WASHINGTON — He was supposed to break through the congressional logjam. End the pandemic. Get the economy back on track.
Days before he hits his one-year mark in office, a torrent of bad news is gnawing at the foundational rationale of President Biden’s presidency: that he could get the job done.
In the space of a week, Biden has been confronted by record inflation, COVID-19 testing shortages and school disruptions, and the second big slap-down of his domestic agenda in as many months by members of his own party. This time, it’s his voting rights push that seems doomed.
Add to that the Supreme Court’s rejection of a centerpiece of his coronavirus response, and Biden’s argument — that his five decades in Washington uniquely positioned him to deliver on an immensely ambitious agenda — was at risk of crumbling this week.
Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, said Biden’s sweeping promises have collided with the realities of enacting change in a divided Washington where his party has only the slimmest margins of control in Congress.
“I don’t think there’s any way to reach any other conclusion that he’s overshot here,” Engel said. “It’s important to separate the politically possible from the politically desirable.”
Biden’s troubles extend back to August, when the administration executed a chaotic and deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan. And the president’s professed competence was already under question as migrants multiplied at the southern border with no clear federal plan in sight. It deteriorated further as inflation that was supposed to be “transitory” only intensified at the end of the year.
“I’ve been hired to solve problems,” Biden said last March during his first press conference in office. Yet they’ve proven persistent.
The difficulty of navigating Washington’s vexing partisanship and the unpredictability of the presidency should have come as no surprise to Biden, a senator for more than three decades who also spent eight years as vice president.
Biden is unlikely to get much sympathy from the public for his predicament.
Even with the now widespread protection of vaccination, new scenes of long virus testing lines and sold-out grocery store shelves hark back to the chaotic earliest days of the pandemic and drag down the nation’s psyche.
The administration is going all-out to counter that mindset and demonstrate it’s on top of the virus.
A federal website to send free COVID-19 tests to Americans’ doorsteps will launch next week — a speedy turnaround after Biden first announced the initiative in December — but one that nonetheless struck even allies as coming far too late to blunt the winter virus surge that should have been expected. And it was only after months of pressure that Biden finally came around to announcing Thursday that his administration will begin making “high-quality masks” available to Americans for free.
That announcement was overshadowed, on a day that brought nothing but bad news for Biden, by a Supreme Court ruling against the Biden administration’s rule requiring large employers to have their workers get vaccinated or be subject to weekly COVID-19 testing. White House officials had always anticipated legal challenges, and many in the administration believe just the rollout of the rule helped drive millions of people to get vaccinated. Still, the ruling stung.
The day also brought new indications that Biden’s voting rights push, like his social spending bill before it, appears to be doomed by a shortage of support in his own party and his inability to attract Republicans. In each case, Biden delivered a lofty speech on the need to get something done and traveled to Capitol Hill to rally his own party, only to be rebuffed.
Both pieces of legislation required all 50 Democratic votes to pass the Senate — and in the case of voting rights, a commitment from those same senators to change the chamber’s rules to allow the bill to pass by simple majority.
But on Thursday, Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona didn’t even give Biden the courtesy of hearing his pitch in person before saying she wouldn’t get behind the change. She joined West Virginia’s Joe Manchin in again deflating Biden’s legislative dreams.
The two senators spent just over an hour at the White House on Thursday evening, but it looked nearly impossible to find a path forward for the legislation.
Representative Peter Meijer (R-Michigan) said Biden had cultivated “sky-high expectations when he inevitably cannot meet them.”
“If you want to be FDR,” Meijer added, “it’s probably a prerequisite that you have a mandate. On the same ballot that elected Joe Biden into office, the Dems nearly lost the House.”
Biden’s handling of the economy has brought its own set of challenges. The president has presided over record job creation but also over renewed fears of inflation.
Biden tried to tamp down concerns about inflation this summer, insisting that it was the predictable result of restarting the economy after the pandemic and that rising prices would soon fade.
“Our experts believe and the data shows that most of the price increases we’ve seen were expected, and expected to be temporary,” he said in July. “The reality is, you can’t flip the global economic light back on and not expect this to happen.”
But inflation only multiplied as the summer ended and oil prices rose. That prompted the president who has promised a future without fossil fuels to make a record-setting release from the US petroleum reserve to help tamp down the cost of gasoline. Even so, inflation in December reached a nearly 40-year high of 7 percent annually.
The high prices slashed into public confidence in Biden. Just 41 percent of Americans approved of his economic leadership last month, down from 60 percent in March, and below his overall approval rating of 48 percent in the same poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
At the same time, amid the rise of new COVID-19 variants — first Delta and now Omicron — Biden’s approval rating on handling the pandemic fell from 70 percent early in his presidency to 57 percent in the December survey.