His agenda undermined by a member of his own party and a pandemic once again raging out of control, President Joe Biden heads into his second year in office with the central premise of his presidency in peril.
Biden’s main campaign argument to the American people in his case for deposing Donald Trump was that he could make government work again, that it could do big things and deliver for its citizens, and that order not chaos could return to Washington. But now the White House ends 2021 facing a confluence of crises: Covid-19 cases are surging throughout the nation, inflation remains high in the holiday season, a renewed push on voting rights seems stalled before it can even begin, and the signature piece of Biden’s agenda is seriously, if not mortally, wounded.
The stunning decision by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) on Sunday to announce his opposition to Biden’s Build Back Better legislation handed the president a stinging defeat. And unless the White House can turn the senator around, the result will not just be a profound failure to combat climate change and expand the social safety net, but also the undermining the president’s central premise of competence and the vow that he could forge consensus in times of partisanship and tribalism.
Even before Sunday, Biden was struggling on these fronts. Images in recent days — soaring Covid case numbers, long lines at testing places, stubbornly high prices on the shelves — have hampered the president’s primary pitch to voters. They’ve also contributed to a national sense of discontent that has hurt him in the polls. Even though Biden’s own party holds all branches of government, stories of gridlock and intraparty distrust have dominated the headlines for months, creating an ugly depiction of a government not just failing to deliver on the president’s promises but overwhelmed by the problems it’s confronted.
Aides in recent days have pointed to the positives in Biden’s column: The unemployment rate is low, vaccines are available for nearly everyone who wants one, the funding from the politically popular bipartisan infrastructure bill will kick in soon, allowing for the administration to pursue major, substantive acts, like removing lead from the nation’s water pipes. But with those steps forward have come steps back. Biden ends 2021 with low poll numbers and growing panic among Democrats that they will lose at least one, if not both, houses of Congress in the upcoming midterms.
It was Biden himself who set the historic stakes for his presidency, embracing the parallels to Democrats Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, who enacted sweeping government programs at a time of significant crisis. He boldly proclaimed that the nation needed to prove that democracies could deliver for their citizens again and compete with autocracies like China. Taking on the pandemic head on, Biden has passed a huge Covid relief bill while ramping up the development and distribution of the vaccines that he promised will eventually lead the nation out of the virus’ clutches.
But after a rousing start, the second half of the year has brought a series of challenges. The withdrawal from Afghanistan was tumultuous, Democrats’ slim margins in Congress made governing difficult, a close ally lost the Virginia governor’s race and, most of all, Covid cases surged again while the vaccination campaign sputtered.
The setbacks were not all Biden’s doing. GOP governors tried to block the administration’s efforts on masking and inoculations, while conservative media fed into vaccine skepticism, keeping the numbers of the unvaccinated dangerously elevated. But Biden had, in part, been elected to lead the nation out of the pandemic and its persistence has undoubtedly helped drag down his poll numbers.
And now the virus has caught another wind. The Omicron variant had blitzed America in recent days, breaking infection records in several states and cities and leading to hours-long testing lines across the nation. Amid questions about whether the administration was caught off guard, the president was set to address the nation Tuesday about the surge.
Biden aides have long prided themselves, both during the campaign and their first months in the White House, on their ability to ignore distractions, to focus on the mission in front of them even while ignoring the hysterics from their own allies.
But the hysterics have become too loud now to ignore.
Manchin’s torpedoing of the Build Back Better Act, specifically, has caused immense frustration in the White House in recent days. West Wing aides have taken to rolling their eyes every time they spot Manchin in front of a gaggle of reporters and TV cameras and the talk of “President Manchin” — suggesting that the senator had the most power in the party — was met by derision by Biden allies and an on-camera rebuke from Vice President Kamala Harris last week.
But Biden has always gotten along personally with the West Virginia senator and there was a sense, last week, that a deal was reachable with him. Indeed, after Manchin offered his own $1.8 trillion version of the bill in a call with Biden just days ago, the president told allies that he believed a deal could be reached early next year, per two White House aides.
That belief only added to the sense of shock to Manchin’s declaration Sunday that he could not support the bill at all, leading to the release of an uncharacteristically scorching statement from White House press secretary Jen Psaki attacking the senator.
Though some Beltway observers noted that Manchin could certainly change his mind again, and that this could simply be a negotiating tactic, White House aides were livid that the West Virginia senator did not give Biden a personal heads-up. There also was a sense of worry that the entire episode had undercut Biden’s argument that he could hold Democrats together.
Biden was supposed to bring order to the chaos of D.C. But chaos is prevailing.