Under Pressure
Newsweek|November 12, 2021
After missteps and party infighting can Joe Biden save his presidency?
BILL POWER

JOE BIDEN’S PRESIDENCY WAS MEANT TO be defined by calm, experienced competence. Yet just nine months into his term, he has been teetering on the brink of failure. Vicious infighting within his own party has threatened to torpedo his ambitious domestic agenda, encapsulated in two sprawling pieces of legislation that Democrats have not yet been able to vote out of Congress. Even before the bickering over the bills, Biden’s claim to competence, based on more than 40 years in Washington, had been shredded by a calamitous exit from Afghanistan and an ongoing crisis at the southern border. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic grinds on, inflation is on the rise and there’s sideline carping every day from the president’s predecessor, Donald Trump, who seems to be campaigning three years early for a 2024 return to the White House.

Even as Biden announced the terms of a $1.75 trillion framework to salvage his signature “Build Back Better” legislation—cut in half from the bill’s original $3.5 trillion price tag—his approval rating was taking a beating. The latest Real Clear Politics average has just 42 percent of Americans approving of the job Biden has done so far, while 52 percent disapprove; that represents a sharp downturn over the past two months and a nearly 14-point drop overall from his post-inauguration peak of close to 56 percent. No president in the modern era, not Jimmy Carter, not even Donald Trump, has fallen out of grace so swiftly this soon into a presidency.

With the midterm elections now just a year away, and Democrats holding the slimmest of majorities in Congress, Biden’s nosedive has alarmed his political allies. As political commentator Van Jones, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, said on CNN, “Democrats are looking over the edge of a cliff.”

What’s over that edge? Midterm elections are historically difficult for first term presidencies. Democrats lost 63 seats in 2010, two years into Barack Obama’s first term, the worst performance by a sitting President’s party since 1938. Obama memorably described the result as “a shellacking.” Nervous Democrats now worry that 2022 could be worse.

The change in fortune has been swift. Earlier this year, when more and more Americans were getting vaccinated, Democrats were optimistic that the COVID-19 nightmare was behind us. Biden famously pegged July 4 as the demarcation point, the festive day when Americans could return to normal life. Biden’s advisers believed the President could claim a big political victory on the issue that, more than any other, got him elected—and that would put the political wind at his back.

Then the Delta variant spread, the number of COVID-19 cases—and deaths—began to rise again. And Biden’s approval rating began its precipitous decline.

Now there’s a giant question mark hovering over his domestic agenda, with no clear signals yet whether progressives and centrists within the Democratic party will overcome their deep divide to vote through the slimmed-down social safety net bill, along with a separate $1 trillion infrastructure measure. Left out of the framework are several proposals that are top priorities for the liberal wing of the party, including paid family leave, dental and vision care for Medicare recipients and free community college. The price tag, meanwhile, is still higher than sought by moderates, who failed to immediately throw their support behind the revised Biden plan.

“No one got everything they wanted, including me,” Biden said in announcing the new framework at the White House on October 28, just before leaving on a six-day trip to Europe to meet with world leaders. “But that’s what compromise is. That’s consensus. And that’s what I ran on.”

If the bill fails to pass Congress, it is not clear what Biden’s fallback would be. Political analysts and Democratic insiders doubt that Biden could pivot to working with a new Republican majority in Congress and pursue “small ball” legislation of the sort Bill Clinton did when the GOP took the House in 1994.

The Republicans have a 47-member hit list of House Democrats they believe to be vulnerable, mostly moderates in districts Trump either won or lost narrowly. Among the higher profile names on the list are Tim Ryan, the veteran Congressman from Ohio, and Henry Cuellar from the Texas town of Laredo. Progressive Democrats, led by New York’s Alexandria OcasioCortes and Washington’s Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Progressive Caucus, are much more likely to survive, and have little desire to cooperate with a GOP majority.

In short, Democrats, if Biden fails to get his signature legislation passed, are staring at the possibility of a failed presidency, just one year into it—a concern Biden himself seems to share. Speaking to a group of House Democrats on Capitol Hill the morning he announced the framework, The New York Times reported he said, “I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that the House and Senate majorities and my presidency will be determined by what happens.”

The last modern presidency viewed as an abject failure was Jimmy Carter’s over the four years from 1977 to 1981. But in the 1978 midterms, Democrats lost only three Senate seats and 15 House seats, retaining firm control of both chambers. Carter’s presidency wasn’t widely viewed as a “failure” until the attempted rescue of the American hostages in Iran ended with the crash of Desert One outside of Tehran in 1980. A rout next year in the midterms would heighten concerns that Biden, soon to be 79 years old, was effectively a lame duck, and would intensify concerns (already bubbling beneath the surface among Democrats) as to whether he would even run again in 2024. Republicans, should they win both the House and the Senate, would control any legislative agenda, and there is already talk of impeachment payback for the Trump years. The GOP could conceivably seek to impeach Biden over the lethal Afghanistan debacle or his alleged failure to enforce immigration laws at the southern border.

That is why the Democrats’ main concern now is straightforward: What can Biden do to avoid a failed presidency? Interviews with administration and Congressional sources, Democratic operatives and presidential scholars suggest the president still has time to salvage his first term. But he needs to act decisively—and quickly—to do so, particularly on the twin economic bills now being negotiated.

And indeed, White House and Congressional sources say, the President has been doing just that this entire autumn, actively engaging with the key Congressional players and negotiating a compromise in order to salvage his twin economic plans. After that, there are two other significant steps he could take to resuscitate his presidency. But the priority now, as veteran political analyst Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia puts it, the president “needs to channel his inner LBJ.”

Being LBJ

WHAT WOULD THAT INVOLVE, EXACTLY? BEfore he became John F. Kennedy’s vice president, Lyndon Johnson was known as the “Master of the Senate.” Whether through flattery or intimidation, he knew how to get what he wanted. He famously cut deals as Senate majority leader with Georgia Senator Richard Russell of Georgia and other southern Democrats to get the Civil Rights Act of 1957 passed—the first civil rights legislation passed since Reconstruction. That was a precursor to the historic civil rights bill LBJ got passed as president in 1964.

Throughout his campaign, Joe Biden repeatedly stressed that he knew how to reach across the political aisle and get things done. He would work with Democrats and Republicans, many of whom he had befriended throughout a long career in the Senate, and as vice president. In these deeply polarized times, Biden alone could turn down the political temperature and put the country on a path to “normalcy.” It was a winning message, and his desire to be a unifier was the centerpiece of his inaugural address.

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