‘We have to fight back’: can Joe Biden recover before the midterms?

<span>Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP</span>
Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP
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Snow fell lightly as Joe Biden stared into the wooded hollow where, just hours before he arrived in Pittsburgh, a half-century-old bridge had collapsed. It was a dramatic illustration of what had brought the president to the City of Bridges: his urgent drive to rebuild crumbling US infrastructure.

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Last year, Biden signed a $1tn infrastructure bill, an achievement that eluded his most recent predecessors and one he was eager to champion after legislative setbacks.

“There are another 3,300 bridges here in Pennsylvania, some of which are just as old and just as in decrepit a condition as that one was,” Biden said later, in a speech at a manufacturing research and development center. Funding in the infrastructure law would help repair the Pittsburgh bridge and “thousands of other bridges across the country”.

“We’ve got to move,” he said. “The next time, we don’t need headlines saying that someone was killed.”

The visit to Pittsburgh was the beginning of an effort by the White House to change the narrative of Biden’s presidency, as he shifts from an inaugural year mired in legislative battles to elections that will determine control of Congress. The new approach was a recognition of a stalled agenda, an unyielding pandemic, rising inflation and flagging popularity.

Yet the week brought a much-needed burst of good news, a reminder that the electoral landscape may look very different come November.

The supreme court justice Stephen Breyer announced his retirement, giving Biden the opportunity to name his replacement. The commerce department reported that the US economy grew last year at its fastest pace since 1984. US households began receiving free coronavirus tests from the government. And suddenly, after months of gridlock, the administration is optimistic Congress will pass a plan aimed at making the US more competitive against China.

Democratic strategists, progressive activists and former party officials welcomed Biden’s use of the bully pulpit, urging him to seize such momentum by touting economic success and drawing sharp contrasts with Republicans.

“In the districts, people can’t tell you a thing that’s in Build Back Better but they can tell you to the penny how much a tank of gas is,” said Chuck Rocha, a progressive Democratic strategist. “They can also tell you what their relief check meant to them.

We just have to not be afraid to beat our chest as Democrats,” he said.

‘Toast in the midterms?’

Historical patterns suggest Republicans are well-positioned to win the House and possibly the Senate in November. The party that holds the White House typically loses seats during its first midterm elections, the extent of such losses often correlating with a president’s popularity.

Biden will use time away from Washington to build support for his legislative priorities while highlighting what his administration has accomplished: a poverty-reducing coronavirus stimulus package, the infrastructure law, full vaccination of more than 210 million Americans.

Strategists say his travels may remind Americans why they voted for him.

Biden and the Mayor of Pittsburgh, Ed Gainey, visit the scene of the Forbes Avenue Bridge collapse.
Biden and the Mayor of Pittsburgh, Ed Gainey, visit the scene of the Forbes Avenue Bridge collapse. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Biden began his presidency with high approval ratings and broad public confidence in his ability to confront the pandemic. But the national mood darkened, sending Biden’s popularity plummeting, including among Black, Latino, female and young voters – core segments of his coalition. A survey by Pew Research this week found the president’s approval rating down to 41%, from a high of 59% in April.

“We need to get Biden’s approval numbers up or else we’re toast in the midterms,” warned Lanae Erickson, senior vice-president at the moderate thinktank Third Way.

Disappointment with Biden’s handling of the pandemic is a key factor weighing down such ratings. Now that vaccines have proven effective, including against fast-spreading variants like Omicron, Erickson said voters want to hear the White House strategy for living with the virus.

“Right now people are hearing a lot of ‘Stay home, stay safe’ from Democrats. But people are tired of staying home,” she said. “We have to be the party that’s talking about getting people back to work.”

Biden’s relatively infrequent travel during his first year in office was partly due to the pandemic. But he was also grounded by negotiations on Capitol Hill. In September, the White House canceled a trip to Chicago so Biden could hammer out a deal on his domestic spending package, only to see such efforts collapse soon after.

This month, Biden’s visit to Capitol Hill to pressure Democrats to pass voting rights protections was forestalled by Senator Kyrsten Sinema, who declared her opposition to changing the filibuster, thereby dooming the legislation, in a speech just before the president’s arrival.

