A politically weakened President Joe Biden, hoping to spark a turnaround with a renewed focus on his domestic agenda after a month marred by a spike in Covid-19 cases and a messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, found on Friday the pivot could be easier said than done.
A string of events over the course of an hour laid bare the challenges ahead.
The Pentagon announced the drone strike in Kabul that Biden once touted as killing ISIS-K terrorists had actually killed 10 civilians; a Food and Drug Administration panel rejected an application to provide vaccine boosters to people over 16, though it endorsed the shots for people 65 and older and those at high risk of severe Covid; and the French government recalled its ambassador in Washington for consultation amid a transatlantic spat over submarines.
The unrelated events illustrated Biden’s predicament as he seeks to recalibrate around his massive economic proposals: a $3.5 trillion budget bill and $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. Officials told CNN that Biden hopes to recapture momentum lost over a calamitous August, but the series of events Friday afternoon underscored the difficulty for any President to completely move past the outside events that often come to define a presidency.
Biden’s weekend trip to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware – rescheduled after repeatedly being postponed during a chaotic August – was slated to include a heavy focus with his senior advisers on the critical weeks ahead: on his agenda, but also on looming, and equally high-stakes, battles to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling to avoid a catastrophic default, according to two officials who spoke to CNN ahead of the trip.
Yet even before he departed the White House, it was evident the economic agenda wouldn’t be the only matter at hand. He was briefed before he left Friday morning on the Pentagon investigation into the drone strike that killed 10 civilians. After he’d arrived on the Delaware coast, officials updated him on the FDA decision and the irate announcement from Paris that the French envoy was returning home.
Biden did not weigh in on any of the developments himself, leaving the response to aides.
He still hopes the coming weeks will provide an opportunity to move on. Acutely aware of the stakes, Biden has begun more directly involving himself in the strategy to see his priorities passed this autumn. He plans to put himself more at the center of the legislative process, a place the longtime Delaware senator feels very comfortable.
A White House adviser said Monday the White House is preparing to ramp up the case for its economic proposals as it tries to move forward from Friday’s series of bad news. The adviser said the White House is planning to “dial up” its push for the President’s legislative agenda in the coming days.
He meets daily in the Oval Office with senior advisers for updates on legislative process and messaging strategy, repeatedly asking them to find ways to better explain the complicated and wide-ranging proposals in ways Americans can understand.
In recent weeks, the President has seized opportunities, like a series of natural disasters, to make the case for sweeping climate change provisions in his pending legislation.
He is planning to invite lawmakers to the White House next week to press on the economic package, according to a person familiar with the matter.
“Let’s not squander this moment,” Biden implored during a speech from the White House.
Now at the lowest approval rating of his nearly eight-month term – putting him, according to some polls, above only former Presidents Donald Trump and Gerald Ford at similar points in their tenures – Biden is pressing Democrats to put aside their ideological differences and pass what could become his lasting legislative legacy and a political lifeline. The bills have the potential to overhaul the nation’s physical infrastructure and the American social safety net for decades to come and would likely make Biden one of the most consequential Democratic presidents in decades.
The summertime slide in his popularity among Americans has frustrated the President and his team, who believe he is receiving little credit for a rapidly improving economy. Despite setbacks related to the Delta variant surge, the unemployment rate is down, wages are up and retail sales are improving – tied, in part, to the emergency measures Biden pushed through at the start of his term.
Yet the pandemic is still simmering, delaying a full return to workplaces and complicating the start of the school year for children.
A CNN poll conducted by SSRS found 62% of Americans say economic conditions in the US are poor, up from 45% in April and nearly as high as the pandemic-era peak of 65% reached in May 2020. Biden, based on advice from his health team, had predicted a vaccine booster rollout for all adults starting next week. But the FDA decision Friday threw the plan into flux.
Biden’s attention turns toward Capitol Hill
As a part of his recalibration to his domestic agenda, Biden has spent much more time speaking with Democrats on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, both on the phone and in person.
He spoke by telephone Thursday with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to confer on a path forward on his massive legislative agenda.
“The three are in regular touch and engaging daily on bringing Build Back Better to the finish line,” the White House said afterward.
In conversations with other Democrats during periodic “congressional call time” blocked off on his daily schedule, Biden has repeatedly stressed the importance of keeping intact the tangible benefits in the bills that can be easily sold to the American people, according to people familiar with the talks. He has stressed that items like free community college and subsidized child care are clear political winners he says Democrats can campaign on for months or years to come.
Polling and messaging memos sent to congressional Democrats and outside allies have sought to double down on this point, while also pushing lawmakers to focus on a bigger – and more populist – picture, rather than get bogged down in the policy disputes that are raging on both sides of the Capitol.
“He’s been actively engaged over the last couple of months in helping members of Congress who are more centrists or who are progressive understand and embrace his agenda,” said Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who is close to the President.
“President Biden is very persuasive,” Coons said, “and I think he’s making the case and making it well.”
Implicit in Biden’s message, as well as those coming from his senior team, is also the clear reality of the moment, according to people familiar with the discussions: For Democrats, there is no alternative path at this point. The specific policy proposals may shift or shrink in scale or duration, but there is no turning back or a broad shift in course in the cards.
