By Kevin Liptak, Phil Mattingly and Jeff Zeleny, CNN
Joe Biden’s presidency is only six months old, but the mood inside the White House can often feel like a race against time.
“The clock is running. We all know that,” a senior adviser to Biden said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The President certainly knows that.”
Biden has three-and-a-half years remaining in his term, but his senior advisers speak frequently about the sense of urgency facing his presidency, with the next year almost certain to be dominated by midterm elections that could take away the Democratic majorities in Congress he needs to pass his agenda.
In West Wing meetings lately, White House chief of staff Ron Klain has impressed upon aides the critical importance of the next few weeks.
Recognizing the stakes, Biden and his team are sharpening their strategy to confront an epic set of challenges that some of his allies fear could impart lasting political damage: Covid cases are spiking, inflation is up, border crossings are rising, the Taliban are taking over Afghanistan and a much-touted bipartisan infrastructure agreement is teetering on the brink.
If Biden ever had a honeymoon period — after inheriting a raging global pandemic, there is a good argument he did not — it is clear at the six-month point of his presidency that it is over.
At the White House and on the road, the President has begun adopting a more aggressive stance against Republicans and other critics, including on voting rights and the Afghanistan withdrawal.
The administration recently launched an offensive against vaccine disinformation it believes is helping to drive Covid cases among the unvaccinated, inadvertently sparking a tiff with Facebook.
And Biden himself plans to tighten his focus in coming weeks on popular elements of a sweeping legislative agenda that hangs in the balance, according to officials, hoping to sway Americans in red-leaning areas.
Still, internal divides persist among officials in some fraught areas, like immigration and Covid reopening plans, with heightened debate over how single decisions could resonate politically. And Biden’s penchant for going off-script has thrown his team into cleanup mode at multiple points so far.
For all of his focus on returning a semblance of normalcy to the presidency, Biden has now entered the familiar territory of his predecessors: a period of uncertainty and events transpiring far outside of best-laid plans. How he and his team manage those events will have repercussions beyond a single piece of legislation or foreign policy decision.
Instead, they could determine his ability to navigate a sweeping legislative agenda, tenuous House and Senate majorities and, to a degree, his entire first term.
The coming weeks will play a considerable role in defining the success of the Biden presidency, particularly whether the White House is able to keep a bipartisan coalition together on the first piece of his infrastructure plan and keep Democrats united on a broader package that would dramatically remake the nation’s social safety network by touching all facets of American life.
But other forces are also gathering that Biden’s aides are eyeing closely, wary of their potential to distract from or consume his agenda.
Chief among them is the issue of rising Covid cases, driven by the highly contagious Delta variant, which has been tearing through communities where vaccination rates remain low. The average of new daily cases this week is up 66% from last week and 145% from two weeks ago, as cases surge in 44 states, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. In addition, hospitalizations are up 26% from last week.
Officials are also watching with concern as border crossings tick back up, mindful of Biden’s relatively low approval ratings on immigration and the struggle the administration faced earlier this year when waves of migrants arrived at the border, overwhelming federal resources. US border authorities in June arrested or turned away the highest monthly number of migrants at the US-Mexico border in at least a decade.
The two issues have converged in discussions over how and when to reopen US borders to travel, leading to tense conversations among officials over the health and political risks of opening up too soon.
Biden and his team insist that little in their current predicament comes as a surprise. And they point to major strides against the pandemic and to an economic resurgence as signs of the President’s capacity to lead the nation from a place of darkness.
“He identified, when he took office, four big priorities or crises of his presidency: health, the pandemic, climate … and addressing racial injustice,” press secretary Jen Psaki said on Tuesday. “Those are crises and those are challenges he will continue to spend his time working toward and making progress on.”
In many areas, administration officials also believe, dire numbers paint a gloomier portrait than reality. Rising Covid caseloads have not prompted a similarly grave spike in hospitalizations or deaths, though both are still increasing among unvaccinated people.
And while prices are rising, causing anxiety over inflation, administration officials have firmly rejected the idea that price increases are here to stay or represent a broader threat to the economy.
Still, there was a recognition, officials said, that a one-off pushback against inflation attacks wasn’t having a substantial effect. The issue had also started to elevate in polling, both publicly and in internal polls, according to officials, something that carried risks to Biden’s sweeping legislative proposals.
That was the driving force behind the White House decision to proactively address inflation concerns in scheduled economic remarks this week — remarks that sought to flip the attack on its head by citing the design of Biden’s spending proposals as a long-term balm to price instability.
“If your primary concern right now is inflation, you should be even more enthusiastic about this plan,” Biden said in the remarks.
Still, officials have reiterated they are keeping a close eye on the subject and have put a particular focus on efforts to ease supply-chain issues, both in the near term and in laying the groundwork for longer-term solutions.
In an acknowledgment of the uncertainty at the heart of economic data in this moment, Biden also added, “My administration understands that if we were to ever experience unchecked inflation over the long term, that would pose a real challenge to our economy. So while we’re confident that isn’t what we’re seeing today, we’re going to remain vigilant about any response that is needed.”
Selling the agenda
Biden’s role in the days and weeks ahead will be to sell the public on his most popular proposals, according to officials. He has voiced repeatedly a desire to avoid what he saw as a mistake during his tenure as vice president, when he said his advice to then-President Barack Obama to better explain his agenda went unheard.
Internally, there is a recognition that individual pieces of Biden’s plans — from child and home care to education and paid leave — poll well in isolation. Highlighting those pieces, instead of a broad focus on the entirety of what would be a transformative agenda, will be a focal point.
