A faint but discernible note of alarm has been slipping into Democrats’ chatter about the 2022 and 2024 elections. President Joe Biden’s approval ratings have slumped to their lowest levels since his inauguration. His governing coalition is splintering over the Haitian migrant crisis. Many Democrats view the legislation moving through Congress this week as a defining test of whether they can marshal their congressional majority and pass something that most Americans want. “You’ve got an imperative here that requires the Democrats to deliver. Their survival depends on it,” Tom Daschle, the former Democratic Senate leader from South Dakota, told me.
Biden seems to be playing a longer game. He’s working to pass the infrastructure plan, but the White House considers subduing the pandemic its overriding mission. He hopes to forge a sunnier future from this past summer’s wreckage of soaring case rates, hospitalizations, and deaths. The pandemic news is bleak. But the administration’s recent actions could nevertheless seed a turnaround. Offices that went dark as COVID-19 swept the country could again fill with employees who have gotten vaccines either on their own or because Biden’s mandates gave them little choice. Young children will soon be eligible for shots that will protect them inside the classroom and out. Starved for new hosts, the Delta variant will eventually recede. Biden is prepared to be patient; the trouble is, many in his party are not.
Democrats are quick to doubt their own strategy, especially when things aren’t going well. Biden’s base isn’t giving him the benefit of the doubt that it gave Barack Obama—or that Republicans gave Donald Trump. In one recent poll, the president’s approval rating fell 13 points among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, hitting 75 percent. By contrast, Trump’s average approval rating among Republicans was 88 percent, according to Gallup polling; Obama’s average rating among Democrats was 83 percent over two terms.
On recent conference calls with White House officials, some of Biden’s fundraisers have privately complained that, apart from a COVID-19 relief package passed six months ago, his agenda has stalled. Negotiations to overhaul police practices after the George Floyd murder have collapsed, while a push to protect voting rights has sputtered. “We have control of Congress and the White House right now; it’s almost October, and things aren’t getting done!” said a Biden donor who, like others, spoke with me on condition of anonymity to talk more freely. One Democratic lawmaker told me they’ve thus far seen little sign of legislative finesse. During a conversation about the economic agenda, the White House counselor Steve Ricchetti said, “You’re either with the president or you’re not,” a Democratic House member told me, adding that the warning had fallen flat. “We’re in a pissing match,” the lawmaker said, and “Biden has done nothing to bring people together.” (Asked about Ricchetti’s remark, a White House aide said, “We do not comment on alleged private conversations.” As for the discontent within the party, a senior White House official told me: “It is of course a challenge when you have strong differences of opinion among different wings of your own party. It’s also a healthy part of democracy. The challenge is getting people to recognize that compromise isn’t a dirty word.”) No credit goes to presidents who lead a fractious party; their job is to keep it united. But will unity be enough for Democrats to win the next two elections?
A fresh source of anger and impatience toward the Biden administration involves an old problem: the border. Images of U.S. Border Patrol agents on horseback chasing down Haitian migrants near Del Rio, Texas, seemed straight out of antebellum America, and mass deportations from the crossing evoked the intolerance of the Trump era. Last Friday, the Democratic National Committee held a private Zoom meeting to discuss the Haitian crisis and give party activists a chance to air concerns. Even the most avid Democratic loyalists were outraged by the administration’s treatment of the Haitians huddled beneath a bridge. “It was disheartening as an African American to see the pictures over the last several weeks,” the Reverend Leah Daughtry, an informal adviser to Vice President Kamala Harris and a longtime Democratic operative who visited the Texas town last week, told me later. “I’m a descendant of enslaved people.”
The Reverend Al Sharpton also went to Del Rio last week to view the conditions. There were porta-potties and food lines but no chairs or places for the 2,000-some migrants to sit, Sharpton told me. “The Biden administration must show in a clear, dramatic way that we are out of Trump’s ‘S-hole country’ foreign policy,” he said, referring to Trump’s comment in 2018 that Haiti and African nations were “shithole” countries. Democratic-base voters are “queasy,” Sharpton said. The cumulative effect of the Haitian crisis, along with inaction on voting rights and police reform, “can be very detrimental for Biden and the Democrats leading into 2022 if they do not do something very dramatic,” he added. How soon must they show progress? I asked. “Yesterday,” Sharpton said.
