With his party splintered and Democrats across the coalition that elected him in 2020 unhappy, President Joe Biden has just a few months to try to chart a path out of the malaise or risk getting swamped in the looming midterm elections in which Republicans are seeking to regain control of Congress.
A year into Biden's presidency, suburban, college-educated and women voters who helped make him president are exhausted after almost two years of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite robust economic indicators, many Americans are frustrated by regular school disruptions, high prices at the gasoline pump and barren grocery store shelves. As the sitting president, all of that weighs on Biden's popularity.
He acknowledged those frustrations at a rare news conference at the White House on Wednesday.
"It's been too much to bear," Biden said, referring to the pandemic and its accumulated effects on Americans. Containing the coronavirus is "a job not yet finished," Biden added. "It will get better."
The United States leads the world in COVID-19 deaths, with almost 860,000. Analysts have said Biden has just a few months to reverse public opinion on his performance before voter attitudes harden ahead of the November elections.
Republicans have proven to be surprisingly resilient politically, showing renewed electoral appeal despite party fissures over former President Donald Trump's allegations the 2020 election was stolen from him through widespread election fraud and the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol.
More than a dozen Democratic strategists, analysts and pollsters told Reuters that Biden needs to deliver a more focused economic message, one that highlights meaningful policy victories such as passage of a major infrastructure bill and targets other problems such as supply-chain disruptions – all while continuing to make combating the pandemic a top priority.
Biden must find a way, they said, to move beyond the squabbling on Capitol Hill and turn his attention to tailored measures that will help families still dealing with fallout from a pandemic that has rattled the economy and changed society in seemingly endless ways.
"We have a lot of policies, a lot of statistics, but we're not making people feel better," said Jen Ancona of Way to Win, a Democrat advocacy group.
Biden's achievements on securing congressional passage of COVID-19 relief legislation and infrastructure spending have been overshadowed by party-infighting over the massive "Build Back Better" bill – a spending plan with healthcare, education, child care, immigration and climate components – and voter-protection measures.
Even as Biden spoke on Wednesday, the Democrat-led Senate was poised to hold a vote regarding the voting-rights legislation – a top priority of party activists – that seems doomed to failure.
It's the Economy
A Reuters/Ipsos poll taken this month showed the economy remains the top concern for voters across the political spectrum despite strong employment numbers, followed by containing the spread of the coronavirus. Most critical for Democrat prospects in the congressional elections is getting inflation under control, said Doug Sosnik, a former senior adviser to Democrat President Bill Clinton.
"I feel sticker-shock three or four times a day when I buy something," Sosnik said. "It affects everybody."
At his news conference, Biden said improving supply chains and upgrading infrastructure could eventually lower consumer prices, conceding Americans are struggling.
Biden has lost ground among some of the groups that helped push him past Trump in 2020. According the Reuters/Ipsos poll, support among white voters (41%), suburban voters (43%) and college-age voters (45%) has dropped to the lowest levels of his presidency, while disapproval among those voters has shot above 50%.
Some of those voters defected to Republican candidates in governor's races in Virginia and New Jersey last November, while turnout by the hardcore Democrat base was spotty. If repeated, that could trigger a Republican landslide in the midterm elections, according to strategists.
Democrats narrowly control both chambers of Congress. If Republicans win a majority in either the House of Representatives or Senate, Biden's legislative agenda could be doomed. Democrats hope that once the current COVID-19 surge powered by the omicron variant recedes, voters will feel a greater sense of normalcy and view the economy – and the president – more favorably.
There also remains the possibility the White House will be able to salvage pieces of its legislative agenda – as Biden called for Wednesday, something that would give Democrat candidates more to sell on the campaign trail this summer.
"I think there's still the opportunity to get it right," said David Pepper, the former chair of the Ohio Democratic Party. "You've got to figure out how to break through."
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