Cascade of crises: Unexpected events test Joe Biden's leadership, popularity

  • Unexpected events over the past year have tested the limits of Joe Biden’s leadership.
  • He has confronted crises including war in Ukraine, soaring inflation and a baby-formula shortage.
  • Biden’s struggles are reflected in his slide in public opinion polls.

WASHINGTON – On his first day in office, President Joe Biden inherited the toilsome task of healing a nation scarred by a mob attack on the Capitol and managing a deadly contagion that already had felled nearly a half a million Americans.

It was a prelude for what was to come.

The Biden White House has been hit with a cascade of crises over the past year that has tested the limits of his leadership, eroded his support among Democrats and undercut the promise of competent governance that he sold to voters during his presidential campaign.

Biden “came into office facing the most daunting agenda since FDR only to be hit by this perfect storm of crises,” said Chris Whipple, author of the upcoming book "The Fight of His Life: Inside Joe Biden’s White House." “It does seem as though he really can’t catch a break.”

Seven months into Biden's presidency, the administration's chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan last August triggered condemnation at home and abroad. Then came the worst inflation in 40 years, Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine, a baby formula shortage that emptied shelves and angered parents and $5-a-gallon gas that infuriated motorists.

The deluge of bad news continued with a racially motivated shooting that killed 10 people in Buffalo, New York, the slaughter of 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, a Supreme Court ruling that erased a right to abortion, the death of 53 migrants smuggled into the U.S. and found in a sweltering trailer near San Antonio, Texas, and fears about the health of the economy.

The latest blow for Biden was personal. Last week, he disclosed he had COVID-19. He ended his isolation Wednesday after testing negative twice, then reentered isolation with a rebound case on Saturday.

All presidents eventually face a multitude of crises that can shape their tenures and define their legacies. Biden’s challenges, analysts say, have been exacerbated by the divisive era in which he was elected to govern and by missteps and miscalculations by him and those in his orbit.

“Look, it’s very hard to be president at any time in history, but I think this is a very, very difficult time to be president,” said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University.

At a Fourth of July barbecue on the White House South Lawn, Biden acknowledged the challenges his administration – and the country – have faced on his watch and warned that Americans are in "an ongoing battle for the soul of the nation." But he said he has never been more optimistic about the country's future.

"From the deepest depths of our worst crises, we’ve always risen to our higher heights – we’ve always come out better than we went in," he said. "We're going to get through all of this."

The political climate in the United States is so poisonous right now that many Republicans refuse to believe that Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, incited the mob attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Naftali said.

“When you’re trying to be the leader of a country with a percentage of the population that doesn’t fully grasp the significance of the insurrection, you’ve got a challenge on your hands,” he said.

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President Joe Biden has been hit with a cascade of crises over the past year that has tested the limits of his leadership.

A slide in the polls

Biden’s trials over the past year are reflected by his slide in public opinion polls.

His approval rating has been below 50% since last fall and stood at 39% in a USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll released Friday. In the same poll, 65% of registered voters, including half of Democrats, don't want Biden to run for a second term. And 68% of voters, including a third of Republicans, don't want Trump to run again, although if the two candidates were to face off, Biden would have a slight edge.

The White House has pushed back against suggestions that Biden is stumbling or that Democrats are losing faith in him.

“There’s going to be many polls,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on July 12. “They’re going to go up or they’re going to go down.”

But more signs of Democratic anxiety surfaced Thursday when Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota said during a radio interview that he doesn't want Biden to seek reelection in 2024. His remarks were the most forceful yet from a Democratic lawmaker calling for a new party standard-bearer. The congressman said most of his Democratic colleagues feel the same way, although he didn't name names.

Gun reform and other victories

Even amid his struggles, Biden has scored some victories at home and abroad.

A $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, a key piece of his domestic spending agenda, passed last fall with bipartisan support. A federal gun safety reform bill was enacted with bipartisan backing for the first time in nearly three decades after the school shooting in Texas.

On foreign policy, Biden rallied U.S. allies in the weeks leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and persuaded them to hit Moscow with sanctions that severely damaged the Russian economy. “President Biden has gotten no political credit for it,” Naftali said, but “his team managed the run-up to the war in Ukraine brilliantly.”

Biden also celebrated when his historic pick for the Supreme Court, Ketanji Brown Jackson, was confirmed by the Senate in April. Jackson became the 116th justice – and first Black woman – to serve on the nation's highest court.

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Empathy and deal-making

Biden entered the White House with decades of Washington experience, including eight years as vice president and 36 years as a senator from Delaware.

In the Senate, he was especially known for his work on foreign policy and for his ability to cut a deal – skills that he told voters during his presidential campaign would help him heal partisan divisions and get things done.

But the Senate in which Biden served is far different from the current Senate, where partisanship has hardened and deal-making is often frowned upon. Democrats and Republicans are farther apart ideologically than at any time in the past 50 years, according to a Pew Research Center analysis in March.

