A confrontation with Congress that has the solvency of the nation at stake; a hectic scene at the border as pandemic restrictions ease; a pivotal overseas trip aimed at maintaining support for Ukraine and containing a more assertive China in the Indo-Pacific.
Three weeks into the launch of his re-election campaign, President Joe Biden is faced with a wide array of problems in his day job that defy easy fixes and are not entirely within his control. If, as his advisers believe, the best Biden can do for his reelection prospects is to govern well, then the next few weeks may represent an almost existential test of his path to a second term.
Economists warn that the country faces a debilitating recession, and worse, if Biden and lawmakers cannot agree on a path to raise the debt limit. Biden wants Congress to raise it with no preconditions, equating Republican demands for spending cuts with a bailout for the country’s full faith and credit.
The expiration of the public health emergency due to COVID-19 meant the end of the special restrictions due to the pandemic on migrant procedures at an already taxed border between the United States and Mexico. His administration has responded with new policies to crack down on illegal crossings while opening legal avenues that encourage would-be immigrants to stay and apply online to come to the US. But Biden himself has predicted a situation.” chaotic” as the new procedures come into effect.
These tests come as Biden prepares to leave Washington on Wednesday for an eight-day trip to Japan, Papua New Guinea and Australia. Biden will try to rally unity among the major democratic economies of the Group of Seven to maintain support for Ukraine as he prepares to launch a counteroffensive against Russia’s invasion and strengthen alliances in the face of forceful regional moves from China.
Biden put his problem-solving ability at the center of his presentation to voters in 2020 and it’s central to his argument for why, at 80, he’s better prepared for four more years in the White House.
“I have more experience than anyone who has run for office,” Biden told MSNBC this month. “And I think I’ve shown that I’m honorable and also effective.”
However, the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 undermined Biden’s image as an effective manager, causing his approval ratings to drop sharply and he is still working to recover.
An April poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found Biden’s job approval rating to be 42%, a slight improvement from 38% in March. The March poll came after a pair of bank failures shook already shaky confidence in the nation’s financial systems, and Biden’s approval rating at the time was near the lowest point of his presidency. It also found that 26% of Americans overall want to see Biden run again, a slight recovery from the 22% who said that in January. Forty-seven percent of Democrats say they want him to run, also slightly up from the 37% who said that in January.
Aides point out that Biden entered the White House as the country faced an even greater series of tests: the COVID-19 pandemic, an associated economic crisis and strained international alliances after four years of Donald Trump’s presidency.
“President Biden continues to draw on his experience and judgment to fight for middle-class families and core values, including opposing Congressional Republicans’ extreme MAGA threat to trigger a recession” unless they get drastic spending cuts, said White House spokesman Andrew Bates.
Biden said Saturday that it is “difficult to know” how staff-level talks will play out to avoid a debt-ceiling crisis. He plans to meet again with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and other congressional leaders before traveling abroad, but the White House has been adamant that while Biden is open to considering spending cuts as part of the budget process, it will not accept them as a condition of raising the debt limit.
“A deal cannot be reached on the debt ceiling,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Friday. “There is no negotiation on the debt ceiling. This is something Congress must do.”
US officials warn that the stalemate threatens national security. Pentagon top brass has already warned that it could hurt troop pay and benefits and the US standing around the world, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.
“It sends a horrible message to nations like Russia and China, who would like nothing more than to be able to point this out and say, ‘Look, the United States is not a reliable partner. The United States is not a stable leader of peace and security around the world,’” she said.
Biden also faces a key test at the southern border, where the transition out of Title 42 has been anything but simple. Migrants along the border were still wading into the Rio Grande to risk entering the country, defying officials who were yelling at them to come back. The lawsuits have threatened measures to release immigrants into the US to prevent overcrowding at border patrol facilities, as well as efforts to crack down on asylum seekers entering the country.
But the problem cannot be solved by the United States alone.
“It is true that America is, right now, going through an unprecedented displacement crisis,” said Olga Sarrado, a spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency.
The United States has seen more and more migrants arrive at its southern border from China, Ukraine, Haiti, Russia and other remote Latin American nations, with more and more family groups and children traveling alone. Thirty years ago, by contrast, illegal crossers were almost always single adults from Mexico who were easily returned across the border.
Meanwhile, Border Patrol agents are encountering more than 8,000 migrants a day, and the human cost of the defiance has been made clear in recent days by the death of a 17-year-old boy in US custody. An investigation continues.
“A decision by a single country is not going to solve the challenges,” Sarrado said. “And we cannot forget that these are human beings, many of them in need of international protection, and that we must put them at the center of any decision that is made.”
With just under 18 months to go until Election Day, it’s not a given that these issues will shape voter decisions, said Chapman University presidential historian Luke Nichter.
“There is a long time between now and November 2024,” he said. “I don’t think today’s issues matter much, as they probably won’t be the issues on voters’ minds more than a year from now.”
Jonathan Young, a Democratic donor who came to hear from Vice President Kamala Harris on Friday in Atlanta, said Biden must navigate the current challenge with something to show half the electorate, especially if Republicans nominate someone other than Trump.
“A rematch could turn out the same way, because Biden is not Trump yet,” Young said, arguing that the former president makes any contest more about personality than politics.
But Young noted that Biden’s response to Trump’s “great personality” in 2020 was to be almost deliberately boring and doggedly competent. However, Biden navigates the debt and immigration ceiling, Young said, he has to maintain the ability to credibly sell that image again as an incumbent.
“I think he’s great at politics, and I think he’s generally great at politics,” Young said of Biden. “He has shown that he can read the mood of the country very well.”
Associated Press writers Colleen Long and Aamer Madhani in Washington and Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed.