WASHINGTON — President Biden set an ambitious goal back in March, when the number of new COVID cases was still high and people were scrambling for vaccinations: If Americans got the shots when their turn came and followed guidelines to slow the virus’s spread, there was a good chance they could gather safely with family and friends to celebrate the Fourth of July.
“That doesn’t mean large events with lots of people together, but it does mean small groups will be able to get together,” he said in an address marking the anniversary of the first pandemic lockdowns and expressing his hope that the summer holiday would “begin to mark our independence from this virus.”
Since then, things have gone much better than anticipated, for the nation and for Biden’s presidency — although there still are major challenges ahead.
About 156 million Americans are fully vaccinated and case counts have plunged, leading to most COVID restrictions being lifted nationwide and a jump back into normalcy. The economy and job market are growing robustly, boosted by his $1.9 trillion rescue plan. And despite heavy skepticism from pundits about his pledge to work with Republicans, Biden recently struck a bipartisan deal to spend $1.2 trillion to upgrade the nation’s deteriorating infrastructure.
So on Sunday, the president will throw the type of large event he cautioned against just a few months ago. He’s invited about 1,000 first responders, essential workers, and military service members and their families to a “summer of freedom” barbecue on the South Lawn of the White House, where they’ll watch the traditional fireworks show over the National Mall.
But the celebratory mood might not outlast the pyrotechnics. Biden faces difficult headwinds to defend those victories in the weeks ahead — not to mention tough foreign policy tests such as the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan that some worry could lead to a civil war there.
“They should bring attention to their accomplishments because it helps them build momentum for the challenges ahead,” said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist. “And they do face challenges.”
The White House fell just short of its goal to have 70 percent of all American adults at least partially vaccinated by July Fourth — it stood at 66.8 percent on Friday — and the administration announced Thursday that it was forming COVID-19 surge response teams to help fight the rapidly spreading Delta variant. Although the Labor Department on Friday reported better than expected job growth last month of 850,000 new positions, there still are about 6.8 million fewer jobs than before the pandemic hit, and a jump in wages in June could lead to higher inflation that could spook markets and threaten to stall the recovery.
Then there’s the bipartisan infrastructure deal. It faces an uncertain future as Biden tries to navigate a tricky, dual-track process in a narrowly divided Congress where Democrats will likely attempt to move simultaneously a much larger bill based on his $1.8 trillion American Families Plan that does more to address top liberal priorities like climate change.
“The bipartisan infrastructure bill is the first step, but it has only a fraction of the measures necessary to deal with the climate crisis,” said Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, calling for it to be passed in tandem with the still-developing larger bill under budget reconciliation rules that would avoid a Republican filibuster in the Senate. “It’s not going to be easy, but it is necessary.”
Biden said he’s aware of the tough road he faces.
“Folks, there’s a lot of work ahead to finish the job I’ve just outlined,” he said in pitching the bipartisan infrastructure deal and his other domestic initiatives in La Crosse, Wis., on Tuesday. “There’ll be more disagreements to resolve, more compromises to forge along the way.”
The perilous political path Biden must navigate on infrastructure highlights how difficult it will be for him to deliver on his ambitious legislative agenda with one of the narrowest congressional majorities possible.
Announcing the bipartisan agreement late last month, Biden tried to appease restless progressive Democrats by vowing to pair it with a broader bill addressing elements left out of the deal, like expanded education, child care, and access to health care coverage.
“If this is the only thing that comes to me, I’m not signing it,” he said of the bipartisan bill.
Some Republican senators in the bipartisan group said they were blindsided by the comments, which they took as a veto threat for the agreement they had just negotiated. White House officials immediately launched into damage control to try to save the deal, and two days later Biden issued an unusual statement walking back his remarks.
“The bottom line is this: I gave my word to support the infrastructure plan, and that’s what I intend to do,” Biden said. But he also promised to work to pass a broader bill with funding for more of his priorities beyond physical infrastructure. The statement appeased Republicans in the bipartisan group without alienating progressive Democrats.
“Listen, he has a tough job and I think he’s handling it pretty well,” said Representative Jamaal Bowman, a first-term progressive from New York who likened the president’s task to what he faced as a middle school principal in the Bronx. “When you’re a leader of any organization, you have to listen to every stakeholder as you craft the best plan to move forward.”
Biden successfully pitched himself to voters as the polar opposite of Donald Trump, as a president who would reach across the aisle and unify the country. But in doing so, Biden knows he can’t afford to lose any Democratic votes in the evenly divided Senate and no more than a few in his party’s slim House majority.
“It’s a very difficult balancing act,” said Jon McHenry, a Republican pollster. “If you’re really the guy who wants to be president for everybody, you’ve got to say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to play ball with the Republicans.’ ”
Representative Ro Khanna, a progressive Democrat from California, said he understands the pressures Biden faces and praised the White House for keeping the lines of communication open with lawmakers while not attempting to micromanage their work.
“But there does come a moment when it’s going to require his leadership, and I think he’s going to have to say, ‘OK, party, here’s the compromise that we’re all going to get behind, progressives and moderates,’ ” Khanna said. “He has a lot of credibility right now. He’s delivered on the pandemic, he has delivered on the recovery. . . . I think he has the credibility to bring the party together.”
While acknowledging the budget reconciliation process will be contentious, Representative Richard Neal, the Springfield Democrat who as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee must work on how to pay for the legislation, said there was “a lot of progress and headway” on infrastructure.
“I think we understand the moment in which we’re living,” Neal said. “This is it. We’ve got to do it now.”
On Friday, Biden sought to ride that momentum and vault into the holiday weekend by touting the strong jobs report and a reopened America. As reporters peppered him with questions at the White House about Afghanistan and the Delta variant, Biden bristled.
“Look, it’s Fourth of July,” he said. “This is a holiday weekend. I’m going to celebrate it. There’s great things happening.”
Jim Puzzanghera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @JimPuzzanghera.