Biden in crisis mode as specter of one-term Carter haunts White House

At an Independence Day barbecue, crises cascading around him, Joe Biden declared that he had “never been more optimistic about America than I am today”.

Of course there were challenges, grave ones, the US president told the military families assembled on the south lawn of the White House. And the nation had a troubling history of taking “giant steps forward” and then a “few steps backwards”, he acknowledged.

But Biden gave a hopeful speech that reflected his often unshakable faith in the American experiment on the 246th anniversary of its founding.

Yet many Americans, even his own supporters, no longer share the president’s confidence. To many observers Biden appears to be at a moment of profound crisis in his presidency: and one he is struggling to address. The specter of Jimmy Carter – a one-term Democrat whose failure to win the 1980 election ushered in the Ronald Reagan era – is starting to haunt the Biden White House.

With decades-high inflation, near-weekly mass shootings, a drumbeat of alarming disclosures about Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn his election defeat, and successive supreme court rulings that shifted the country’s political landscape sharply rightward, Biden’s rosy speech-making struck even his fellow Democrats as ill-suited for what they view as a moment of existential peril for the country.

A new Monmouth poll captured the depth of America’s pessimism: at present just 10% of Americans believe the country is on the right track, compared with 88% who say it is on the wrong track. Confidence in the country’s institutions fell to record lows this year, according to the latest Gallup survey. The presidency and the supreme court suffered the most precipitous declines, while Congress drew the lowest levels of confidence of any institution at just 7%.

“If that sunny optimism were paired with actual steps to secure the future that the president claims to be excited about, it would ring less hollow,” said Tré Easton, a progressive Democratic strategist. “But right now it seems disconnected from the reality that many people, especially people who worked very hard to get President Biden and Vice-President [Kamala] Harris elected, are experiencing.”

Last month, a conservative super-majority on the supreme court ended the constitutional right to abortion, paving the way for new restrictions and bans in Republican-controlled states across the country. Meanwhile, democracy experts are sounding the alarm as Republican candidates who embraced conspiracy theories about the 2020 election win primary elections for key positions of power.

With control of Congress, governorships and statehouses at stake this November, many supporters and allies are pleading with Biden to lead with the urgency and force they believe this moment demands.

Under mounting pressure from supporters and allies to deliver a more assertive response, Biden on Friday signed an executive order that the White House said would protect women seeking an abortion. In his most impassioned remarks to date, Biden said the supreme court’s decision was “an exercise in raw political power” and warned that Republicans would seek a national ban on abortion in they win control of Congress in November.

Democrats broadly welcomed the order and the passion. Still others hoped it was just a “first step,” noting that the action did not include some of the more novel actions Democrats have called for, such as opening abortion clinics on federal lands in states where the procedure is banned or declaring a national emergency.

Before the signing ceremony on Friday, Bloomberg reported that the White House considered declaring a national public health emergency as a number of Democratic lawmakers and activists have urged him to do, but ultimately decided against it.

That caution, a hallmark of Biden’s decades-long political career, has frustrated many Democrats who fear democracy itself is under an assault.

“Everything’s on the line right now. It’s truly existential,” Easton said. “It just doesn’t seem like he understands that.”

New reports of a White House struggling to respond to mounting challenges have even fueled a discussion among Democrats over whether Biden should seek re-election in 2024.

Biden, then a senator, with President Jimmy Carter at an event in Delaware in February 1978.
Biden, then a senator, with President Jimmy Carter at an event in Delaware in February 1978. Photograph: Barry Thumma/AP

In recent weeks, speculation has mounted over potential alternatives. Among them are California governor, Gavin Newsom, has positioned himself as a pugnacious leader in the fight to protect abortion rights and Illinois governor, JB Pritzker, offered a guttural response to the Independence Day shooting in his state that drew contrast with Biden’s more restrained approach.

“If you are angry today, I’m here to tell you to be angry,” Pritzker said. In a statement, Biden condemned the attack as yet another “senseless act of violence” and held a moment of silence for the victims at the White House.

The White House has rejected that criticism, arguing that Biden has responded – quickly and forcefully – to the mounting crises facing the nation. Asked about Democrats’ criticism of Biden, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the president has been quick to tackle the nation’s crises.

“The president showed urgency. He showed fury. He showed frustration,” she said of Biden’s response to the recent mass shootings, and that his leadership paved the way for a bipartisan gun safety compromise, breaking decades of gridlock in Washington over how to address gun violence.

Democrats fears’ come as the party faces a historically challenging electoral landscape, with prognosticators anticipating a Republican takeover of Congress in November.

Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, the president and executive director of NextGen America, a youth-vote mobilization organization in the country, said the supreme court’s ruling on Roe clarified the stakes for many young people. But she said they’re looking for bold leadership in Washington.

Democrats must put “everything on the table” to keep an “ultra-rightwing and extremist minority from overtaking every major institution in our country,” she said. “That’s what’s on the ballot in 2022.”

Biden on Friday said his executive powers were limited and Democrats lacked the numbers in Congress to protect abortion rights at the nation level.

“Vote, vote, vote vote,” he implored Americans angry over the ruling. “We need two additional pro-choice senators and a pro-choice House to codify Roe. Your vote can make that a reality.”

For months, the White House has careened from crisis to crisis. Inflation, war in Europe, record gas prices, an irrepressible pandemic and a baby formula shortage have all contributed to the national malaise and Biden’s low approval rating.

Sarah Longwell, a moderate Republican strategist who holds focus groups with suburban women, said voters constantly tell her that they wish they heard from Biden more.

Facing a difficult political landscape, she said voters want to see that Biden is willing to take on the “most extreme elements of the Republican party”.

“Even if he can’t do anything about it, the bully pulpit is a powerful thing,” she said adding: “People think this is madness. They want to be able to take their kids to a July Fourth parade and not worry about somebody getting shot. And they want their leader to reflect that back to them.”

On Friday, Biden sought to do just that. He hammered Republicans for pursuing bans on abortion without exceptions for rape or incest and highlighted the case of a 10-year-old rape victim who was forced to travel out of state for an abortion.

He previously endorsed an exception to the Senate filibuster rule in order to pass abortion protections, but he’s so far declined to embrace calls for court reform like term limits or court expansion. And in response to the extraordinary revelations about the 6 January attack on the Capitol, Biden has mostly declined to comment, deferring to the congressional committee investigating the attack and the justice department, which is weighing whether to prosecute Donald Trump for his role in the violent assault on American democracy.

“In this hour, if you want to commit to democracy, the thing to do is to not laud the institutions that we have as they’re currently constituted, but to set to work on amending these institutions to meet present exigencies,” said William Howell, a political scientist at the University of Chicago and the author of Presidents, Populism, and the Crisis of Democracy.

He said Biden’s commitments to democratic norms and traditions are critical, particularly after the Trump years, but that should not impede him from addressing the “acute need for us to revisit our institutions”.

‘The ante-status quo was dysfunctional – it was unacceptable in the face of the pressing challenges that our country faces,” he said. “While there’s a need for a reset, there is a greater need for leadership in terms of institutional reform.”

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