The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden has underestimated problems facing the country — and Democrats fear that has become a political problem

President Biden delivers remarks during a Cabinet meeting at the White House on Nov. 12. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

In June, senior White House officials promised that rising inflation was just “transitory.”

In July, President Biden declared that “the virus is on the run.”

And in August, White House press secretary Jen Psaki declared “the president continues to believe that it is not inevitable that the Taliban take over” Afghanistan.

But just in the past week, inflation hit a 31-year high as prices rose 6.2 percent over a year ago, coronavirus cases are ticking up again and the United States announced that Qatar will serve as its diplomatic proxy in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan — head winds that come as the Democratic Party reels from a set of unexpected losses in elections around the country.

In these and other cases, a growing number of Democrats worry that the White House has repeatedly underestimated the scale of the challenges facing the country — exacerbating the party’s political problems and making its already perilous path to holding Congress in 2022 even more difficult. They acknowledge the problems presented by the unpredictable nature of the pandemic and an uneven economic recovery, but fear that the administration’s tendency to downplay the issues has only made things worse.

President Biden celebrated his administration’s infrastructure deal on Nov. 6, the morning after Congress approved the $1.2 trillion bill. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Oliver Contreras/The Washington Post)

The White House response also runs counter to a promise Biden made as a candidate, when he quoted President Franklin D. Roosevelt saying, “The American people deserve to have it straight from the shoulder.” He vowed he would “tell the truth” and “be candid.” But mixed messaging from the White House, some Democrats argue, has undermined its credibility and set confusing expectations for Americans.

“To the extent I’m challenging our party, I am saying we have to break these issues down into simpler, more immediate terms: What are you going to do about the price of the gifts I’m about to buy my kids for Christmas?” said Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), who is running for the Democratic nomination in Pennsylvania’s Senate race. “We get very focused on the general long-term benefits of legislation that we’re for, which are great, but let’s have a simple everyday message as well.”

White House officials dispute the idea that they are dismissive of the severity of the problems Americans are facing, and say the president and his aides communicate guidance based on expert analysis that can change over time. Aides also tout the Biden administration’s progress on the pandemic and the economy, arguing that the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package has been critical to the country’s recovery and that the recently passed $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill will result in much-needed investments.

But the administration has repeatedly had false starts in branding big legislative priorities, which some Democrats see as emblematic of a persistent messaging problem. After the American Rescue Plan, it introduced the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan. But the jobs plan morphed into the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, which became the BIF.

The American Families Plan was rebranded over the summer as the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, a bill defined not by its content but by its price tag. It later became Build Back Better, more commonly referred to as BBB, an acronym with the unfortunate feature of lacking a vowel that allows for pronunciation.

“There hasn’t been great communication about what these bills mean for people,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) said about broader Democratic messaging efforts. “We’ve got to talk about the real pieces of it, not just the size of the bill, but actually how it helps people.”

The White House says the president will lead an aggressive effort to sell his economic agenda, including robust travel from Biden and Cabinet officials and a media blitz. Still, some Democrats underscored the need to do more.

“I don’t think Democrats brag enough,” said Steven L. Reed, the Democratic mayor of Montgomery, Ala. “I don’t think that we celebrate enough. I don’t think that we tell people why we are bragging and why we are celebrating. When the other side is in power, they will tell you their version of why their decisions benefit the average American. I think we have to do a better job of that.”

Biden and his party have serious ground to make up: A new Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sunday found that Biden’s approval rating has ticked down to a new low of 41 percent, with 53 percent disapproving. In June, Biden’s approval rating stood at 50 percent, after he began his presidency with a slight majority approving of his performance.

The new poll also showed that 31 percent of Americans say Biden is keeping most of his major campaign promises, while 51 percent say he is not.

Privately, many administration officials and allies contend that the state of affairs cannot get worse, thinking that Biden and the Democrats have hit their floor in negative approval ratings, according to people familiar with their thinking, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private conversations. By next year’s elections, top Democrats say, the national environment will look dramatically different. They project confidence that the coronavirus pandemic will fade, allowing Americans to fully return to their normal lives, and that supply chain bottlenecks and inflation will also ease, allowing the economy to improve.

