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    Sunday, October 02, 2022

    Six months before crucial midterms, Biden faces many challenges

    President Joe Biden leaves the Roosevelt Room of The White House on April 28, 2022, after speaking on Ukraine and taking questions from reporters. (Washington Post photo by Demetrius Freeman)

    Washington — President Joe Biden delivered an impassioned plea last week asking Congress for an additional $33 billion to support Ukraine against Russia's invasion, speaking in soaring language of the need to stop dictators and defend human rights.

    But shortly after he finished his remarks, the president was peppered with questions from reporters on an array of other thorny issues closer to home - a controversial immigration policy, a potential economic recession, a fierce battle over covid funding.

    Biden entered office with a historic set of challenges, punctuated by a deadly pandemic and a shuttered economy. Now, six months before midterm elections that could dramatically alter his governing ability in the final two years of his term, the list of issues has seemingly only grown longer.

    Gas prices across the country are soaring. Inflation has broken 40-year records. Prospects for Biden's sweeping climate and social spending package appear dim. Crime rates are high. New variants of the coronavirus continue to emerge. Just last week, a report showed the economy unexpectedly contracted in the first quarter, while Vice President Kamala Harris's coronavirus case highlighted the stubbornness of the pandemic.

    White House officials and Democratic lawmakers are quick to tout the country's progress on reopening the economy and distributing coronavirus vaccines, crediting Biden for steadying the ship after a tumultuous four years of President Donald Trump. At the same time, many Democrats say it seems as though the president, in some sense, can't catch a break these days.

    "The climate right now is very difficult for Democrats and certainly President Biden, but it's not doomsday yet," said Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., who is not running for reelection. "We have a chance to speak to the American people where they are, take credit for the good things the administration has done and explain how we're going to make things better."

    In his first year, Biden signed into law a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package and a roughly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, achievements that party leaders say rescued the economy and will transform the country's network of roads, bridges and ports. But despite Biden's repeated promises to travel the country and pitch voters on his successes, the gauntlet of challenges have bogged down the president's salesman-in-chief efforts.

    And some fear those very accomplishments could yield a political downside, as some economists argue the increased spending may be contributing to high inflation. And even the president has taken to acknowledging that his achievements are not resonating with voters the way he'd hoped.

    "What I'm concerned about is that I have been so focused on whatever the immediate emergency is, we haven't sold the American people what we've actually done," the president told high-dollar donors at a fundraiser in Seattle last week.

    A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that Biden's overall approval rating among adults is now 42 percent positive and 52 percent negative. That is a slight increase from February, when 37 percent of Americans said they approved of his job performance and 55 percent said they disapproved.

    But despite the uptick, more than 9 in 10 Americans reported concerns about rising prices, including 44 percent who said they were upset about inflation. On the economy more broadly, 50 percent of Americans said they trust the Republican Party compared with 36 percent who say they trust the Democrats.

    Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., who is also retiring from Congress next year, listed the slew of challenges the country faces and said Democrats are likely to face electoral repercussions, even if some of the issues are well beyond their control.

    "We are looking at historic levels of inflation, supply chain issues that persist, a quarter where our economic growth may have stutter-stepped," Murphy said. "While there are a myriad of reasons for those economic issues, ranging from Ukraine to the pandemic to supply chain issues and other things outside of the control of any given party, we do recognize that voters may not make that distinction."

    Republicans scoff at the notion that the bad news is not Biden's fault. They are eager to drive home a message that Democratic control of Washington has brought incompetence and chaos, which they argue is reflected in higher prices, rising crime, struggling schools and a surge of illegal immigration.

    Zach Roday, a Republican strategist working on House and Senate races, said Democrats outside of Sens. Joe Manchin III, W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, Ariz., have not created distance from Biden and are likely to be dragged down by his low approval ratings.

    "Today it's looking pretty dire for the president," he said. "These Democrats are going to have to establish independent brands and convince voters of them. Without that, they don't have a chance."

    Biden's challenge has been that when he has tried to go on the offensive and make the case for his presidency, his message has often been drowned out by news on the economy, the Ukraine war, the pandemic or the latest Republican success in enacting hot-button state laws.

    But Joel Benenson, a Democratic pollster and former adviser to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, said his party still has an opportunity to make its argument before the midterms. "Everyone knows the buck stops with the president, but I don't think it's about having too many things on your plate - it's about how do you make your case to the American people," he said.

    In particular, Benenson said the president and Democrats should ratchet up their attacks on corporate greed, linking companies' drive for larger profits to the inflation and supply chain issues that are affecting Americans' pocketbooks.

    "The risk for any incumbent president is Washington can become a very insular place, and it's harder and harder to stay connected to Americans and their pain points," he said. "I think the Biden administration has done a reasonable job on a lot of that stuff, but obviously there's still a bigger case they need to make."

    Much of Biden's recent months have been consumed by leading the global response to Russia's invasion in Ukraine, an effort that has received bipartisan support in the U.S. and plaudits from America's allies abroad. But on the domestic front, the president continues to face daunting challenges.

    A Bureau of Economic Analysis report released Thursday showed the U.S. economy unexpectedly shrank 1.4 percent on an annualized basis in the first three months of 2022, marking the first decline since the start of the pandemic. Stocks fell almost 9 percent in April, with the S&P 500 having its worst monthly decline since March 2020. Investors raised concerns about lockdowns in China over new pandemic waves, the ongoing war in Ukraine, likely hikes coming from the Federal Reserve and other economic head winds.

    Meanwhile, there are growing fears in the White House that Biden will not be able to secure the deal he wants in Congress to address climate change, lower prescription drug costs and implement higher taxes on the wealthy. Biden's effort to pass a sweeping social spending bill - his so-called Build Back Better initiative - collapsed last year after Manchin pulled out of negotiations, citing rising inflation and the growing national debt.

    With many leaders in both parties expecting the Democrats to lose one or both chambers of Congress, White House officials worry Biden may miss his opportunity to pass legislation that addresses many of his party's top priorities.

    The president and his aides are particularly eager to remind Americans of the progress they've made on the pandemic, with a national vaccination campaign and an economy that has in many ways returned to normal. But each week, there are new reminders of the persistence of coronavirus, including the recent announcement that Harris had tested positive.

    The vice president was prescribed Paxlovid, Pfizer's antiviral pill, and her office said she worked throughout last week from the U.S. Naval Observatory, her official residence. Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director, announced Friday she had also tested positive for the virus.

    Biden on Saturday attended the White House correspondents' dinner, an event featuring hundreds of people in a single ballroom, amid growing concerns from some medical experts that he could contract the virus. "It is my great honor to be speaking tonight at the nation's most distinguished superspreader event," comedian Trevor Noah, who spoke after Biden, told the audience.

    Still, Democrats argue they have a strong record to tout, though many concede they could be doing a much better job of it.

    "We're living through very difficult times right now, but my hope is that this president and Democrats writ large will go out and talk about the good things we've done," said Rice, the New York lawmaker. "We could do a better job talking about the things that we've accomplished."

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