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Opinion Biden’s road back: Asking Republicans ‘What are they for?’

President Biden delivers remarks in the East Room of the White House on Jan. 19. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

The old joke about Wagner’s music being better than it sounds applies to President Biden’s first year in office: It’s better than it looks. Alas for Biden, that’s not good enough.

With the president’s approval ratings languishing, the first anniversary of his inauguration has turned into a Rorschach test for partisans and commentators. Advice on how to turn his presidency around bears an uncanny resemblance to the preexisting views of those offering their counsel.

Republicans say Biden needs to be less partisan, centrists that he needs to be more moderate, the consensually minded that he didn’t do enough to bring us together — and so on.

None of us checks our values at the analytical door, but let’s try to separate our assumptions from realities.

Biden and his supporters are frustrated at how little notice is given to all that has gone right this past year, as the president took pains to remind us at his news conference on Wednesday.

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With 6.2 million jobs created on his watch, the unemployment rate is at 3.9 percent, far lower than anyone anticipated when he took office. Gross domestic product is up and workers have more bargaining power than they’ve enjoyed in decades.

Nearly 210 million Americans are fully vaccinated, as Biden noted, through more than a half-billion shots. With very narrow congressional majorities, Biden secured his $1.9 trillion economic relief package and a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.

It’s a good record. The problem is that much of this occurred in the first part of Biden’s opening year. His approval ratings then, a healthy 50 percent or better,, reflected this.

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Then came the pell-mell withdrawal from Afghanistan, the fruitless wrangling among Democrats over his Build Back Better program and a partial unraveling of Biden’s earlier achievements.

The last development might be most important because voters incline toward what-have-you-done-for-me-lately thinking. The strong economic growth combined with much-discussed supply-chain problems to produce inflation. The delta and omicron variants rolled back progress against the coronavirus pandemic and pointed to how Biden, in betting big on vaccination, shortchanged testing. It’s also true that some Republican politicians, a massive disinformation campaign and, lately, the Supreme Court, undercut those vaccination efforts.

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Here is where middle-of-the-road critiques of Biden are right: He needs to focus incessantly on the virus and inflation — twin challenges that are top of mind for most Americans. Biden clearly knows this, which is why he spoke at length on Wednesday about how his administration has made testing widely available through an easy-to-use website and is boosting access to high-quality N95 masks.

Going forward, he needs to settle on a strategy that reaches toward as much normality as is consistent with the virus threat, and he needs to put an end to confusing messaging from various parts of the government. Neither will be easy.

On inflation, he needs highly visible efforts to unsnarl the supply chain. One idea: Create a task force on these issues. Possible members: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg; Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm; Cecilia Rouse, chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers; Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo; Labor Secretary Marty Walsh; and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Have them report publicly every week on concrete steps the administration is taking to fix the problems.

But as progressives insist, Biden also needs to resolve the core contradiction of his presidency — between his longing to be the great unifier and his desire to do big things Republicans were bound to oppose. Not, mind you, radical things. Simply helping Americans on health care, child care, education and relief for our ailing planet.

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The problem with dreams of bipartisan Nirvana is that the other party must be willing to cooperate. Except on physical infrastructure, achieving this would have required Biden to abandon all his campaign promises around economic justice. He acknowledged Wednesday that he had not “anticipated” the ferocity of GOP obstruction.

And on the biggest struggle of this generation, the battle for voting rights and democracy, Trumpified Republicans are plainly committed to giving the states they run free rein to suppress votes and subvert elections.

Democrats need to enact whatever they can of the Build Back Better legislation and then move on to passing pieces of what’s left individually, if only to force the question Biden asked of Republicans at his news conference: “What are they for?” And whatever happens the next few days on voting rights, they cannot walk away from the struggle — in Washington or in the states.

Biden’s task is to combine effective, visible engagement on the front-burner problems with a determined effort to raise the stakes in our politics. Americans need to come to terms with the radicalism of the Republican Party and its attacks on our democracy. If the president can make progress on the first imperative, he’ll earn the nation’s attention on the second.