Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN
Updated: Tue, 12 Oct 2021 04:56:21 GMT
Presidents get into trouble when they are seen as controlled by events rather than the other way around. This is the situation now facing Joe Biden.
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.
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. And ex-President Donald Trump is prowling, gleefully painting a horror show about Biden's struggles to fuel the sense of chaos in which his demagoguery thrives ahead of a potential 2024 campaign.
Even the White House admits things aren't going great.
"This is a really tough time in our country. We're still battling Covid, and a lot of people thought we'd be through it, including us," press secretary Jen Psaki admitted on Friday.
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.
Biden also faces an unprecedented challenge from a Republican Party that has largely given up on democracy itself. 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
But it's not all on everyone else. Biden and his Democratic Party also have to share a large part of the blame for their current plight.
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.
All of this plays into Trump's hands. The ex-President may be a grave threat to American democracy, but he remains unequalled at spinning dire events into a base-pleasing political message.
"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."