Related: Pittsburgh bridge collapses hours before Biden’s infrastructure speech in city

Biden appeared to acknowledge that his involvement with negotiations on Capitol Hill hurt his standing with voters, who wanted to see him govern more like a commander-in-chief. Defending his reputation as a bipartisan dealmaker, built over 36 years in the Senate, Biden conceded that the role of president required a different type of engagement.

“The public doesn’t want me to be the ‘president-senator’,” he told reporters this month. “They want me to be the president and let senators be senators.”

The retirement of Justice Breyer immediately put a spotlight on one of the most consequential responsibilities of any presidency: filling a vacancy on the supreme court. At a press conference this week, Biden said he would draw up a list of candidates based on his promise to nominate a Black woman.

Stefanie Brown James, co-founder and executive director of the Collective Pac, which aims to build Black electoral power, said the assurance “felt monumental”, particularly after the disappointments on domestic spending and voting rights.

Though the replacement would do little to shift the ideological composition of the court, after three Trump-era appointments created a conservative supermajority, James said appointing a Black woman would “right a historic wrong”.

Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina Democratic strategist, said the chance for Biden to add a woman of color could be a “galvanizing” moment for Democrats, a reminder to supporters Biden can still deliver on his promises.

“The president won because of our votes, Black voters, the most consequential and loyal voting bloc in the country,” Seawright said. “And so this is going to remind them of the net worth of their vote and why it’s important to keep showing up.”

‘Look people in the eye’

A natural retail politician with a zeal for campaigning, Biden lamented that he had so few opportunities to “look people in the eye” in his first year as president.

On Tuesday, he stepped out of the White House to visit a boutique that opened during the pandemic, purchasing a necklace for his wife and a coffee mug featuring the face of Kamala Harris, his vice-president. The excursion also included a stop for ice-cream, where he posed with employees after greeting US marines.

On Wednesday, Biden bantered with the General Motors chief executive, Mary Barra, about the speed of a new electric vehicle, during a White House roundtable with the heads of major US companies.

“I’m looking for a job, Mary,” quipped the president, a car enthusiast, after Barra told him the vehicle went from “zero to 60 in three seconds”.

Next week, Biden will travel to New York to discuss plans for combatting gun crime with Mayor Eric Adams, after the fatal shooting of two police officers. The White House has sought to elevate efforts to combat rising violent crime as Republicans attempt to portray the country as lawless. Centrist Democrats believe Adams, a retired NYPD captain who campaigned on a promise to reduce crime, offers a model for how the party can beat back such attacks.

The White House insists the president hasn’t given up on passing Biden’s Build Back Better agenda or voting protections, but is scaling back his involvement – and his ambitions. Activists and progressives are pressing him to ramp up use of his executive authority.

Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, president of NextGen America, a youth voting organization, said canceling student debt was one of the “most basic and critical” steps Biden could take to deliver for young people. She said the issue was a top priority for voters under 35, and would help fulfil a promise to reduce the racial wealth gap.

Biden has expressed doubt whether he has the legal authority to enact widespread student loan forgiveness. In December, he extended a moratorium on student loan payments put in place by the Trump administration in the early days of the pandemic.

“Young folks overwhelmingly supported the Biden administration and now it’s up to the Biden administration to support young people,” Tzintzún Ramirez said. “We understand they can’t pass every single policy but on student debt they hold the power to make it happen.”

‘Best messenger’

If Biden’s standing slips further, his visits could become a political headache for Democrats in battleground states.

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On Friday, a leading Democratic contender in the Pennsylvania governor’s race was noticeably absent from Biden’s Pittsburgh event, citing a scheduling conflict. Earlier in the month, Stacey Abrams, the leading Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia, also cited a scheduling conflict for her absence at Biden’s Atlanta speech on voting rights, which was boycotted by some civil rights groups. Beto O’Rourke said he was “not interested” in help from the president or any national politician in his bid to become governor of Texas.

Ed Rendell, a former governor of Pennsylvania, said Biden was still the “best messenger to motivate our rank-and-file Democrats” in battleground states.

But Rendell said the time for bipartisan backslapping had passed. Biden’s message to voters, he said, must be clear: Republicans, not Democrats, are squarely to blame for his stalled agenda.

“We have to fight back with the weapons at our disposal,” Rendell said. “We’d rather negotiate peace … but we’re not going to fight with a hand tied behind our back.”