By Amie Parnes and Morgan Chalfant;
President Biden is staring down a number of minefields when he returns to Washington in the new year.
Biden will have to tackle major issues, including getting the coronavirus under control after a severe spike from the omicron variant during the holiday season. He will have to ensure that the deadly virus doesn’t overwhelm the nation’s health systems and the financial markets.
Biden will also have to try to revive talks about his signature climate and social spending legislation to see if parts of it can be salvaged and passed through Congress. And he’ll do it in a midterm election year in which Democrats fear they could lose the House.
It’s a daunting series of challenges as Biden gets set for his second year in office.
“To face this many genuine political fires, from a pandemic raging again to major legislation that might be finished, is the worst way to start a new year,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “Just to add to the challenge, the midterm season will get fully underway, and it will be harder to persuade any politician to do something that poses electoral risk.”
Every strategist and political observer agrees that Biden’s handling of COVID-19 will be his toughest and most important battle in the coming year.
“At the end of the day, his fortunes are intertwined with COVID,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne. “Joe Biden is president because of COVID, but Dems are struggling right now because of COVID. And until they can find someone to figure this out, people are going to be mad about COVID.”
Celinda Lake, a pollster who worked on Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign, said COVID-19 is one of the reasons Biden’s poll numbers are deflated. A NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released just before the holidays showed Biden’s approval rating at 41 percent, the lowest standing in his yearlong presidency. One of the biggest reasons is the raging pandemic, strategists say.
“People are just really discouraged by it,” Lake said.
“People do not blame Biden for COVID,” she said. Still, Lake added, “The uncertainty of it all is impacting people and demoralizing people.”
Bill Galston, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution who also served as a White House policy adviser to former President Clinton, said it is important for Biden to strike a balanced tone and avoid overpromising given the unpredictability of the virus.
“They’re in possession of all the facts and the most experienced scientists and public policy experts in the business, and I think that they’re going to do everything that can be done. I see the decline in the president’s ratings on COVID since midsummer in part as a consequence of what I regard as unwise overpromising that occurred at the beginning of July,” Galston said. “He came perilously close to hanging out a ‘mission accomplished’ banner at the door of the White House.”
Omicron has not yet shown signs of dampening the trajectory of the economic recovery, but it could worsen supply chain disruptions that have persisted during the pandemic. The new variant could also cause worried Americans to shy away from visiting restaurants and businesses.
The White House is keen to show that it is on top of supply chain issues and inflation going into the new year after officials were slow to combat Republican criticism of rising prices.
“In addition to COVID, this is where Biden and his team fumbled the ball,” said one Democratic strategist. “They denied there was a problem, and then they looked silly when they had to backpedal. They can’t do that kind of thing again. It looks bad.”
Officials, including Biden, have recently credited his decision to release millions of barrels from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve with helping lower gasoline prices, which are expected to continue to decline.
But inflation is expected to persist into the new year, and the White House, which often answers inflation criticism by pointing to the need to pass Biden’s Build Back Better package, may need to adjust its messaging given the bill’s dim fate.
The pandemic and its related economic shocks are not Biden’s only challenges, either.
The president and Democratic leaders still need to find a way forward on legislative priorities such as Biden’s climate and social spending package and voting rights.
Biden has said he still believes that passing his social spending proposal is possible, despite Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) opposition.
But Democrats, who had hoped to spend 2022 selling the legislation after it passed, are keenly aware of the ticking clock and the looming midterm elections.
Jim Manley, a former aide to ex-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said that Democrats need to get something done by February if they’re able to pass anything, citing the increasing difficulty of legislating in an election year.
“Time is not the friend here,” Manley said. “The last thing that we as Democrats can afford is to go through a prolonged period of negotiating as we head towards the midterms.”
Biden also will be contending with an exodus from the Democratic caucus in the House. Earlier this month, Democrats were stunned when Rep. Stephanie Murphy – a moderate who helped flip a GOP seat in 2016 – announced that she would not seek reelection. Murphy is the 22nd incumbent House Democrat who decided not to run again as a Republican takeover of the House seems all but certain.
“Like Obama, Biden entered with a lot of wind at his back but that’s changed,” Payne said.
In a White House briefing earlier this month, press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden would be out on the campaign trail for Democrats, looking to prevent a trouncing by Republicans.
Still, Psaki added, “We’d rather be us than them and have an agenda to talk about.”
Democrats say Biden not only has to help lead his party through the midterm cycle. He also needs to keep an eye on former President Trump, who is likely to run for reelection in 2024.
Days before Christmas, Trump announced that he would hold a news conference on Jan. 6, the one-year anniversary of the riot at the U.S. Capitol that the former president is accused of inciting. Democrats expect that Trump will continue to be a thorn in Biden’s side, particularly as he gets closer to a potential announcement.
“He remains the 800-pound gorilla in the room, and I think President Biden in 2020 ran offering himself as the alternative to the status quo, and President Trump may have the opportunity to flip that script on him,” said GOP strategist Colin Reed, who noted that 2024 is likely to include strong Republican contenders other than Trump.
“There’s just a lot of holes to poke in the Biden record, and a Republican candidate, be it Donald Trump or anyone else, is going to have a lot of material to work with,” Reed said.