President Biden is finding himself largely powerless to address a spate of setbacks in recent weeks that have sparked alarm among Democrats about the state of the country.
Biden has been dealt blow after blow in recent weeks: The Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade’s constitutional right to an abortion; the country is plagued by gun violence, the latest example falling during an Independence Day parade in suburban Chicago; and rising costs for gasoline, food and other goods have frustrated the public for months.
In each case, Biden’s hands are largely tied, frustrating Democrats and contributing to the president’s political malaise.
He has signed executive action and a bipartisan bill aiming to curb gun violence. He has taken some unilateral action to lower gas prices, such as releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. And he has called on the Senate to alter the filibuster if needed to codify Roe v. Wade.
None of those steps were expected to do or will do much to slow the gun violence plague, dramatically lower prices at the pump or bring back abortion rights in states where the procedure is being outlawed.
And all of that is increasingly frustrating Democrats, who argue they voted Biden into office to enact change and are unhappy with the results.
The steps and statements Biden has taken and given, in this context, are seen as much too little.
“It’s infuriating,” said one top Democratic strategist, venting frustrations about Biden and his team. “Our house is on fire and it seems like they’re doing nothing to put the fire out. They’re just watching it with the rest of us.”
Polls point to the gloom in American life.
A Gallup survey published Tuesday found just 23 percent of Americans have confidence in the institution of the presidency, down 15 percentage points from a year ago.
A Monmouth University poll released Tuesday found 88 percent of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, with just 10 percent saying it’s on the right track, the lowest number tallied in a Monmouth poll since 2013.
Democratic strategist Joel Payne said Biden needs to change course.
“There’s the administrative part of the job and the political part of the job, and it seems like this president is leaning more in the administrative role at a time when his coalition is thirsty for political clarity and leadership,” Payne said. “The president and his team have to be vigilant about providing that and balance the need to do both.”
Speaking about the Biden administration’s inaction on abortion, Bakari Sellers, the political commentator and former member of the South Carolina state House, put it this way Friday on CNN: “I’m not sure what he’s doing. I can tell you what he ain’t doing.”
“We have been sounding the alarm about this for a long time,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted in the wake of the Supreme Court’s abortion decision. “Some may want to go after the messenger, but we simply cannot make promises, hector people to vote, and then refuse to use our full power when they do. We still have time to fix this and act. But we need to be brave.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was asked multiple times at a Tuesday press briefing about complaints from Democratic lawmakers, activists and pundits that Biden has shown a lack of urgency and fire on certain issues.
“I can’t speak for them, I can only speak to what we’re trying to do,” Jean-Pierre said.
“This is a president that has been working tirelessly day in and day out since he’s walked into this administration fighting for the American public,” she continued. “That is what matters to him. That is what is important is delivering every way that he can to make sure that we get things done.”
Jean-Pierre pointed to the bipartisan gun legislation passed after a school shooting in Texas, though Biden did not play a major role in those negotiations. And she noted Biden announced executive action to protect access to abortion pills and directed the Justice Department to protect women who cross state lines for the procedure in the wake of Roe’s reversal.
“Who knew bragging about how little you know about the Constitution and hurting the only route to putting Roe’s protections back in place would be such a tempting dopamine hit for people who backed defunding the police and helped ensure congressional majorities were so narrow,” one Biden ally said.
Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, said Biden is in a no-win situation.
“I’m not sure there’s a whole lot substantively that he can do,” Heye said, adding that there are a few reasons Biden finds himself in this predicament.
“The base just wants somebody who can fight. You don’t have to have a plan to land the punch, win the round or knock down the opponent, you just need to be seen as fighting,” he said.
But Heye also said expectations of Biden “have been way too high.”
“They have a small majority in the House and no real majority in the Senate, so what did they expect?” he said.
White House aides dispute the idea that Biden is not fighting to address issues like climate change, abortion rights, gun violence and inflation. They pointed to his ambitious legislative proposals, executive actions he’s taken on guns, climate and voting rights, and his willingness to call for filibuster carveouts in the Senate, something he had not done on the campaign trail.
Aides said Biden shares the public’s sense of frustration that the country has faced a series of setbacks, something the president indicated in remarks during an Independence Day celebration at the White House.
“In recent days, there’s been reason to think that this country is moving backward, that freedom is being reduced, that rights we assumed were protected are no longer,” Biden said in remarks to military families on Monday. “A reminder that we remain in an ongoing battle for the soul of America, as we have for over 200 years.”
“I know it can be exhausting and unsettling,” Biden continued. “But tonight, I want you to know we’re going to get through all of this — for all that we have faced, that we are going to get through this, and look how far we’ve come.”