It’s an open question whether the President will deliver on his quest to reach a bipartisan agreement on infrastructure or police reform, but the White House is intent on showing the country that he is trying. The White House selected Ohio as the site of a Wednesday town hall meeting on CNN, following in the line of several recent Biden trips to areas that are more red than blue.
Bill Stearns, a Cincinnati lawyer, said the opening months of the Biden administration have exceeded his expectations, given the myriad challenges facing the White House.
“It’s such a relief to be able to wake up in the morning, know that the nation is in safe hands,” Stearns said in an interview this week, reflecting on the last six months. “I think it’s even better than I thought, doing what he’s attempting to do with the economy and trying to get out of the pandemic.”
For Biden, a salesmanship strategy tracks closely to his own stated desire to find the best ways to message his plans. In private meetings, he’s constantly asking advisers for the best way to explain, in layman’s terms, why the proposals should garner support across the country, two officials said.
That was on display when he defended his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan this month, insisting forcefully that no amount of sustained American presence there could resolve the country’s intractable problems.
Still, just as often, the result turns into remarks that can be detail-laden and even long-winded. Biden himself has taken to acknowledging that in real time, apologizing when he thinks he’s getting too in the weeds on a specific issue or tacitly acknowledging that the details of tax or paid-leave policy may not exactly set the crowd on fire.
“I know that’s a boring speech,” Biden said after a half-hour address on infrastructure in the Chicago suburbs. But he quickly followed with a key point: “But it’s an important speech.”
Aides doubt there is a way to pull the President away from the details-oriented approach, and many believe explaining why specific policies matter to the broader public is his strong suit. Still, moves to sharpen the focus on narrow pieces of the plan are likely to become a more central element of his public appearances, according to people familiar with the plans.
Behind the scenes, White House officials have been deeply engaged in negotiations over both elements of Biden’s legislative agenda: the bipartisan infrastructure plan and a more partisan budget bill. They have turned in recent days to the arduous process of turning the bipartisan framework into legislative text.
As Senate Democrats set a procedural vote this week as a deadline to help jump-start the talks — and as some progressive Democrats in both chambers anxiously warned of wasting too much time in pursuit of a final agreement — the White House has remained steadfast in its efforts, officials said.
They view the deal as a linchpin for Biden’s overall agenda: critical to securing a major bipartisan win he deeply wants, while also providing a key element that moderate Democrats have made clear they must have in order to go along with the second proposal.
Back on the trail
In Congress, Biden’s challenges are rooted in the narrow majorities held by Democrats in both chambers — the same margins that Democrats fear could be at stake if the current turbulence extends into midterm election season. Biden, whose own campaign last year was drastically altered due to the pandemic, is set to resume in-person politicking this week when he stumps in Northern Virginia for Terry McAuliffe, who is looking to return to the governor’s mansion in elections later this year.
Officials said they expected his message to underscore the progress the country has made against the virus — while also taking apart Republicans for standing in his way.
Democrats are fighting to maintain control of Congress in 2022 in contests that historically fare poorly for the sitting president’s party. Biden has visited several House battlegrounds in recent weeks where Democrats hope to either hang on to vulnerable seats or defeat Republicans who won narrowly last year.
So far, Biden hasn’t ventured further west than Texas, where he visited in February to tour the site of devastating storms. And he has not spent a night at a hotel in the United States, limiting his travel to states where he can return home at the end of the day.
The close-to-home itineraries are partly due to the pandemic, which limited travel options in the early months of Biden’s presidency. But Biden has also expressed a penchant for returning home at the end of the day, a trait he shares with his predecessor.
By this point in their presidencies, Trump and Barack Obama had each traveled to a relatively similar number of states: Trump had visited 15 at the six-month mark, while Obama had been to 17. Like Biden, Trump stuck close to the East Coast, traveling only as far as Iowa during his first half-year in office. Obama had ventured farther afield, making stops in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California.
Then versus now
One thing the White House has no plans to depart from is Biden’s regular public remarks on the pandemic. They serve a dual purpose, officials say: reminding the country, particularly as the Delta variant ravages unvaccinated portions of the country, that despite the administration’s success in delivering vaccinations, the pandemic is very much still ongoing.
But it’s also an area where Biden has consistently held high marks in polling for his administration’s efforts — success that administration officials stress was not a sure thing when he first set foot in the White House.
It’s not a small consideration inside the White House, where officials have varying levels of concern that progress on the economic and public health fronts could be forgotten or dismissed amid new challenges or crises that confront Biden — a natural occurrence for any president, but one that officials have pushed to counter by repeatedly harking back to where the country stood when he was inaugurated.
It’s what drives the top of most of Biden’s remarks — a deliberate effort to walk back through where things were, and where things are now, officials say. At this point it almost feels pro forma — yet the explicit recaps are viewed internally as an essential public reminder as Biden drives into a moment of his presidency that is, in many ways, out of his control.
Gone are the 100-day plans, the leveraging of underutilized or atrophied executive branch authorities or powers to boost advances or sweeping reviews to forestall definitive action on complex issues.
In place of those actions are tenuous negotiations with fickle lawmakers and the narrowest of majorities, geopolitical forces constantly probing and testing, and crises both man-made and natural — lying in wait.
“I really do believe that, temperamentally, the President is thinking more in terms of years and decades than his predecessor was ever even remotely capable of doing,” said Jon Meacham, the presidential historian who has advised Biden.
“It’s fascinating that we have a 78-year-old American President who thought his political career was done,” he said. “And yet history and fate have brought this man back to try to manage a pandemic, manage a deep crisis in democracy, manage what I think of is a crisis of trust.”
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