In virtual meetings over the course of the spring, Democratic governors across the nation have pressed President Joe Biden’s advisers to adopt a sharper message ahead of the midterms.
They’ve prodded officials for more details of how the administration was going to communicate its wins and improve its messaging around the economy. They have also wanted to see a clear demonstration of new actions from the White House. Don’t just tell us what you’ve done, is how a person familiar with the meetings characterized the feeling among governors, because what you’ve done isn’t exactly working.
Through it all, there’s been a general and growing dissatisfaction with the White House’s response. That budding frustration, relayed by three party officials familiar with the meetings’ contents, has morphed into outright worry. And it’s surfaced elsewhere in recent weeks.
Underlying it all is a concern that Biden and his team are not just out of fresh ideas, but increasingly out of time to turn around their flagging poll numbers before the midterms.
David Turner, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association, downplayed concerns in a statement. “These calls are anything but tense,” he said. “Governors and their teams find these calls useful and productive, and good forums to share information on policies with each other.”
But last month, a similar, more tension-filled gathering took place on Capitol Hill in a meeting between senior administration officials and members of the House. There, lawmakers were expecting to receive guidance on matters as concrete as how to counter Republicans who are handing out free gas cards and baby formula to court irate voters in their districts. Instead, they were met with now familiar talking points about the White House’s legislative successes and the resonance of the message Biden carried in 2020.
With the 2022 elections four months away, Democrats both inside and outside of the White House acknowledge there is no silver bullet to slay a host of political problems, including surging inflation, high gas prices, a series of stunning Supreme Court decisions and a sense of voter resignation that the party in power built up their expectations only to let them down. But whereas earlier in the year, there was hope that some of those problems would abate, there is diminishing confidence in that now.
White House aides, from their vantage point, do not appear to be in enough of a hurry. Rather than abruptly changing strategy, Biden’s team has doubled down on what it believes is an effective two-pronged approach: First, to make steady — if at times slow — progress on the challenges it faces, or at least demonstrate to voters the president is fighting an intractable problem; and second, to highlight contrasts with Republicans to paint them as a party beholden to its extremists and doing little to help struggling Americans.
“Everybody always feels like the greatest enemy to any administration or to progress is time. The challenge is that the arc of governing doesn’t always adhere to Twitter time,” said Robert Gibbs, who served as press secretary to former President Barack Obama. “Right now, there’s a balancing act between the administration wanting to make steady progress because there aren’t quick solutions to a lot of these challenges while also conveying a sense of urgency.”
But the calendar, increasingly, is not the president’s friend.
The administration was riding high after a success-filled start when warning signs began to emerge a year ago. It was last summer when the president announced that the nation was declaring its independence from the pandemic. Then, too, some form of Biden’s ambitious Build Back Better social and climate spending plan seemed destined to become law; and early signs of inflation were being dismissed as transitory by the administration and many economists alike.
But 12 months have since disappeared and none of those things have come to be. Democrats acknowledge that some of the challenges facing the White House are largely outside the scope of the president’s powers. But, absent action, they want to see more fight.
Democrats are still waiting for Biden to unveil steps to protect abortion rights, months after it became apparent that Roe v. Wade would be overturned. And even modest victories are coming under fresh scrutiny. Following the July 4 mass shooting at an Independence Day parade in Highland Park, Ill., gun-control advocates are agitating for further action. In a letter to Biden on Wednesday, several leading gun-safety groups re-upped their request for the administration to create a separate office headed up by a gun czar — and urged the president to make the announcement this coming Monday at a planned ceremonial signing for the bipartisan gun law.
“We’re asking him to look ahead and to have a blueprint for what more he’s doing to address this crisis,” said Igor Volsky, whose Guns Down America organization signed the letter, along with March For Our Lives, Newtown Action Alliance and others. “If Biden is going to continue saying — as he did on July Fourth — that more needs to be done, he needs to do more … And if he does, he will save lives.”
The White House has repeatedly said such an office is unnecessary because they already have roughly a dozen aides led by top adviser Susan Rice devoted to the issue. And upon receiving the letter, Biden’s senior policy adviser Stef Feldman quickly responded by reiterating their position on the request and noting that the White House has a robust team working on gun violence prevention, according to a person familiar with the exchange.
Despite the increasingly public fretting from corners of the party, White House aides say they see encouraging signs on the political horizon.
That gun safety measure was the first passed in decades. The price of gas, a particular obsession in the West Wing, has dropped over the last week. Some economists believe inflation — a global problem that is worse in much of the developed world — has peaked. And many in Biden’s orbit note an upswing in generic congressional polls in the wake of the Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe — defying a majority of Americans who believe abortion rights should be protected – and believe the ruling could propel Democratic turnout this fall.
Though historic trends say that voter perceptions for midterm elections are largely made up by this point in the cycle, Martha McKenna, a Democratic admaker who ran the independent expenditure for Senate Democrats in 2018, noted: “Things can change really quickly.” Four years ago, it was the October confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, a development that ended up working against Senate Democrats. Republicans lost the House but kept the Senate.
McKenna recalled Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), who had kept the race close against Republican challenger Mike Braun, saying after he lost the race that he “couldn’t win [the election] twice,” a reference to the burst of excitement that Kavanaugh — whom Donnelly opposed — gave to Republican voters in Indiana.
“It’s a good reminder that we don’t necessarily live and die by the White House,” McKenna said. “I am not being a naive cheerleader. But I definitely think things can change.”
Democrats including the White House aren’t counting on more late-breaking events in their favor. And though it has not always come naturally, Biden has ramped up the contrast with Republicans, going on the attack against the GOP by warning what a MAGA-fueled Congress would bring.
“You know how hard it is to get anything done in Congress, imagine what it would mean if Republicans had their way,” Biden said at an event in Cleveland on Wednesday.
The White House believes Republicans in the Senate will emerge as a useful foil. They have hammered Florida Sen. Rick Scott’s economic plan, arguing it would raise taxes on the working and middle class. And they have painted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as an obstructionist for threatening to blow up a bipartisan China competition bill if the Democrats use reconciliation to lower prices on prescription drugs — including insulin — and energy.
“The President is leading based on values that unite an overwhelming majority of the country: working to pass legislation that fights inflation and cuts families biggest costs, taking action to protect Americans’ core freedoms and pushing to restore the protections of Roe, and pressing to save more lives after signing the most consequential gun reform in almost 30 years,” said White House spokesman Andrew Bates. “At the same time, congressional Republicans have proposed raising taxes on 75 million middle class families, sunsetting Medicare and Social Security, and a national abortion ban. The Senate Republican leader has even threatened to kill crucial legislation that would boost American competitiveness versus China and create hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs to protect big pharma’s ability to overcharge the American people. We’re on the right side in this debate. ”
But some Democrats fear that Biden remains trapped in a prior age of political decorum and unquestioning fealty to institutions and has been slow to recognize both the existential threat felt by some of his supporters.
And it isn’t just the left that is losing faith in Biden’s theory of the case — let alone whether he has enough time to realize it before the fall. Others from across the political spectrum who have embraced the sharper-elbowed brand of politics that has come to define the landscape view Biden’s reflex approach as insufficient in a “zero-sum” era. And they’ve questioned how disciplined he will be in consistently — and forcefully — making the case against Republicans.
“He’s the last of his kind. He served in the Senate for decades when it worked. He built personal relationships across the aisle when that still happened. He still believes the system works, or at least hopes it can,” said Mike Madrid, a veteran Republican strategist and fierce critic of former President Donald Trump. “But that time has passed.”