If Democrats – particularly those who are skittish about the political repercussions of enacting such significant changes to the role of government in the US economy – can’t unify now, they will likely be left with nothing.
White House tries to keep a level head
It is impossible to know whether Biden’s current political predicament will last, and some of his aides are confident that improvements in the pandemic and distance from the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal will help reverse the fall in approval. They note it is still more than a year before the 2022 midterm elections, when historically the sitting President’s party suffers.
A positive result for California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, for whom Biden campaigned on the eve of his recall vote this week, has also led to renewed confidence in the administration’s fights over mask-wearing, vaccines and more.
“California won’t end the Covid debate,” a White House adviser told CNN, “but it could be a tremendous boost for what Democrats are trying to do.”
Biden’s team, during last year’s presidential campaign, prided itself on avoiding overly reactive steps when negative polls emerged. Officials stress there is no sense of panic in the West Wing, largely pointing to clear opportunities in the high-stakes weeks ahead as clear and tangible opportunities to shift the dynamics that overtook Biden’s first summer in office.
But like any political operation, advisers remain highly attuned to shifts in public sentiment, studying focus groups and surveys from top Democratic pollsters who work on behalf of the White House and the Democratic Party.
To be sure, any comparisons in approval ratings between Biden and his predecessors are filled with caveats, given the acrid political climate and the remarkable changes in the presidency over the decades.
The chaos that surrounded the Afghanistan withdrawal has led some advisers to recognize there is less room for error going forward. The drop in Biden’s approval ratings has prompted what one adviser called a “hardening” of the President’s mission to see his agenda passed.
The White House softens on a $3.5 trillion price tag
This week, before leaving for his vacation home in Rehoboth Beach, Biden began meeting in-person with moderate Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, hearing out their concerns about the amount of spending. With Manchin, he listened patiently to a proposal that would more than halve the size of the final bill. Biden has not endorsed that plan, but also hasn’t yet had luck in convincing the skeptical Democrat to come along with his.
In public, Biden has begun signaling the final bill could come in below $3.5 trillion, the figure proposed in an initial blueprint. White House officials acknowledge that’s a near certainty at this point in order to secure the votes of Manchin and Sinema. The ever-present balancing act between moderates and progressives has become even more acute as a result.
But Biden is pressuring Democrats to avoid stripping out what he believes will prove to be the bill’s most salient selling points.
“I think the important thing is to make sure we meet the moment on the key items. Maybe they have to be cut down in size – maybe. Maybe they have to be shortened in duration — maybe,” said Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff, in an appearance this week at the annual SALT conference organized by Anthony Scaramucci, the financier who briefly served in Trump’s White House.
Progressives warned Biden that greater risk exists in significantly reducing his package than in passing something too large. They said his engagement with moderates like Manchin and Sinema is worthwhile, but that eroding the bill’s safety net provisions would prove damaging in the long run.
“I think he’s doing the right thing – to use the full weight of his presidency, and the people expect no less and deserve no less,” said Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a Massachusetts Democrat. “They have delivered a House, a Senate, and a White House with the decisive majority and a mandate. I know that there are some who fear that if we are too bold, we risk the majority. I would argue that by playing small, that that is what will risk the majority.”
The world is not waiting
The singular importance of passing the economic agenda does not mean other issues are not looming. Biden is about to enter an intensive week of global diplomacy – annual United Nations meetings in New York, bilateral meetings on the sidelines, a virtual Covid summit and in-person talks with foreign leaders at the White House – at a moment of serious strain with Europe. American officials said that, for now, there is a general belief that the dust-up with France will not permanently damage relations, but acknowledged the spat remains in its early days. The official acknowledged that relations between Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron – who is preparing to run for re-election – will likely take time to repair.
Allies are also still smarting over the Afghanistan withdrawal. At least two other western nations, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, have reshuffled their foreign ministers as a result of the withdrawal. Biden has shown no similar willingness to fire or replace Secretary of State Antony Blinken or his national security adviser Jake Sullivan. But a series of congressional oversight hearings have ensured the issue remains in the news cycle.
And the drone strike announcement from the Pentagon raises serious questions about the US ability to accurately target terrorists going forward.
At the same time, the President’s Covid strategy is being tested as the government rushes to enact sweeping new vaccine mandates the President unveiled last week. Officials said additional steps, like requiring vaccines for air travel, haven’t been ruled out. For now, however, the focus is ensuring the new rules are rolled out smoothly – a process further complicated by the confusing messaging surrounding booster shots.
Biden, amid the competing issues, is still preparing to scale up his engagement with members of Congress as they finalize the massive social safety net bill while also working to avoid a government shutdown or default.
Biden’s allies say they are trying to shift focus from the topline number of the package to its contents.
“I have been saying to people: We ought not be talking about these numbers. Let’s talk about what needs to be done, and let’s put forth our proposals to address those needs, and then let’s look at what the number may or may not be, and then we can make some informed decision,” said Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, a top Biden ally. “Right now, we are just talking about a number, and nobody is talking about what we’re trying to do.”
CNN’s Kaitlan Collins and Arlette Saenz contributed to this report.