Biden has had an especially bad week

The coronavirus crisis is another source of Mr Biden's deepening unpopularity

President Joe Biden leaves after speaking about the coronavirus pandemic in the White House in Washington, on August 3, 2021. AP

Americans may be badly divided but there is one thing they seem to all agree about: President Joe Biden just endured a "week from hell". It is a tired but apt cliche. Some commentators are even asking if his presidency is already "finished” and who should replace him in 2024.

That is utterly overblown. Yet, Mr Biden has serious problems, especially consistently low approval ratings from the public, now ranging from a wretched 43 per cent approval to a calamitous 33 per cent. This unpopularity is closely tied to increasing inflation, now estimated at about 7 per cent, a 40-year high.

The president has had trouble slaloming between an impatient liberal party base and a few intransigent but hyper-empowered conservative Democratic senators.

A candlelight vigil outside the White House to memorialise the nurses who died from Covid-19. At least 481 registered nurses have died because of Covid-19, on January 13, in Washington, US. AP

Mr Biden focused for months on the Build Back Better social spending bill. In November, a compromise appeared likely between his already pared-back package of $2.2 trillion and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s counter offer of $1.8tn. But in December, Mr Manchin abruptly cut off talks and implied they were over.

That was a painful blow to Mr Biden, although negotiations with Mr Manchin are said to have quietly resumed behind closed doors, and $2.2tn and $1.8tn are hardly irreconcilable figures. And even if the president is ultimately compelled to accept Mr Manchin’s figure, $1.8tn in new social spending would still be another major legislative accomplishment.

Recently, Mr Biden pivoted his public focus to legislation to protect elections and voting access, which many Democrats insisted is much more important anyway. Early last week, he ramped up his advocacy, especially with a hard-hitting speech in Georgia that compared opponents of such legislation to segregationists.

Not only was the Georgia address criticised from the centre as well as the right, the whole initiative came crashing down before it got off the ground. Mr Manchin’s fellow Democratic conservative, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, brutally crushed Mr Biden's new priority by announcing that she will not agree to any reform of Senate filibuster rules, which is necessary for Democrats to pass any such legislation.

Democratic Senator from West Virginia Joe Manchin in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, US, January 13. EPA

To shift Ms Sinema and Mr Manchin on the filibuster, the president could try proposing a far narrower bill focused on the worst election abuses such as partisan gerrymandering and the purging of voter rolls or other extreme measures to suppress turnout. But it probably wouldn’t convince them.

Worse, such limited legislation could infuriate many Democrats, especially if they conclude that the ongoing talks with Republicans to correct the Electoral Count Act are effectively a substitute for comprehensive voting rights protection. Electoral Count reform would block any repetition of former president Donald Trump’s attempt to get Congress to overturn election results but leave many Democrats feeling betrayed and seething.

Meanwhile, Republicans mocked Mr Biden for demonstrating political weakness by allowing himself to be thwarted twice in a row by individual Democratic senators.

It is hardly just Democrats bedevilling the president. Republican-appointed judges on the Supreme Court last week struck down his most wide-ranging Covid-19 vaccine mandate, which compelled businesses with more than 100 employees to ensure they are vaccinated, routinely masked or regularly tested to maintain safe workplaces.

This ruling is an especially severe blow because, as Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc in the US, vaccine mandates are among the few tools that have proved effective. Most people will not give up their jobs to avoid a jab.

The continuing coronavirus crisis is another obvious source of Mr Biden's deepening unpopularity. It doesn't matter that the overwhelming majority of hospitalisations and deaths occur among unvaccinated persons, and that the president is doing more than anyone to try to get the population fully vaccinated.

Republicans condemn Mr Biden for not getting the pandemic under control just as many of them are doing their best to prevent that. But understanding this irony requires political comprehension that may be beyond most voters.

With so many Americans unvaccinated and the Omicron variant spreading with horrifying speed, demands shifted from vaccinations and treatments to tests, which have been in terribly low supply throughout the country. Blame for that inevitably and reasonably falls on the president and he is scrambling to distribute 500 million tests for free. But the damage from this unforced error is done.

Even deeper into the political weeds, but also significant, were the abrupt resignations of Cecilia Martinez and David Kieve from the White House Council on Environmental Quality. That demonstrates and feeds growing anger among activists about the administration’s lack of progress on environmental justice, a key campaign pledge.

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Biden could have done a better job managing expectations as well as touting his very significant, yet easily forgotten, successes

This disappointment reflects a broader source of frustration with Mr Biden both among many Democrats and the public: his administration touted an exceptionally, indeed impossibly, ambitious agenda which it has, unsurprisingly, been only partly able to fulfil.

The last election simply did not leave Democrats with the political power or unity to secure a series of transformative victories in rapid succession. That is hardly an argument for not trying to do as much as possible. But Mr Biden could certainly have done a much better job managing expectations as well as touting his very significant, yet easily forgotten, successes.

He secured two remarkable pieces of legislation – a $1.9tn pandemic relief bill and a $1.2tn infrastructure package – both with significant Republican support. That is a whopping $3.1tn in new bipartisan national investment, in just one year and with no Senate majority.

Yet voters invariably ask: "What have you done for me lately?"

There is no reason to think Mr Biden can't bounce back. Filibuster reform may be dead, and election and voting access protection with it, but social spending could be salvaged. The pandemic is peaking this month and seems likely to subside considerably for the rest of the year. Inflation is more mysterious, but many economists believe it is hardly out of control. And environmental justice activists, unknown to the general public, may simply stay disappointed.

While Mr Biden is particularly unpopular right now, it is not unusual for US presidents to find themselves in big trouble at the end of their first year. That was certainly the case for the now (usually) highly regarded former presidents, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

The November congressional elections are a long way off in political terms, and 2024 even further. Mr Biden's atrocious week, and several preceding months that were not much better, do not necessarily bolster the prospects of either Republican challengers or potential Democratic successors.

Published: January 18, 2022, 4:00 AM