When Joe Biden snuggled up with a group of historians in March, the conversation revolved around thinking grand like one of his predecessors, Franklin Roosevelt, architect of the New Deal. Biden, it seemed, wanted to join him at the forefront of transformational American presidents.
Six months later, a very different rally took place this week outside the doors of the White House. Five young climate activists, holding signs and sitting in folding chairs, have gone on an indefinite hunger strike. It was a visceral expression of disgust at what they saw as Biden’s willingness to think small and break his promises.
“Young people have turned out in record numbers to elect him on his climate commitments,” said Nikayla Jefferson, 24, an activist helping the quietly determined hunger strikers on the outskirts of Lafayette Park. “But over the last month he almost gave up. He’s not a leader right now in the way we need him to deliver. «
A growing sense of betrayal is shared by activists for everything from gun rights to immigration reform, from racial justice to voting rights, who saw the ruling Democratic majority as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Instead, internal strife between the parties has jeopardized Biden’s agenda and could lead to voter disillusionment in next year’s midterm elections.
The 46th president took office promising to tackle four crises – coronavirus, climate, economy and racial justice – but saw his approval rating drop to 42% after colliding with harsh political and economic realities .
These include weak job growth, strikes, rising inflation and oil prices, bottlenecks in the global supply chain, a record number of arrests at the US border. -Mexican and a botched withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan which raised unexpected questions about its jurisdiction.
Even routine matters, such as the appointment of an ambassador to Japan, appear to have become awkward: Biden’s choice for Tokyo, Rahm Emanuel, has sparked a backlash from the Liberals due to his racial justice record as as mayor of Chicago.
Concerns that Biden had strayed have been heightened by his inability to hold an open press conference since taking office in January. During that time, he has only conducted 10 one-on-one interviews – far fewer than Barack Obama or Donald Trump at the same stage.
But the greatest sense of a stalled presidency stems from the seemingly endless bickering between Congressional Democrats over Biden’s $ 1 billion physical infrastructure bill and a 3,500 social and environmental package. billions of dollars.
Two senators in particular, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, demanded cuts to the reconciliation package, sparking public acrimony with Senator Bernie Sanders and other progressives who ended up dominating Washington and ousting Washington. other urgent causes.
Biden’s proud walk in the history books seems to have fallen into internal party mud.
Jeff Merkley, a Democratic senator from Oregon, told the Meet the Press Daily show on the MSNBC network: “This is completely off the hook for the Biden presidency. It hurts Biden. It hurts Democrats. It undermines the vision of any accomplishments that we will have as being very important. “
With his legislative agenda in limbo if not in jeopardy, Biden was forced this week to step in, house both factions in the White House and play a more aggressive role. This gave some Democrats new hope for a breakthrough, but indicated it would cut the $ 3.5 billion package in favor of a more modest proposal, threatening a clean electricity program that was the centerpiece of its climate strategy.
He also highlighted concerns that Biden is caving in to corporate interests in fossil fuels, prescription drug prices and tax increases. Critics say he has become so engrossed in the grind of sausage-making policy that he has lost sight of the big issues his supporters hold dear.
Among them is the fate of democracy itself.
Senate Republicans last week rolled out a rule of procedure known as filibuster to block, for the second time, debate on sweeping reforms that would protect the right to vote. Activists who have knocked on doors and raised funds for Biden warn that his failure to prioritize the problem above all else could prove to be his greatest regret.
LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, said, “Do I think he’s against voter suppression? Absoutely. Do I think he supports voting rights? Absoutely. Do I believe he is prepared to use all the power of his office and his administration to ensure that the voters who voted for him are not punished for voting for him? It remains to be seen.
In a CNN town hall Thursday night, Biden signaled his support for filibuster reform. But he should have pushed the cause sooner and with more force, Brown argues.
“When you fight for those who fight for you, you go halfway with an advantage. I think they wasted this by choosing the wrong strategy. They miscalculated. Black people may not have any other real and viable party option, but we still have options, » she said.
Derrick Johnson, chairman of the leading civilian organization NAACP, called the White House’s passivity in safeguarding democracy “appalling.” He told the Washington Post: “I have heard from many colleagues and members that the lack of priority around voting rights would be the loss of the legacy of this presidency. “
Disenchantment was evident again last weekend when dozens of immigration reform advocates staged a virtual walkout against administration officials in a video meeting. They criticize Biden’s pursuit of Trump-era border policies, such as forcing migrants to wait in Mexico pending asylum hearings and rolling out a public health order known as Title 42 to deport migrants to the border due to concerns about Covid-19.
Ariana Saludares, an activist with community organization Colores United based in New Mexico, who participated in the walkout, said: “Title 42 is a sham. Politicians, including the current administration, use it to explain that those who cross borders have higher infection rates. We have the numbers from our shelters along the borders to show that this is absolutely wrong.
Speaking by phone from Puerto Palomas, a small town on the Mexican border with water shortages, Saludares asked: “Where’s Joe Biden?” Where is Kamala Harris? Where are all those things that they said they would be able to provide to us after such a “horrible time”. And now? This leaves a lot of people wondering what are they actually doing? “
The disappointment of grassroots activists creates problems for Democrats ahead of the midterm House of Representatives and Senate elections, which historically tend to favor the party that does not own the White House. Worryingly, seven House Democrats have announced they will retire rather than run for office, with five others vying for another elected office.
Democrats fear a recovery in 2010, when the torturous but ultimately successful passage of Obama’s Affordable Care Act failed to prevent a crushing mid-term defeat. And in the distance looms Trump, who looks likely to run for president again in 2024, a prospect that makes many observers fearful for the future of American democracy.
Bill Galston, senior researcher at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington and former political adviser to President Bill Clinton, said: “This is obviously a delicate moment in the Biden presidency. Right now, the Biden agenda is the equivalent of planes in a sort of crush, flying over an airport that doesn’t have enough runways to accommodate them all simultaneously.
“Things will be different once some of the planes start to land and I expect the infrastructure bill and a simplified reconciliation bill will in fact be enacted well before the end of the year. It will change the mood to some extent. The situation is not as bad as it looks, but it is bad enough.
But not everyone is catastrophic. Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist based in Columbia, South Carolina, was more optimistic. “I feel cautiously optimistic,” he said. “Joe Biden has demonstrated over time his ability to get licked and keep ticking. He’s also shown that when people count him, he always teaches them that they can’t count.
“When the ink dries on the story of this piece of history, you’re going to see that as the continuing theme as far as Joe Biden is concerned. I believe we are where we need to be. Mike Tyson has a quote: “The key to success is peaking at the right time,” and I think Joe Biden will end up doing just that. ”