Biden hits a rough patch as Republicans try to blame him for everything

To hear the Republicans tell it, the world has gone to hell in a handbasket in the nearly four months that Joe Biden has been president.

In fact, it makes you wonder how he could have screwed up so badly, since everything was going just swimmingly when he raised his right hand on Jan. 20.

The alternative viewpoint is that Biden has gotten off to a surprisingly strong start, passing a major relief bill, getting half the country at least partially vaccinated, and giving a kickstart to the economy that has seen the stock market hit record levels. He is relatively popular in the polls and drawing largely positive media coverage.

Now it’s a fairly standard political tactic to catalog the world’s woes and blame them on the new man in charge, even when he has little to do with them. Only by returning the opposition to power will happy days be here again.

The reality is that the White House has just been through a pretty rough week, and navigating such stormy seas is part of the commander-in-chief’s job description.

Several lines of attack by Donald Trump and his party have fallen flat, which is why Biden is in the White House: He’s mentally addled and someone else is in charge. He’s just a tool of the Bernie Sanders wing. He ran as a moderate but is now a wild-eyed socialist (although Biden has provided some ammunition on this front by pushing $6 trillion in new spending).

The Washington Post describes the GOP assault this way: “The world is increasingly engulfed in chaos on Biden’s watch as gas prices surge, crime rates rise, border crossings grow and the costs of consumer goods threaten to spike.

“The dueling political messages have created a Rorschach test for voters in upcoming elections: Do they see Biden as an agent of competence or chaos?”

It’s fascinating to hear GOP operatives use the word chaos, since that was routinely associated with Trump’s governing style. It’s also true that the Republicans are scrambling to get the spotlight back on the Dems after dumping Liz Cheney and watching Trump issue daily screeds about unproven election fraud.

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Biden runs an orderly administration filled with career professionals. But his more reticent style—what president lets his CDC chief announce the good news on masks and the vaccinated rather than breaking it himself?—means he doesn’t dominate the daily news cycle. His press secretary often doesn’t want him taking impromptu questions from reporters. All that is by design, and works well when things are calm.

That’s hardly been the situation in recent days.

The intensifying war between Israel and Gaza is no more Biden’s fault than have been the other military conflicts that have erupted on every president’s watch since 1948. Biden is getting pushback from left-wing Democrats on his steadfast support for Israel, but that is not a change in U.S. policy. Some conservatives say his outreach to Iran has emboldened Hamas. But no American president can impose a settlement on the warring parties.

Nor can Biden be blamed for the cyberhacking that knocked out that Colonial pipeline. But here the president and his administration kept saying that things were under control as gas shortages worsened and lines grew longer from Washington to Atlanta.

That the response was underwhelming was highlighted when Biden gave a White House speech and urged motorists not to engage in panic buying.

By then the Post was reporting on the “political damage” he had suffered, although blaming much of it on the GOP and conservative media (as most of the press played down the entire story). Just because the opposition is piling on doesn’t mean a president handled the situation well.

The border crisis (though the White House hates that word) is one where the debacle can be laid pretty squarely at Biden’s feet, since his policy changes encouraged a surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America. And touting the dramatic reduction in the 5,000-plus kids held in Border Patrol facilities minimizes the fact that they were simply moved to HHS shelters.  

Now a separate Post story says the administration is trying to move the goalposts, “seeking to change the perception that high border numbers equate with a crisis, a failure, or even something manifestly negative.” That sounds like redefining the problem out of existence. 

Communications Director Kate Bedingfield told the paper that the chaos narrative is undermined by where things wound up: “By the end of the week, he’s saying the pipeline is online and gas is going to be back up to capacity soon, and we’ve gotten so many vaccines in arms that you don’t have to wear a mask in most instances anymore.”

That last point was indeed a breakthrough for the country. And with Trump saying he deserves some credit—as he pleaded in a release, “Just a mention, please!”—let’s pause and say he should be recognized for Operation Warp Speed, as some news outlets have belatedly done.

But the communications rollout was a mess. The president and the CDC reversed course so suddenly that Jill Biden didn’t realize she could shed her mask until she landed in West Virginia. That very morning, a top White House Covid adviser told CNN that Biden still had to wear a mask outdoors because he’s “a very important person.”

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While CDC chief Rochelle Walensky insisted in interviews that no political pressure was involved, it’s clear to me that a negative media environment, especially this piece in the New York Times, contributed to the shift. CDC officials didn’t study the data for the last two weeks and slap their foreheads exclaiming, “You know, vaccines are safe, and wearing masks outside is pointless!” That’s been evident for quite some time.

Instead, we got lots of grumbling from state and local officials and business leaders, who hadn’t been prepared for the new guidance and in many cases haven’t adopted it yet.

That’s a snafu that will soon be forgotten. The larger question is whether this is just a bumpy stretch for Biden or reveals some weaknesses, both politically and stylistically, that the other party will be happy to exploit in the years to come.

 

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