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.
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.
“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…