The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘One of those weeks’: From voting rights to vaccines, Biden experiences the limits of his office — and the fragility of his presidency

President Biden speaks to members of the press after a meeting with Senate Democrats to discuss voting rights and the filibuster on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Jan. 13.
President Biden speaks to members of the press after a meeting with Senate Democrats to discuss voting rights and the filibuster on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Jan. 13. (Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post)
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When President Biden walked into the U.S. Capitol just after 1 p.m. on Thursday, he prepared to test his powers of persuasion and push his party to maneuver around Senate rules and pass the sweeping voting rights legislation to which he had committed his presidency.

That, at least, had been the idea. But by the time Biden emerged nearly an hour and a half later, he had received multiple reminders of the limits of his office — and the fragile state of his presidency.

Before he had even arrived, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona used a rare Senate floor speech to undercut Biden’s plans, declaring she would oppose changing the rules. Then, behind closed doors, Biden failed to change the mind of the other leading Democratic skeptic, Sen. Joe Manchin III, as the two engaged in a back-and-forth about how Senate rules had evolved over decades.

Then, just minutes after the meeting concluded, Biden was confronted with another major setback: The Supreme Court struck down his administration’s vaccine-or-test mandate for private business; the signature tool was aimed at combating the coronavirus pandemic. Later that evening, six Democratic senators bucked the White House on a sanctions bill that administration officials heavily lobbied against.

Coming a day after new economic data showed that inflation last year reached the highest rate in four decades — and as diplomatic talks collapsed with Russia, forecasting a foreign policy crisis and intensifying worry over war in Ukraine — it marked one of the rockiest periods for Biden’s still-young presidency.

If he entered office a year ago with promises of a forceful new era of government action, the past week displayed, like few of the 50 weeks that preceded it, the struggles he is facing on the cusp of his second year in office.

“There are times when nothing will go right for presidents,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former aide to President Barack Obama who co-hosts the “Pod Save America” podcast popular with many Biden allies, during a Thursday night episode, “and this is one of those weeks.”

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Biden has always considered himself an optimist, hoping for positive outcomes and casting aside pessimistic prognosticators. But the past week crystallized that, at least in the current political, economic and foreign policy environment, Biden is struggling to shape events and instead is finding himself shaped by them.

“It’s the environment that has changed, not Joe Biden’s skills,” said Ed Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor and longtime Biden ally. “Put Joe Biden in the earlier environment, the pre-Obama environment, and he could get tons of this stuff passed.”

The White House began the week determined to focus on voting rights legislation. It marked an attempt to shift away from different legislative struggles, with his Build Back Better spending plan also stymied because of opposition from Republicans and a handful of Democrats. But early in the week, as he planned to travel to Atlanta for a major speech, it was clear that he faced significant hurdles.

A number of activists boycotted the speech, frustrated that the White House hadn’t made a more concerted push earlier and saying that they were tired of hearing words and ready for some concrete action. Stacey Abrams, a prominent Democrat running for Georgia governor who has made voting rights her central issue, cited a scheduling conflict and did not attend.

During his speech, Biden endorsed getting rid of the filibuster in order to pass voting rights legislation, and he turned up the rhetorical heat by suggesting those standing in the way of the legislation were aligned with racist policies and politicians.

“How do you want to be remembered?” Biden asked. “Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? On the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”

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Many in his party hailed the speech, with some saying it was among the best of his presidency, but even some of his closest allies couched their praise with criticism.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said that although he agreed with the fundamental principles that Biden outlined, “perhaps the president went a little too far in his rhetoric. Some of us do.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she thought the speech was “wonderful” and “fabulous” but also offered a critique and a bit of line-editing.

“Nobody knows who Bull Connor is. You know, if we’re making the case to say, ‘We’re going to be with Martin Luther King or Bull Connor.’ Who’s that?” she said during a news conference, referring to the commissioner of public safety in Birmingham, Ala., who sought to forcefully quash civil rights protests in the 1960s. “You want to be with . . . Martin Luther King and John Lewis — or the people who unleashed the fierce dogs on them. That’s who Bull Connor is.”