“Folks need to calm down,” said Anthony Foxx, the former transportation secretary in the Obama administration. “That’s the main thing the Democratic Party needs to do. Stop bloviating over the sky is falling. It’s not falling. Biden has made some extremely tough decisions in his first year in office, and it’s natural that the public will look at those changes in the composite and be somewhat skeptical of them. Hopefully, the longer play is one that will bear out, but this infrastructure package is a major achievement.”

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But Biden and his aides also face a credibility issue — making promises for months about improved conditions, only to have lingering issues resurface or worsen.

“They have a problem,” said John Kasich, the former Republican governor of Ohio who crossed party lines to endorse Biden in 2020. “They made projections and predictions based on their experts. Their experts were wrong, and they’re not making any changes.”

Inflation and supply chain bottlenecks have been particularly fraught subjects inside the administration, as the problems have worsened in recent weeks ahead of the holiday season. After months of what some Democrats saw as Biden officials trying to minimize the problems, the president spoke at length about inflation and the supply chain issues last week.

“We still face challenges, and we have to tackle them. We have to tackle them head-on,” Biden said Wednesday at an event to promote his infrastructure bill at the Port of Baltimore. “Many people remain unsettled about the economy, and we know why. They see higher prices. They go to the store or go online and can’t find what they want.”

Rising inflation also poses a fresh obstacle for Democrats when they return to Capitol Hill this week and try to move forward on the $1.75 trillion climate and social spending bill. The legislation has stalled amid concerns from moderate Democrats over the price tag, and last week’s inflation report only added to those worries.

“By all accounts, the threat posed by record inflation to the American people is not ‘transitory’ and is instead getting worse,” Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), one of the key Senate holdouts, said on Twitter last week. “From the grocery store to the gas pump, Americans know the inflation tax is real and D.C. can no longer ignore the economic pain Americans feel every day.”

Inflation puts White House on defensive as Manchin raises new concerns

The administration’s use of the term “transitory,” which it has largely abandoned, was particularly frustrating for Democrats who felt the word was disconnected from the realities Americans face with rising prices.

“Transitory is not a word I have ever heard one of my constituents use, so I would suggest we should not be using it,” Lamb said. “We just have to be straight with people. It’s not an easy message. There’s no silver bullet to this thing.”

But Lamb also said Democrats, unlike Republicans, are working to untangle the economic problems and need to make that contrast clear.

“They’re just attacking Biden full time, which doesn’t help anybody,” he said of the Republican Party. “So when I’m going around, what people are doing is looking at me and saying, ‘What are you guys doing? What is anyone doing to address this?’ And they’re willing to listen to our answer, but we have to give it to them, and I think the president is starting to do that.”

The administration has also struggled to communicate on coronavirus booster shots. In mid-August, top U.S. health officials announced that all adults should expect to get a booster eight months after completing their vaccine regimen. But outside advisers to U.S. health agencies disagreed and only authorized a booster shot for individuals who are at least 65 years old or at high risk because of medical conditions or exposure — guidance many health officials say is confusing.

Now officials are worried that waning protection from the vaccines, combined with Americans spending more time indoors amid colder weather, will send the United States into a fifth wave of spiking cases. Some top U.S. health officials are renewing their push for an immediate expansion of booster shots, but they are facing some skepticism from the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some state officials are so concerned about the potential for a new wave that they are moving forward and urging all adults to seek out boosters — even as federal health officials continue to debate any new guidance.

Still, Democrats remain optimistic that they will head into the new year with both pieces of Biden’s economic agenda passed and a long runway to rehabilitate the party’s brand. The poll numbers, they say, will improve as Biden has the chance to sell his agenda, and many Democratic lawmakers and strategists argue that the elections this month are not a telltale sign for the midterms in 2022.

“A year is an eternity in our business. The recent results are just reflective of where the economy and where things are generally today,” said Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), who is not running for reelection but said Democrats will have “a solid record of accomplishment to run on once we get these bills done.”

He added: “I don’t know what the Republican record of accomplishment is. They’ve not done anything.”

But Susan Swecker, the chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia, had a stern message for Democrats playing down the party’s losses, which included the defeat of Terry McAuliffe by Republican Glenn Youngkin in the gubernatorial race: “Ignore what happened in Virginia at your own peril.”

Michael Scherer contributed to this report.

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