“One of the things that maybe has surprised Joe Biden more than anything else during his presidency is the extent to which the Republican Party he thought he knew became captive to the big lie of the stolen election and the cult of Donald Trump’s personality,” Whipple said.

Biden has come to understand that the skills that served him well as a senator don’t necessarily translate to the presidency.

“The public doesn’t want me to be the ‘president senator’ – they want me to be the president and let senators be senators,” Biden told reporters on the eve of his one-year anniversary in office. “I’m used to negotiating to get things done. And I’ve been, in the past, relatively successful at it in the United States Senate, even as vice president. But I think that role as president is – is a different role.”

Climate change and miscalculations

The partisan divide in Congress – and pushback from Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona – have made it difficult to enact parts of Biden's agenda. 

The Senate is evenly split 50-50 among Democrats and Republicans, with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote effectively giving Democrats a one-vote majority. In reality, though, 60 votes are needed to pass most legislation because of the filibuster.

Given those constraints, “even the most talented leaders and communicators would only be able to do so much,” said Lauren Wright, a political scientist at Princeton University.

Biden’s push for sweeping legislation to combat climate change and pass other social programs ran aground after he was unable to win over Manchin, a conservative Democrat from a coal-producing state, nor any Republican senators.

An unexpected deal announced Wednesday by Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., could salvage parts of Biden's agenda by lowering the cost of prescription drugs, bringing down carbon emissions and chipping away at the federal deficit.

Several Democrats have called for the Senate to eliminate the filibuster to pass the bulk of Biden's agenda. Biden has urged the Senate to change the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation and to codify into federal law the right to abortion and privacy.

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Miscalculations by Biden and his aides have made it even harder to win approval for much of his agenda, Wright said. She cited as examples the administration’s failure to anticipate the inflationary consequences of stimulus packages Biden signed at the beginning of his presidency and messaging on economic conditions that at times has come across as insensitive.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen initially dismissed the risk of inflation as "small" and "manageable" while the administration repeatedly assured Americans that price increases would be temporary even as the cost of gas, food and other consumer goods soared.

It wasn't until an interview with CNN in June that Yellen admitted she was "wrong" about the path that inflation would take.

“When people see empty shelves in their local grocery store or believe that they are experiencing a recession, it doesn’t help to push back against those attitudes even if the president feels they are not representative of nationwide metrics,” Wright said. “Americans are worried, and those fears are reflected in Biden’s low approval ratings.”

Recently, Biden angered members of his own party after they learned he had agreed to nominate conservative, anti-abortion Republican Chad Meredith to a lifetime federal judgeship in Kentucky,first exclusively reported by the Courier Journal. The announcement of the anti-abortion GOP judge was slated for the day the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade ruling.

Several Senate Democrats announced they would vote against Meredith's confirmation if Biden followed through on the plan to nominate him as part of a purported deal with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Biden eventually abandoned the idea.

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Ambitious agendas and 'delusions'

Naftali faults Biden’s team for “feeding delusions” about what was legislatively possible and for assuming that the president had enough power to pass a progressive agenda.

“Instead of the Democrats looking at the political landscape after the 2020 election and saying, ‘Gosh, we're really lucky to have held on to our majority in the House and what a fluke that we have a 50-50 Senate,’ there was this belief that somehow we were back in this Great Society moment … when ambitious agendas can be effectively achieved,” he said.

But, “the attempt to do it all at once, without sufficient legislative support, was doomed to failure,” Naftali said. “And it is still a puzzle why a master legislator like Biden allowed himself to fall into the trap of raising expectations with no hope of achieving the agenda.” 

Critics within Biden’s own party charge that he has too often looked to the House and the Senate to set the agenda on issues like gun control, immigration and abortion rights.

“He needs to be more of a leader,” said Christopher Scott, political director of Democracy for America, a progressive grassroots activists’ group. “For somebody that spent so long in the U.S. Senate, that has been a vice president, I think we would expect to see more of a fighter that he talked about being on that campaign trail.”

Instead, “this administration has consistently punted on a lot of these key issues,” Scott said.

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Another problem, Whipple said, is that Biden has tried to accomplish two contradictory goals – lowering the national political temperature after four frenetic years of Trump while taking on Trump over his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

“It’s hard to unite the country and call out the ‘big lie’ of the stolen election,” he said.

While the crises Biden has weathered may influence how he is remembered, the defining tests for his administration are likely to be the war in Ukraine and whether his Justice Department prosecutes Trump and his associates for the mob attack on the Capitol, Whipple said.

“We don’t want to be a country that goes around prosecuting the former regime,” he said. “But the only thing worse is to look the other way when a former – and possibly future – president is caught red-handed trying to strangle democracy. That’s on Joe Biden’s Justice Department and (Attorney General) Merrick Garland. And there’s no ducking that decision.”

As for Ukraine, Biden’s place in history is already guaranteed, Naftali said.

“Historians will be far kinder to Joe Biden than Americans are today,” he predicted.

Michael Collins covers the White House. Follow him on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS.

Contributing: Francesca Chambers

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