For Joe Biden, this wasn’t how 2022 was supposed to start.
On the timeline imagined by the White House when he took office a year ago, widely available vaccines would have effectively ended the Covid-19 pandemic in the U.S. by now. The economy would be growing strongly, and a narrowly divided Congress would have already passed the bulk of Biden’s agenda. With those mega-missions accomplished, the president could have spent 2022 focusing on voting rights, cutting ribbons on infrastructure projects, and telling Americans what he’d done to make their lives better—with vaccines, stimulus checks, and Great Society-scale investments in child care, education, and the fight against climate change.
It’s just not, to put it mildly, how things have played out. Hard on the heels of the delta variant, omicron is now roiling the country. School closures and a shortage of tests are fueling Americans’ frustration and despair. Meanwhile, Biden’s Build Back Better bill has stalled over the objections of West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, leaving the president’s agenda in a rut.
Also to contend with: soaring inflation numbers, the highest in 40 years; a simmering standoff with Russia as it masses troops on its border with Ukraine; and progressives’ fury at Biden over what they consider to be a late-to-the-game push for voting rights.
Democratic allies say events have forced Biden’s White House into reactive mode. “It is hard to control the narrative when you have so many things coming at you, like climate change issues, tornadoes, Ukraine, wildfires destroying parts of the West, and omicron,” says former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a friend to many top White House aides. “I don’t know if they feel overwhelmed as much as they feel the gravity of these issues.”
The president’s approval ratings have slumped as he scrambles to show Americans he’s doing all he can. Ipsos polling found that 50% of people disapprove of the way Biden is handling his job, while 45% approve, numbers roughly in line with the fall, when the delta variant was raging. A Gallup poll this month found that 40% of Americans approve of Biden’s job performance while 56% disapprove— the 16-percentage-point gap is the largest of his presidency so far. “It’s disappointment after disappointment. It hasn’t stopped,” says Frank Luntz, a longtime Republican political operative who’s conducted several focus groups with independent voters in the past six months.
The latest is voting rights. Biden went to Georgia this month to promote voting rights legislation and advocate for changing Senate rules to pass it—only to find himself stymied again by Manchin and his fellow centrist Democrat, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Plus, Stacey Abrams, Democrats’ star organizer in Georgia and a staunch advocate of voting law reform, skipped Biden’s speech.
Democrats can point to a strong record in some areas. Biden passed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which sent child poverty plummeting, and an infrastructure law with $550 billion in new federal funds. The U.S. job market has recovered more quickly than economists predicted—and far faster than it did from the global recession in 2009, when Biden was vice president. America’s economy returned to pre-pandemic levels sooner than those of other Group of Seven nations. The Democrat-controlled Senate also confirmed 41 lower-court judges in Biden’s first year, the most for any first-year president since John F. Kennedy. “I feel real good about the Biden administration. I wish we were, as a nation, in a better place,” says Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina Democratic congressman whose endorsement revived Biden’s primary campaign in 2020.
After four years of President Donald Trump in the White House, culminating in false claims of a stolen election and the Jan. 6 insurrection, Americans looked to Biden to restore normalcy. But they’re in a terrible mood because of the lingering pandemic and months of rising prices, a fact White House officials privately acknowledge. The question is whether the pandemic, inflation, supply chain glitches, and labor woes can be tamed and if that can happen in time for the 2022 elections. It’s all Biden’s problem, regardless of whether it’s his fault.
The pandemic has largely shaped Biden’s fortunes so far. He emerged from the early months of his presidency hoping to put it behind him. Vaccinations had soared; caseloads had plunged. “We’re closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus,” he told the country in a speech on July 4. Although he cautioned: “That’s not to say the battle against Covid-19 is over. We’ve got a lot more work to do.”
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