There’s just not much President Joe Biden can do about it.
There’s not much he can do to curb inflation.
There’s not much he can do to compel cooperation from defectors within his thin Democratic congressional majorities. There is nothing at all he can do to compel it from Republican adversaries who would rather aggravate than alleviate his burdens.
In other words, there’s not much Biden can do about the heaviest weights depressing his political standing, which has remained stuck in the avalanche-warning zone for months. So his party faces the likelihood of a substantial November election defeat that hands the House and perhaps the Senate to the GOP.
Biden and his aides will spend the next seven months trying just the same, using the White House bully pulpit, executive authority and international diplomacy. Marginal benefits represent the best they can hope for.
It recalls the 1960s-era lament of a beleaguered President Lyndon B. Johnson, who complained that “the only power I’ve got is nuclear, and I can’t even use that.” That applies literally to Biden’s predicament on Ukraine, where the risk of catastrophic escalation precludes direct intervention by America’s military to halt Russian aggression.
Frustrated fellow Democrats insist the administration can get politically healthier with better “messaging.” That might sound persuasive had the President’s party not lost House seats in 26 of the last 29 midterm elections over more than a century. Biden’s four most recent predecessors, with varying communications acumen, all lost control of one or both chambers of Congress in midterms.
Opportunistic Republicans say Biden needs to shift ideological directions. They fault his policies – “radical,” “far left,” “socialist” or worse – for creating the conditions turning voters against him.
Inflation provides their strongest evidence. Liberal and conservative economists share a growing consensus that Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan last year pumped too much money into economy.
That money accelerated the economic recovery and helped restore millions of jobs. But by supercharging consumer demand, it also worsened inflationary pressures already building in the US and around the world as the economy emerged from Covid-19 shutdowns.
Yet the White House can’t fundamentally alter that reality now.
Efforts to smooth gnarled supply chains, use the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to expand oil supplies or waive air pollution regulations to produce more fuel with less gas can modestly offset rising prices. Events abroad, from new Covid shutdowns in China to developments in the war, can swamp them in a flash.
Outside voices, such as the eminent Democratic economist Larry Summers, prescribe more potent options such as lifting tariffs on Chinese imports, shelving “buy America” requirements that limit competition in government purchasing and expanding immigration to loosen a tight labor market. Each of those options, however, carries toxic political side effects.
Other issues have made Biden the victim of circumstances, as presidents often find. Illegal immigration – which has paralyzed Congress and bedeviled chief executives for decades – presents the quintessential no-win problem.
Even before he took office, Republicans blamed Biden for a “border crisis” over migrant flows that began increasing in 2020 under President Donald Trump. To the extent that further increases resulted simply from trading Trump’s harsh-on-immigrants profile for Biden’s more congenial one, the incumbent can’t change that.
To the chagrin of core supporters, Biden has made only incremental immigration policy changes. Now, as the administration prepares to lift Covid restrictions on the border that health conditions no longer justify, electorally vulnerable Democrats have joined the pile-on from the right.
Tougher firearms regulations from Washington – such as last week’s executive action on “ghost guns,” Biden’s substitute for congressional inaction – can’t change much on American streets. Nor can the President’s rejection of “defund” movements targeting local police departments, as the early struggles of New York City Mayor Eric Adams make clear.
Biden could receive political help from others.
Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia could finally deliver the decisive vote for parts of the President’s stalled economic agenda. The Federal Reserve could raise interest rates skillfully enough to calm voters’ inflation fears without precipitating a recession.
The Supreme Court, by discarding the constitutional right to abortion, could jump-start mobilization of Democratic voters. An increasingly radicalized GOP could nominate unelectable candidates in pivotal Senate races.
Democratic candidates this fall could use campaign attacks to generate the sharp national contrast that presidents typically use to recover from midterm setbacks in their own reelection years. Trump’s aberrant behavior, culminating in the deadly January 6 insurrection against American democracy, presents a unique political target.
But history shows presidents can rarely change the political weather in midterm elections. Though the specific meteorological conditions change, the weather is nearly always bad.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell observed last week that the Democratic-controlled White House and Congress had hit a “perfect storm of problems.” Every available gauge indicates he’s right.