Nine months into his presidency, Joe Biden is in political trouble.
After fours years of chaos under Donald Trump, Biden promised competency and a return to normalcy.
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But with the COVID-19 pandemic resurging and Democrats in Congress struggling to pass their agenda, the United States president’s job approval rating is plummeting amid new doubts about his ability to govern.
The turbulent US withdrawal from Afghanistan, an accelerating migration crisis at the Mexican border, and an apparent inability to quell party in-fighting among Democrats in Congress have combined to weaken Biden’s standing with the American public. Biden needs a win from Democrats in Congress struggling to pass his domestic agenda.
“He’s had a bad run between issues on the border, the way the pandemic is beginning to shape up, and Afghanistan,” said Keith Whittington, a professor of politics at Princeton University.
“The administration has struggled on the policy side and struggled in ways that people care about and so you’d expect that to do some damage to a president’s public approval ratings,” Whittington told Al Jazeera.
A running average of public opinion surveys compiled by FiveThirtyEight.com indicates 49 percent of the American public disapprove of the job he’s doing as president, compared with just 45 percent who approve. A daily tracking survey by Rasmussen Reports showed Biden’s disapproval rating outweighing approval by 18 percentage points, with 40 percent in favour of his performance and 58 percent opposed as of Monday. This is his worst performance since taking office and it is indicative of a worsening trend.
The continuing slide in Biden’s numbers is worrisome for Democratic members of Congress who face re-election in 2022 and stand to lose their narrow majorities in the House of Representatives and the US Senate.
Biden’s slumping job approval rating is already showing up in competitive US political campaigns. In Virginia, a race for governor between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin has tightened as the national environment has turned against Democrats, according to the Cook Political Report. Virginia is a swing state that has been trending in Democrats’ favour. Biden won in 2020 with 54 percent to Trump’s 44 percent.
“There are a lot of factors that suggest the Democrats are going to have a really hard time holding the House majority and the Senate’s 50-50, and so they lose one net seat and the Senate majority is gone,” said Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
With Biden’s majorities in the House and Senate in peril, “you’d feel better about Democrats’ chances if his approval rating was more like it was two months ago than it is now,” Kondik told Al Jazeera.
Now, Biden faces a make-or-break moment for his presidency as he seeks to corral Democratic legislators in support of his “Build Back Better” agenda in a series of must-win votes coming up in the United States Congress.
The House is set for a showdown vote on Thursday on a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that may not have enough support to pass, and Biden and Senate Democratic leaders are scrambling to wrangle support from two Senate centrists to pass a proposed $3.5 trillion budget plan.
The two bills are paired together by internal Democratic politics with the fate of one tied to the other by distrust between Democratic progressives in the House and centrists in the Senate.
“This is crucial for Biden’s political future,” said Matthew Dickinson, a professor of politics at Middlebury College.
“This is his last best chance to pass his major legislative agenda,” Dickinson told Al Jazeera.
As many as 30 progressive Democrats in the House, led by Representative Pramila Jayapal, have indicated they will refuse to support Biden’s $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill unless the Senate first approves a $3.5 trillion liberal spending plan. The larger bill is being blocked by two centrist Senate Democrats.
At stake in the uncertain outcome are Democratic policy proposals on climate change, tax cuts for working families, prescription drug pricing, early childhood education, and social measures Biden campaigned and won on in the 2020 election.
A deal’s a deal. We don’t pass the infrastructure bill without passing the Build Back Better Act, investing in child care, climate action, paid leave, housing, health care, education, and a roadmap to citizenship.
Let’s get this done and deliver for the people.
— Rep. Pramila Jayapal (@RepJayapal) September 26, 2021
In the Senate, Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have baulked at the $3.5 trillion price tag of the Democrats budget plan and its underlying policy proposals.
Manchin has called for a “strategic pause” in Congress’s spending spree – the US has already authorised $5 trillion in spending to address the COVID pandemic – and said he would only support a budget plan with a smaller price tag.
But with the fate of House Democrats tied to Biden’s success or failure, the political arrows point to a compromise by progressives on the scope of the budget plan, analysts said.
“There’s tremendous pressure for them to put aside their differences and come up with an agreement here,” Dickinson said.
“They all realise that they can’t get any of their agenda unless they all hang together.”
Biden called House and Senate Democrats to the White House last week for face-to-face meetings to deliver the message that they must find an agreement and he is continuing to press legislators for support in private conversations.
“Victory is at stake,” Biden said Monday, responding to reporters questions at the White House.
Buying time, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi postponed a planned vote on the bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill by three days until September 30, while Democrats discussed the path forward among themselves.
Pelosi and others are beginning to acknowledge that the $3.5 trillion budget proposal will have to be trimmed down to win passage in the Senate.
“It always happens the same way – all this fluster and this and that, and who’s there and who’s where – but at the end of the day we will be unified for the American people,” Pelosi told reporters at the Capitol last week.
It is not clear yet that Democrats will be able to unify. Pelosi and Democratic members of Congress met behind closed doors at the US Capitol on Monday night to talk about the path forward.
Jayapal and Pelosi had a long conversation at the meeting in which Jayapal re-affirmed to the speaker that progressives will not vote for the bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill without an ironclad deal on the larger $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation plan.
“We are still very clear, we need to get the reconciliation bill done. It can’t be just a framework,” Jayapal told MSNBC.
Failure to pass the infrastructure bill in the House and a budget plan in the Senate would spell political disaster for Democrats, Kondik said.
“If Democrats don’t pass it, it will make them look divided, essentially ineffective and it might depress turnout for Democrats overall in 2022,” he said, when a third of the Senate and all of the House stand for reelection.
“If it is passed, there would probably be a spate of positive headlines, some goodwill from Biden’s own party, and he would be allowed to turn the page from Afghanistan.”
Even then, it may not help Democrats’ prospects in the 2022 election.
“His partisan base is going to be happy, but it’s not as clear he will get widespread approval after getting that through,” Whittington said.