She also seemed baffled by Biden’s nod toward Strom Thurmond, a longtime segregationist South Carolina senator who Biden mentioned in his speech as having once supported voting rights legislation.

“Strom Thurmond — none of us have a lot of happy memories about Strom Thurmond,” she said.

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) railed at the speech, saying it was “beneath his office” and “unbecoming of a president of the United States.”

“How profoundly — profoundly — unpresidential,” he said on the Senate floor. “I’ve known, liked and personally respected Joe Biden for many years. I did not recognize the man from the podium yesterday.”

He said he was particularly incensed over Biden comparing opponents to the legislation to Wallace, Davis and Connor.

Biden, while at the Capitol on Wednesday, went into McConnell’s office to attempt to meet with him directly, intending to — as he later recounted to Senate Democrats — explain to McConnell that he wasn’t likening him to the notorious racists and segregationists.

McConnell wasn’t there, however, so they didn’t meet.

The White House had also been reaching out to Sinema and Manchin after his Tuesday speech in Atlanta, inviting them both to a presidential sit-down that was initially scheduled for Wednesday, according to a person familiar with the planning. But it had to be moved because of scheduling conflicts and, instead, didn’t take place until Thursday night, after both senators announced their opposition to Biden’s approach.

Of the more than a dozen senators who spoke and asked questions in Thursday’s private lunch with Democrats, Manchin’s remarks were the only ones remotely adversarial, according to people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door discussion.

Biden, the consummate Senate institutionalist, made the case to Manchin that Senate rules are not sacrosanct and have evolved over time.

At one point, Biden mused about how he and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) would dine together in the members-only Senate dining room.

Biden reminisced of a different era of politics, noting that senators don’t know each other as well as they once did. He also remarked on the makeover of the modern-day Republican Party, noting again that Thurmond supported reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act in the early 1990s and that Republican politicians today appeared to be to the right of even Thurmond.

Biden told Democratic senators he has never seen a political party so afraid of one man, saying he hears regularly from Senate Republicans that they would be supportive of certain measures if not for Donald Trump’s influence and the wrath that they could face if they cross the former president.

Still, it became clear that he wouldn’t change any minds.

“He reiterated that we all have a choice to make, and this is a moment in time, and we should think seriously about which side we’re on,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said. “I’m glad that he came, and, you know, I don’t know that he convinced anybody. But, nonetheless, one has to try.”

Biden’s difficult week followed what has been a frustrating month, dating to Manchin’s declaration in December that he would not support Biden’s spending plan in its current form, stalling much of the president’s agenda.

Biden has had no easy task, with a Republican Party largely united against him and with razor-thin Democratic majority. But it has tested his ability to keep his party together, a role that he has relished and demonstrated an ability to do during a rambunctious presidential primary.

“For a president, you can’t think about the hot take of this week for the White House, you have to think about the long narrative arc,” said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster and strategist. “People will criticize him for what they call taking an L on voting rights in the Senate this week. But, quite frankly, how does he have a conversation with the base of the party and how is he the leader of the Democratic Party if in fact he hadn’t put his neck out there and fought like hell even with the understanding he might not win?”

January public opinion polls show Biden remains in negative territory but differ on how much. A Quinnipiac University poll released this week found Biden at 33 percent approval and 53 percent disapproval, while an Economist-YouGov poll found him at 43 percent approval with 50 percent disapproving. The latter is more in-line with a Washington Post average of December polls showing 43 percent approved and 51 percent disapproved.

“If you’re hiding from hard fights, you aren’t being president,” said Andrew Bates, deputy White House press secretary, adding that Biden plans to keep pressing on voting rights and an ambitious economic agenda.

White House aides last week acknowledged it was a difficult week. They pointed to prior accomplishments: new jobs that have been created or an increase in the number of Americans who are vaccinated. They also acknowledged that even in difficult battles, the administration would rather go down fighting.

“There’s a lot of talk about disappointment in some things we haven’t gotten done — we’re going to get a lot of them done, I might add,” Biden said Friday during an event promoting his bipartisan infrastructure law. “But this is something we did get done. And it’s of enormous consequence to the country.”

Mike DeBonis and Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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