The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden’s challenge, gamble and wish set the table for the 2022 elections

On Nov. 26, President Biden told reporters that the decision to restrict travel from 8 African countries as part of a cautious approach to the Omicron variant. (Video: The Washington Post)
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When President Biden came into office, he had three overriding priorities: The first was to tame the coronavirus pandemic and deal with its effects on the economy. The second was to persuade Congress to enact the most sweeping domestic policy initiatives in generations. The third was to unify the country the best he could.

The first was a challenge, the second a gamble, and the third, given a recalcitrant Republican Party, always a long shot. As December approaches, none of these goals has been fully accomplished, and that shapes the political environment heading into next year’s midterm elections, which could dramatically affect his presidency.

The pandemic continues, with new infections rising again, nearing 100,000 per day. A few months ago, southern states were the hot spots. Today, the northern tier of the country is being hit hardest. Vaccines continue to reduce the number of hospitalizations and deaths, but that is little comfort. More Americans have died of covid-19 so far in 2021 than in the entirety of 2020.

Now a new variant, named omicron, has been discovered in South Africa. Its transmissibility and potency are not yet known, but the World Health Organization described it Friday as a “variant of concern.” News of its existence badly rattled the stock markets Friday (leading to the biggest one-day drop this year), amid fears of another setback to economies around the world. As the variant is studied, the Biden administration announced new restrictions on flights to the United States from South Africa and seven other countries, and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) declared a state of emergency in her state.

Biden’s hope to vaccinate the overwhelming majority of the population has fallen short, leaving a patchwork of vaccinated and unvaccinated states and regions within states. Political divisions over the president’s policies, particularly his vaccine requirement for many companies, are worse than ever.

WP tracker: coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, deaths

Biden’s team has not been able to overcome this resistance, other than doggedly repeating the value of the vaccines, which, given the political divisions, might be the best hope he has of getting the message through. But it leaves holes in the protective shield that vaccines were supposed to create. The administration also wobbled on who should receive booster shots, although many Americans who wanted them decided they would seek them even without formal authorization.

After a premature claim by the president in July that the pandemic was mostly behind us and that people would soon have their freedom back, the delta variant struck hard. Now reality has taken hold.

People are having to learn to live with the pandemic and all the uncertainty that comes with it; so, too, is the Biden administration. As a result, there will be no mission-accomplished statements coming from the White House any time soon, and 2022 will become the third year of dealing with this pandemic.

Given the fact that Democrats hold power in the House and Senate by the narrowest of margins, Biden has made notable progress on his legislative agenda, having persuaded Congress to pass the $1.9 trillion stimulus package and the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. But one last, big piece, the nearly $2 trillion initiative that includes spending on social programs and climate action is in the balance, still being held hostage principally by Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.).

Biden’s gamble, that he could leverage slender majorities in Congress to enact transformative legislation and that passage in turn would produce political benefits, has not yet paid off. So far, he has received little political credit from voters for what he’s managed to do. The programs are popular, but perceptions of his leadership nonetheless have taken a hit.

The stimulus package poured money into the economy and in some cases directly into the bank accounts of millions of Americans. The spending has aided in the overall recovery, with unemployment dropping to 4.6 percent and many small businesses posting “help wanted” signs in a search for adequate staffing. Labor force participation is up. Many states and cities are flush with cash.

But the recovery has triggered a rise in inflation — the worst in three decades. Gasoline, home-heating oil and natural gas prices are up, as are prices for many goods. The price hikes are driven by rising demand among consumers, supply chain issues that have made some products scarce and the demand for energy around the world as nations try to bring their economies back after the shutdowns of 2020.

It is this inflation that is costing Biden politically at this moment, and just as the president was premature in his claims about the pandemic, his administration was slow to acknowledge what people were feeling and therefore begin to act. He has since moved to unjam the ports and to open the spigot on the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Some economic statistics continue to show positive signs. But the shocks to the global economy from the pandemic could continue if one country after another is forced to impose new restrictions to deal with the latest wave of cases or the new variant.

Money from the infrastructure package will help to modernize the country, but the spending will not be felt immediately. Most of that money will be spent after next year’s elections. For 2022, Biden will have to hope that voters see signs announcing construction coming soon on a bridge or airport or road near them.

Passage of the infrastructure bill fulfilled a pledge by the president to seek cross-party support whenever possible, which is part of his political DNA. But he has not been able to do much beyond that to narrow the gulf between the parties in Congress. Republicans have shown no interest in working with him.

But it’s worse than just that. Many Republicans, including former president Donald Trump, are calling for the House Republicans who dared to vote for an infrastructure bill to be punished, claiming they had helped give the president a victory. It is one more measure of the state of the GOP.

Biden has become almost as polarizing a president as Trump, at least in how he is seen by those who identify with either of the two major parties. The Gallup organization’s tracking of presidential approval shows Biden with the approval of 90 percent of Democrats but just 6 percent of Republicans — a gap of 84 points. That’s only a few points better than the peak of Trump’s polarization in the fall of 2020.

Many Democrats claim the big problem for the White House is the absence of clear and effective messaging. There is truth in that assertion: Biden and his advisers have not found the best ways to explain and sell what they are doing. This might be a solvable problem, particularly if the social and climate bill is approved. The administration will need to move quickly to build back the president’s standing as the Republicans have found for now their talking points for next year: immigration, crime, education and inflation.

Beyond that, however, is the likely reality that there is no imminent return to pre-pandemic normalcy. There are efforts to do so, with in-classroom teaching, sports stadiums filled with spectators, and families and friends reunited for Thanksgiving this past week. But insecurities continue, and the spillover affects all politicians, starting with the president.