Even for a White House familiar with roadblocks and frustration, Thursday’s setbacks on vaccine mandates and voting rights came as hammer blows.
Aside from the immediate derailing of two key policy tenets of Joe Biden’s administration, the vaccine ruling by the supreme court, which quickly followed Democratic senator Kyrsten Sinema’s public assassination of his voting reform efforts, prompted a new round of questions over whether his presidency was doomed.
Crucially, serious agonizing is now going on about what Biden’s woes might mean for the Democratic party’s fortunes in midterm elections later this year, when Republicans are tipped to seize back control of both chambers of Congress.
With Biden’s public popularity sinking – in one poll this week to a new low of 33% – and with another centrist Democratic senator, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, having already capsized the president’s flagship $1.75tn Build Back Better domestic spending plan, some analysts say time is running short to impress voters ahead of the November polls.
“The whole first year is gone. And in the end, nothing,” said Larry Sabato, founder and director of the University of Virginia’ Center for Politics, referring to the lengthy but fruitless discussions with Manchin over the make-up of the plan. “Manchin led him down the rosy patch then threw him into the briar patch. ‘Would you change that? You changed that, well, I don’t like this thing over here. Oh, you changed that, well, there’s these two things …’”
Sabato added: “But the voting rights debacle is the worst of all because why was Biden elected other than that people wanted to get rid of Trump? It was because he was seen as experienced and competent. What’s the experience gotten us exactly? I just don’t understand how we got here.”
Several of Biden’s misfortunes, Sabato said, are not directly of his own making. He has made repeated efforts to change the minds of both Manchin and Sinema, most recently in seemingly unsuccessful late-night talks at the White House on Thursday in an attempt to salvage his agenda.
But Sabato also believes that the president’s handling of various situations, and poor direction from advisers, particularly over the Covid-19 pandemic, runaway inflation, and last year’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, have combined to leave Biden exposed.
About inflation, Sabato says: “Biden’s team simply missed it badly, they got it very, very wrong, and they’re continuing probably to get it wrong. They’re downplaying it and they’re going to tame it by mid-year. Maybe, but I’ll be surprised.”
On Afghanistan, Sabato said, Biden “threw it away again”.
“It could have been a big plus had it been handled correctly because just about everybody – Democrat, Republican – was more than willing to get out of Afghanistan. It was a very bad performance by his team. They couldn’t know what was gonna happen? He’s responsible for his advisers, so he can be blamed for it.”
On Friday, the White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced that the president would hold a rare, formal press conference next Wednesday to mark his first year in office. As well as answering difficult questions about the administration’s failures, Biden will talk up its successes, namely the $1tn infrastructure bill he signed in November, and the $1.9tn Covid relief plan from last spring.
Having appeared fatigued by Thursday’s rejections, a more buoyant Biden followed up with his own briefing on Friday afternoon, accompanied by Mitch Landrieu, the former New Orleans mayor he appointed to oversee the implementation of the infrastructure act.
“There’s a lot of talk about disappointments and things we haven’t gotten done. We’re going to get a lot of them done, I might add,” Biden said. “But this [infrastructure] is something we did get done, and it’s of enormous consequence to the country.”
Some analysts suggest the touting of past glories displays a lack of confidence in what can still be achieved in the almost 10 months until the midterms, something Biden seemed to acknowledge on Thursday when he said: “I don’t know whether we can get this done,” after a Capitol Hill meeting with Democrats over voting rights.
The obstacles ahead of Biden are certainly substantial. They range from Democrats’ internal divisions between progressives and moderates, stonewalling by Republicans in Congress and the Donald Trump-created conservative super-majority on the supreme court that has already delivered several blows, and appears poised this summer to overturn five decades of abortion rights.
Yet Biden is committed to trying to salvage what he can from what promises to be a testing few months. “Like every other major civil rights bill that came along, if we miss the first time, we can come back and try it a second time,” he told reporters about voting rights efforts.
Similarly, he is also likely to attempt to get through Congress individual elements of the Build Back Better plan that are acceptable to Senate moderates, including universal pre-kindergarten education, subsidized child care and a number of climate provisions.
“They may try to get pieces of Build Back Better, or build back something as we now call it, but everyone’s going to describe it as crumbs from the table,” Sabato said.
“If they’d started with that, people would say, ‘Wow, that’s incredible, pre-K for everybody’, or whatever piece they decided to pick, it didn’t really matter which one. But now it will appear to people as this tiny piece of what the president started out with, [and] tremendous disappointment in Democratic ranks. By the end of the story you won’t even know what passed.”
Publicly at least, he retains the support of his party, but the Washington Post reported in December rumblings of discontent in Democratic circles about his leadership. An opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal this week, citing the unpopularity of both Biden and Vice-president Kamala Harris, even floated the idea of a comeback for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee beaten by Trump in 2016, to fill what its authors called a “leadership vacuum”.
In the wake of this week’s disappointments, the possibility of an alternative Democratic ticket for 2024 emerged again, the Washington Post columnist and political analyst Perry Bacon Jr suggesting there were “plenty of strong candidates” if Biden or Harris do not run.
“Biden hasn’t cracked some magic political code. Despite his white maleness and appeals to unity, Washington is gridlocked, Republican voters hate the president and his party is poised to do poorly in the midterms,” Bacon wrote on Friday. “It seems entirely possible that Biden runs in 2024 and loses to a Republican challenger. Democrats simply might be better off with someone new.”