In what counts as the longest press conference in presidential history, President Joe Biden spent nearly two hours Wednesday defending his first year in office. But the very first question neatly summed up the problem that Democrats face ahead of what’s set to be a punishing midterm election race: “Did you overpromise to the American public what you could achieve in your first year in office?”
Biden did his best in his answers to balance between optimism and realism. Neither really landed. His hopes for success and his acknowledgment of the limitations he faces canceled each other out. The net effect is that while Democrats have been struggling with a Sisyphean set of demands, it looks from the outside like they spent most of the last year spinning their wheels.
While Democrats have been struggling with a Sisyphean set of demands, it looks from the outside like they spent most of the last year spinning their wheels.
That’s reflected in the polling, which is pretty dire for Biden. “More Americans disapprove than approve of how Biden is handling his job as president, 56 percent to 43 percent,” The Associated Press wrote of its most recent poll with the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. “As of now, just 28 percent of Americans say they want Biden to run for reelection in 2024, including only 48 percent of Democrats.” The level of unhappiness with both Biden and the country’s direction led NBC’s "Meet the Press" to predict a “shellacking” for Democrats later this year.
Democrats did promise a lot in the early days of the administration — as they should have. The list of policies that have been put on the back burner or stymied through obstruction over the last two decades is massive. Democrats have at one time or another promised to tackle all of them, including, but not limited to: increasing the amount of affordable housing available; providing relief from student loans; lowering the costs of child care and providing paid family leave; raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations to shrink the wealth gap; reining in brutal police forces; and strengthening labor laws and unions. None of those have come to pass, or even moved forward, since Biden’s inauguration.
If you look back at past administrations, it’s clear that first-year jitters are real. It takes time for even a team filled with veterans who’ve served in past administrations to learn how to work the federal government’s levers of power. But history shows that moving fast is key for modern presidents. And his administration despite claiming that it had learned its lesson from the struggles of the Obama era about the narrow window available to actually govern, that hasn’t exactly panned out. Meanwhile, worries about the omicron variant and inflation have blunted the impact of Biden’s list of successes to date.
Paradoxically, Biden’s cratering poll numbers can at least in part be attributed to the trifecta that Democrats hold. Frustrated voters point to the campaigning in Georgia last year and the guarantee that control of the Senate alongside the House and the White House would yield results. Where is the promised change, they ask? But the longest time in history that the Senate has remained evenly split, and a House majority of just 10, means that any holdouts have wielded an outsize influence. That power has mostly been used to halt any progress on the Build Back Better Act, which was meant to be the centerpiece of Biden’s economic agenda and the primary achievement for Democrats to run on this year.
It's harder to build things than it is to break them, leaving Democrats with an asymmetrical challenge.
Compare this situation with the one then-President Donald Trump faced after his first year in office. For all the chaos that came from his administration from the beginning, Trump just had to keep being himself to maintain the support of his base. His administration focused on rolling back regulations and dismantling the gears of government, even as court losses and investigations stacked up. And in Congress, all the GOP had to do was hold the line and pass some tax cuts for the wealthy.
Democrats took back the House in 2018 based on the promise that they would both stop Trump’s extremism and get things done to better the lives of Americans. But it's harder to build things than it is to break them, leaving Democrats with an asymmetrical challenge. Republicans aren’t promising to do anything different should they return to power. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu summed up the landscape for his party in a recent Washington Examiner article, which Biden cited in his press conference Wednesday:
The governor said the message from virtually every GOP senator he chatted with — and he chatted with most of them — was that they plan to do little more with the majority they are fighting to win this November than obstruct President Joe Biden until, “hopefully,” 2024 ushers a Republican into the White House. “It bothered me that they were OK with that,” Sununu said.
More than that, Sununu was “bothered” by Republicans' seeming inability to answer this question: “I said, ‘OK, so if we're going to get stuff done if we win the White House back, why didn't you do it in 2017 and 2018?’” How did the Republicans Sununu spoke with answer his challenge? “Crickets. Yeah, crickets,” the governor said. “They had no answer.”
He’s right. There is no Republican agenda for 2023 and beyond, aside from gaining and sustaining power. But you can’t grade polls on a curve. The dissatisfaction that’s being expressed is real. And as Politico put it, “[T]he problem for Democrats as they slog through a brutal two months for President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda: Their base is fitting its own centrists for the black hat as often as it does the GOP.” It’s hard to win support for the party when the problem is coming from inside the house.
Biden’s White House is planning a strategy reset that focuses less on his negotiations with Congress and features more direct talk to Americans. That’s good — but most of America’s biggest problems can only be fixed through legislation. Biden can’t talk his way out of voter suppression in the states or grant an extension of Obamacare with an executive order.
In the end, Biden and congressional Democrats are facing both a structural issue and a political one: How do you talk straight about the major problems that America is facing, claim that you have the answers, but then fail to implement them? The lack of action on their promises is what's hurting Democrats the most ahead of the midterms — and ironically, it’s looking like that lack of action will keep them from preventing things becoming even worse. And they will get worse if Republicans win big in 2022 and 2024.
The solution may be, as Biden suggested, passing whatever chunks of the Build Back Better act that can make it through the Senate. But Democrats still find themselves locked Into a vicious cycle of failure: Even if they do take incremental steps to solving America’s problems, they lose power, having been tarred as swinging too far left. Republicans allow the situation to fester further, making things all the more challenging the next time Democrats retake a majority. If Democrats get another chance at all — given the lack of progress on voter rights in the face of the GOP’s willingness to overturn election results, that’s no guarantee at all.