An hour before he’d arrived to meet Senate Democrats, Arizona centrist Sen. Kyrsten Sinema declared on the Senate floor she couldn’t support any changes to filibuster rules that would be required to pass new voter protection laws. It was less-than-welcome news to the White House, which learned of Sinema’s plans earlier in the day as aides were preparing for Biden’s visit.
The President was met with a standing ovation among members of his party when he arrived for their meeting in the Kennedy Caucus Room. But when he emerged again 70 minutes later, the President’s fury at the impasse was obvious.
“State and legislative bodies continue to change the law not as to who can vote, but who gets to count the vote. Count the vote. Count the vote,” Biden inveighed, his voice rising to a shout and echoing in the roof of Russell Rotunda, before walking briskly to his car.
As his motorcade was making the short return trip to the White House, another blow arrived, this time from the Supreme Court.
The conservative majority blocked his attempt to compel businesses to require their workers be vaccinated, an outcome that aides had been bracing for after the President reluctantly issued the mandate order last fall. Biden was informed of the decision as he returned inside the Oval Office.
Setbacks at the hands of Congress or the courts are part of life for any president, as Biden likely remembers from his eight years in the Obama White House. But the string of disappointments within a couple of hours on Thursday was stark — and will also likely sting given Biden’s long history with both institutions. Paired with his stalled domestic agenda, a volatile crisis on the Russia-Ukraine border and softening approval ratings, Thursday’s developments only aggravated the impression of a President faltering as he enters his second year in office.
The White House views the situation differently. Aides point to a vaccination campaign that started last year, record job growth, rebuilt foreign alliances and two large pieces of legislation — a Covid-19 relief package passed in March and the bipartisan infrastructure bill approved in November — as evidence of a successful presidency so far.
And they frame the current setbacks as signs Biden is willing to attempt the difficult rather than settle for the easy.
“Having worked in a White House before, you do hard things in White Houses. You have every challenge laid at your feet, whether it’s global or domestically,” press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday after a day of difficulties. “We could certainly propose legislation to see if people support bunny rabbits and ice cream, but that wouldn’t be very rewarding to the American people. So, the President’s view is we’re going to keep pushing for hard things and we’re going to keep pushing the boulders up the hill to get it done.”
The boulder-pushing was continuing Thursday evening at the White House, where Biden met with Sinema and her fellow centrist, Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. The trio planned to discuss voting rights, though each senators’ definitive statements opposing changes to the filibuster made for an unclear path forward.
Still, the hopeful approach — which Biden has also adopted, declaring himself a “congenital optimist” — doesn’t mask mounting frustration at the state of the President’s agenda. Government figures this week showing inflation still at a near-40-year high led to another round of questions about the President’s economic ambitions. And talks with Russia meant to defuse the crisis with Ukraine ended without much hope Vladimir Putin intends to deescalate.
Biden’s frustrations laid bare
Ahead of a major speech in Atlanta this week on voting rights, Biden faced anger from activists who boycotted the address and said they wanted to see more concrete plans to get something done. Even some who attended the speech said afterward they wanted to see the President step up his efforts.
“While President Biden delivered a stirring speech today, it’s time for this administration to match their words with actions, and for Congress to do their job,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson wrote in a statement. “Voting rights should not simply be a priority — it must be THE priority.”
On Covid, some of Biden’s top former advisers went public last week with a plea for him to change course on the pandemic, saying it was time to adopt a strategy geared more toward a “new normal” of living with coronavirus permanently. And more than 50 Democrats wrote the White House this week encouraging a more robust testing strategy.
Biden’s own frustration at both matters has become plain.
He has vented in public that a stubbornly large percentage of Americans refuse to be vaccinated, prolonging the pandemic. And on Thursday, he flashed anger at the prospect of fellow Democrats stymieing attempts to pass bills bolstering voting rights, which he has said is the single most important issue currently facing the nation.
“As long as I have a breath in me, as long as I’m in the White House, as long as I’m engaged at all, I’m going to be fighting to change the way these legislatures have been moving,” he declared.
Behind the scenes, Biden has voiced agitation that some of the problems he is currently facing can’t seem to be resolved.
Along with reforms to voting laws, Biden had envisioned a major expansion of the social safety net and billions in new spending on climate change, all made impossible not only because Republicans universally oppose them but also because two Democrats are holding out.
He’d pictured a country on the road to healing after the divisions exacerbated by his predecessor, whose unyielding sway over the Republican Party and lie about Biden’s electoral history has persisted beyond Biden’s expectations.
And he had once hoped this would be the year the country was returning to normal after nearly two years of pandemic-dampened life, but the current surge caused by the Omicron variant caught the White House off guard, leading Biden to say publicly he wished he’d thought earlier of ordering more tests.
Court dismantles the centerpiece of Biden’s vaccination push
The Supreme Court’s decision Thursday was not unexpected among Biden’s team, who’d been preparing for the outcome. But it did exacerbate an ongoing debate among his team at how aggressively to pursue vaccine mandates as a strategy for ending the pandemic. When Biden turned to the new rules last year, it came after months of holding off for fear the mandates could further alienate vaccine resisters.
“The Court has ruled that my administration cannot use the authority granted to it by Congress to require this measure, but that does not stop me from using my voice as President to advocate for employers to do the right thing to protect Americans’ health and economy,” Biden said in a statement afterward.
Psaki demurred when asked Thursday whether Biden was considering any changes to overcome the current challenges, like a shift in his legislative strategy or a shuffle of his West Wing leadership.
“Our effort is to do hard things, try hard things, and keep at it. We just don’t view it through the same prism,” she said.
Entering his second year, Biden hopes to regain the initiative by drawing sharper contrasts with Republicans and resetting expectations that even some of his allies believe were oversized when he entered office.
Beginning at last week’s anniversary of the January 6 insurrection, he has adopted a sharper tone to describe Republicans who have helped former President Donald Trump cultivate the lie that the 2020 presidential election was marred by fraud.
And on Thursday, before traveling to Capitol Hill, Biden made a “special appeal” to media outlets and social media platforms to take action to prevent bad information about the pandemic from spreading.
“Please deal with the misinformation and disinformation that’s on your shows. It has to stop,” he said.
The approach has not been universally welcomed, even among Democrats. Biden’s impassioned call for new voting rights bills on Tuesday in Atlanta included a particularly sharp passage — written with the help of presidential historian Jon Meacham — that asked whether lawmakers wanted “to be the side of Dr. King or George Wallace,” “John Lewis or Bull Connor” or “Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis.”
Pressed about those comparisons on Wednesday, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin acknowledged the language pushed the envelope.
“Perhaps the President went a little too far in his rhetoric,” he said. “Some of us do.”