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Biden's crisis presidency will only get harder as it passes the six-month mark

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Biden's crisis presidency will only get harder as it passes the six-month mark

2021-07-21 06:00:12

By K. Shalini

President Joe Biden said Tuesday the nation's vaccine push feels like a "constant uphill climb." He could have said the same of his entire crisis-tossed presidency as it grinds past the six-month mark.

After taking office at a moment of darkness, with more than 3,000 Americans dying of Covid-19 every day and the country reeling from his predecessor's assault on democracy, Biden faced the toughest initiation of any modern president.

It's not going to get any easier. A reinvigorated pandemic, a politically fractured nation and uncertainty over the fate of his agenda at home and abroad has left senior officials well aware that the Biden administration faces defining days ahead and a racing political clock, CNN reported on Tuesday.

As crises have cascaded one-after-the-other, it has often felt like Biden faces a tipping point every week or month only for the storms battering his White House to intensify.

With one-eighth of his term gone, Biden laid claim at a Cabinet meeting to vital progress against the virus, toward reviving the economy and restoring US global leadership, and said the majority of Americans were behind him. He has some cause for such an argument as his approval ratings have stayed steady at around 50% -- higher than former President Donald Trump ever managed -- and are even better on his handling of the health emergency his predecessor often denied.

"I just think that we're showing there is nothing that America is unable to do when we do it together," Biden said, in a typically optimistic tone that nevertheless represented a misleading analysis of a divided nation's politics.

Biden, who will headline a CNN town hall on Wednesday, passed a bold Covid-19 rescue bill worth nearly $2 trillion, and has made important strides against child poverty and reshaping the economy to benefit poorer citizens. His vaccine rollout has 160 million people fully protected. Millions of people have emerged from isolation, taken to the skies and the highways and experienced joyful family reunions. And although vaccine hesitancy -- mostly in Republican-run states -- and the raging Delta variant of Covid-19 have given the virus yet another opening, the country is unquestionably far better off than when he took office.

The President has also reestablished democracy as the centerpiece of the presidency at home and in US foreign policy. And he ended the tsunami of self-regard, corruption and demagoguery that poured out of the Oval Office every day and kept the nation on edge for four grueling years under Trump. That these last two achievements are even worth noting is a commentary on the corruption and extremism of the 45th President's administration and continuing efforts to tear the fundamental political bedrock of the country apart.

But the fact that Biden apparently felt the need to set the narrative of his first six months on Tuesday, in a way that came across as a little defensive, speaks to the extraordinary obstacles that lie in his path this summer and beyond.

He may be about to hit a brick wall in Congress that could put to the sword predictions of liberal commentators that he was the next Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson. The bipartisan infrastructure plan that is a pillar of his presidency's core message -- that Americans need to unite -- is at this moment in deep peril. Biden's chances of passing a $3 trillion companion "human infrastructure" bill is hostage to a 50-50 Senate and centrist Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Republicans across the nation are meanwhile enshrining new state laws that make it harder for Democrats to win future elections and easier for GOP office holders to manipulate the results.

Abroad, intransigence -- not to mention cyberspace hacking -- from Russia and China shows that it's one thing to declare "America is back" but another to change the world. And the prospect of Afghanistan falling to the Taliban after Biden ordered a full US pullout could blot his foreign policy record -- though millions of Americans agree with the need to end the country's longest war.

There are credible cases for Republicans to make on foreign policy -- on the threat from inflation, on Biden's failure to stem migrant flows at the border and the stop/start nature of jobs growth as the Covid economy reopens. Already those arguments are fueling a nascent midterm election campaign that history -- and redistricting of congressional seats -- suggests should favor the GOP.

In many ways, Biden's first six months in office are a lesson in the limitations of the modern presidency. His clear victory in last year's election doesn't give him the power to alter the suffocating 50-50 dynamic in the Senate and a slim Democratic majority in the House. He can't just change the epidemiological reality of a pernicious and adaptable virus, or magically reverse months of politicization of the pandemic by Republicans that is helping to feed vaccine skepticism.

Biden also has little capacity to drown out the anti-democratic rantings of Trump, or the continuing propaganda of conservative media that has falsely convinced millions of voters that the last election was stolen. And political factors make it impossible for him to reverse a national gun culture that has seen the scourge of random gun violence and mass killings rise once again as the pandemic eased.

Biden's tone is the key to his presidency

In many ways, the story of the Biden presidency so far can be told in the demeanor and behavior of the 78-year-old commander in chief.

Biden comes across as both moderate in tone and political preference -- but, in an intriguing political trick, also more radical and more progressive than his recent Democratic predecessors.

That duality has made him a difficult target for Republicans, who have instead turned their fire on his possible successor, Vice President Kamala Harris, who has endured a difficult first half-year that has raised questions about her political dexterity. She is tackling two issues with no clear wins -- stemming the exodus of migrants and refugees from Central America and countering the wave of restrictive voting laws that are protected from remedial counter-measures by Republicans wielding the Senate filibuster.

Biden has explained that he believes he was elected not just to end the pandemic but to act as a fixer for America's problems. He has chosen not to constantly insert himself into every national conversation. Where his predecessor tried to destroy the decorum of the presidency, Biden has restored it. The President's approach represents a bet that most Americans are paying little attention to Trump's cacophony even as the media works through the scandalous aftermath of the ex-President's January 6 insurrection and refusal to peacefully transfer power.

But his contention that there is space for Democrats and Republicans to work together in some areas -- despite the fact that much of the latter party has given up on democracy -- will be put to its stiffest test in the coming days as the fate of his infrastructure plan hangs in the balance.

Following their boss' lead, and apart from some whispers to the media from Harris' staff, Biden's team has become the most on-message and unified West Wing for some time -- making even President Barack Obama's buttoned up crowd seem ill-disciplined by comparison.

But there is a downside to such narrowed focus that sometimes comes across as arrogance. Biden's vows to always be transparent with Americans were challenged Tuesday by belated news of past breakthrough infections on vaccinated members of the President's staff. For weeks, the White House also insisted that there was no "crisis" on the southern border -- not wanting to give Republican attacks political oxygen, despite the fact that it was in fact a serious situation: US border authorities arrested or turned away the highest monthly number of migrants at the US-Mexico border in a decade in June, according to a Department of Homeland Security official.

And Biden's unwillingness to more forcibly confront the problem has not defused its potency for Republicans -- it is fueling an even more intense midterm election year assault that Harris' struggles on the issue have only exacerbated.

Few of Biden's predecessors could have understood the presidency's limitations and constant tests as well as he did, given his decades of experience in Washington. But even he might blanch at the relentless, exhausting trudge that his administration has become. Even the euphoria of Independence Day fireworks at the White House -- once seen as representing freedom from the pandemic -- was followed by dismaying advances by the virus and a deepening political quagmire.

At times, the signs of pressure, which have been masked by Biden's constant encouragement for Americans to stick together and target better days, have shown. Last week, he accused Facebook of "killing" people with vaccine misinformation. Biden almost torpedoed his own infrastructure compromise with Republicans hours after he announced it by apparently threatening to veto the measure if it was not passed in tandem with a massive, multi-trillion dollar budget bill demanded by the most liberal members of his own party. And Biden also snapped at CNN's Kaitlan Collins at the end of a news conference after his tough showdown in Geneva with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Each time, however, the White House press operation swung into action and Biden swiftly walked back his remarks -- preserving the stripped down demeanor that is now his trademark -- and that contrasts with his foot-in-mouth verbosity earlier in his political career.

In his inaugural address on January 20, the President told Americans "few periods in our nation's history have been more challenging or difficult than the one we're in now."

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