is off-limits. He spent a lot of political capital this summer winning passage in the Senate and the bill is popular with most Americans.
“We’re enthusiastic about the infrastructure bill. It would be a game-changing piece of legislation for the energy transition and climate more broadly in the US,’ said Sasha Mackler, executive director of the Energy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC.
“It has a suite of really important programmes that are not only created and authorised, but also funded at profoundly different levels that we have seen historically on these issues,” he added. “I do expect it to pass through the House intact with the clean energy provisions.”
Among them is creation of an Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations with an initial $21.5bn budget managed by the Department of Energy (DoE) that will fund a range of cutting-edge technology commercial-scale projects such as advanced nuclear power, carbon and direct air capture, clean hydrogen, electricity storage, and renewables including hydro, marine energy, solar and wind.
“This has really been a problem area in energy innovation generally because there is high cost and high risk, and not something the private sector can do on its own,” said Mackler.
Build Back Better also promises to be hugely impactful in other ways for accelerating the energy transition. Under a new $150bn Clean Electricity Payment Programme (CEPP), utilities that raise the amount of clean power delivered to customers by 4% year on year will receive grants from DoE starting in 2023 through 2030, while those that fall short would pay a $40/MWh penalty.
The White House is bullish that the scheme will play a fundamental role in advancing the US to 80% clean electricity by 2030, a major advance toward eliminating fossil fuels five years later.
“The march toward decarbonisation starts with electricity. If we can’t decarbonise electricity fairly rapidly, we have very little chance to extend electrification to other parts of the economy,” said Ernest Moniz, who was energy secretary under former President Barack Obama.
The bill provides a 10-year extension of federal tax credits for solar and wind with a direct payment option and refundable from the US Treasury, which would allow projects, particularly smaller ones, to bypass the constrained and expensive tax equity market. The White House anticipates this will underpin hundreds of gigawatts in new capacity.
redits would be created or enhanced for batteries, carbon capture, electric vehicles, energy efficiency, long-haul transmission, and other clean energy-related technologies.
In a twist, progressives want to make availability of those credits at full value contingent on projects meeting domestic content preferences for their inputs. The aim of this new requirement is to advance Biden’s “Made in America” clean energy manufacturing supply chain that is free of Chinese influence and employs union workers.
How this work in practice is uncertain, since the US currently lacks manufacturing capability in areas such as offshore wind, or enough capacity to churn out panels for the massive ramp-up Biden wants to see in solar to generate as much as 37% of the nation’s electricity in 2035, versus 3% today.