The reality is that Biden needs more time. Defeating the pandemic may matter more politically than passing any bill. Last week, I observed a focus group made up of five white women, three of whom voted for Biden in 2020, the other two for Trump. How much do you follow news about the pandemic? the moderator asked. “It’s literally the first thing that everybody talks about,” said an independent voter from the Atlanta suburbs who backed Trump in 2016 and then switched to Biden in 2020.
Normally, the economy decides elections. Right now, though, the economy and the pandemic are so tightly interwoven that they’ll be virtually indistinguishable when voters go to the polls in 2022 and 2024. At the height of last year’s lockdown, jobless claims jumped from about 2 million to more than 23 million. Airline travel and hotel bookings plunged. The economy has since rebounded, though momentum was cut in half this summer as the Delta variant took hold. “If we want to have a robust and sustainable economic recovery over the next few years, we really need to get rid of this COVID crisis,” Gregory Daco, the chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics, a macroeconomic forecasting firm, told me. The president’s new vaccine mandates, and the looming expansion of vaccination to young kids, may help.
Taming the pandemic will require perseverance on Biden’s part. He’ll need to hold firm if Republican governors follow through on threats to file lawsuits over his large-scale vaccine-mandate initiative. And he’ll have to be patient: with poll numbers that may continue to slide until the pandemic ebbs, and with Democratic lawmakers who might be tempted to distance themselves from him until his approval rating recovers. Speaking to reporters last week at the White House, Biden said he’s still taking a long view. “This is a process,” he said. “And it’s going to go up and down. That’s why I don’t look at the polls.” (Does anyone really buy that? In a news conference in June, Biden mentioned “polling data” that showed people trust him.)
In both the midterms and the 2024 presidential race, Republicans plan to frame Biden’s response to the pandemic in a larger narrative that questions his administration’s basic competence. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina laid out the argument last week as he left the Senate chamber: Just as the Biden administration waffled on the need to wear masks indoors, it also appeared blindsided by the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan following the U.S. troop withdrawal, Graham said. Americans are left confused, he told me. “There’s a combination of issues coming into play where there seems to be a lack of capability and competency,” Graham said. “That’s his biggest problem right now. You say one thing one day about COVID, and the next day you say something else. You tell us the Taliban are not going to take over, and they do.” The GOP critique could well prove convincing to voters. But it also offers an opportunity to Biden, and one that meshes with his apparent strategy: End the pandemic, and he neutralizes the Republicans’ attacks on him—perhaps fatally.
“Biden is a little like a leather jacket that tends to look better when weathered,” R. T. Rybak, a former vice chair of the Democratic National Committee and an ex-mayor of Minneapolis, told me. “He was a young man in a hurry. And I do think he’s learned patience over the years. He understands that it’s not about the news cycle right now. The story will be written in chapters, not in sentences.”
Sure, an unexpected issue also could arise that reshapes the election landscape, as often happens. President George H. W. Bush’s victory in the Gulf War was overshadowed by a deteriorating economy in the 1992 race, creating an opening for the young Arkansas governor Bill Clinton. The financial collapse toward the end of the 2008 campaign gave Obama’s campaign a decisive jolt. Under any imaginable scenario, though, Biden’s strides in getting more people vaccinated will redound to his benefit. That may explain why his tone has been getting sharper. Last week, he blamed the unvaccinated for jeopardizing public health and the economic recovery. The 25 percent of eligible Americans who have not gotten even one shot “can cause an awful lot of damage,” Biden said. “And they are causing a lot of damage.”
Presidents rarely make such statements without an understanding of the national mood; in this case, Biden may believe that the public shares his frustration with the unvaccinated. “Biden is showing the demeanor of the dad who turns around to the back seat and says, ‘I’m going to stop this car if you kids don’t knock it off,’” Brian Fallon, a spokesperson for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, told me. “That’s appropriate, and it reflects the same frustration the public itself feels.”
Frustration was abundantly clear in the focus group I watched. The five women had a number of grievances, notably one that Biden hasn’t been able to fix. “Congress can’t get along,” the independent voter from the Atlanta area said. “Their whole job is to compromise, and no one wants to compromise. They don’t necessarily listen to us unless they’re trying to get elected.” She is the sort of voter who decides close elections. Biden’s hope is that she’ll eventually see that his actions helped end the pandemic. What’s not clear is how long she or Biden’s party is willing to wait.