At an Independence Day barbecue, and crises surrounding him, Joe Biden stated that he had “never been more optimistic about America than I am now”.
Of course there were challenges, serious ones, the US president told the military families gathered on the southern lawn of the White House. And the nation had a disturbing history of taking “giant steps forward” and then “a few steps backwards,” he acknowledged.
But Biden delivered a hopeful speech that reflected his often unwavering belief in the American experiment on the 246th anniversary of its founding.
Yet many Americans, even his own supporters, no longer share the president’s trust. To many observers, Biden appears to be in a moment of deep crisis in his presidency: and one that 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 beginning to haunt the Biden White House.
With decades of high inflation, mass shootings almost weekly, a drumroll of alarming revelations about Donald Trump’s efforts to reverse his election defeat, and successive Supreme Court rulings that have shifted the country’s political landscape sharply to the right, Bidens struck rosy speech even his fellow man. Democrats as unfit for what they consider to be a moment of existential danger to the country.
A new poll in Monmouth captured the depth of America’s pessimism: Currently, only 10% of Americans believe the country is on the right track, compared to 88% who say it is on the wrong track. According to the latest Gallup poll, confidence in the country’s institutions fell to record lows this year. The presidency and Supreme Court suffered the steepest declines, while Congress received the lowest confidence level of any institution at just 7%.
“If that sunny optimism were coupled with actual steps to secure the future that the president says he is excited about, it would sound less hollow,” said Tré Easton, a progressive Democratic strategist. “But right now it seems disconnected from reality that many people, especially people who have worked very hard to get President Biden and Vice President, [Kamala] Harris chosen, experienced.”
Last month, a conservative supermajority in the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion, paving the way for new restrictions and bans in Republican-controlled states across the country. Meanwhile, democracy pundits sound the alarm as Republican candidates who embraced conspiracy theories about the 2020 election win the primary for key positions.
With control of Congress, governors and state buildings at stake in November, many supporters and allies are begging Biden to lead with the urgency and strength they believe this moment requires.
Under mounting pressure from supporters and allies to respond more assertively, Biden signed an executive order Friday that the White House said would protect women who wanted an abortion. In his most impassioned remarks yet, Biden said the Supreme Court decision was “an exercise in raw political power” and warned Republicans would push for a national abortion ban if they gain control of Congress in November. .
Democrats welcomed order and passion in general. Still others hoped it was just a “first step,” noting that the action didn’t include some of the more new actions Democrats have been calling for, such as opening abortion clinics on federal lands in states where the procedure is banned or the declaring a national emergency.
Ahead of Friday’s signing ceremony, Bloomberg reported that the White House was considering declaring a national public health emergency, as a number of Democratic lawmakers and activists had urged, but ultimately dropped.
That caution, a hallmark of Biden’s decades-long political career, has frustrated many Democrats who fear democracy itself is under attack.
“Everything is at stake now. It’s really existential,” Easton said. “Looks like he doesn’t understand that.”
New reports of a White House struggling to respond to mounting challenges have even sparked a debate among Democrats about whether Biden should seek reelection in 2024.
In recent weeks there has been speculation about possible alternatives. Among them is California Governor Gavin Newsom, who has positioned herself as a combative leader in the fight to protect abortion rights and Illinois Governor JB Pritzker offered a guttural response to his state’s Independence Day shooting that contrasted with Biden ‘s more restrained approach .
“If you’re angry today, I’m here to tell you to be angry,” Pritzker said. In a statement, Biden condemned the attack as yet another “pointless act of violence” and held a minute of silence for the victims at the White House.
The White House has rejected those criticisms, 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 dealt with crises in the country quickly.
“The president showed urgency. He showed anger. He showed frustration,” she said of Biden’s response to the recent mass shootings and how his leadership paved the way for a two-pronged compromise on gun security, breaking the decades-long standoff in Washington on tackling gun violence.
Democrats’ fears come as the party faces a historically challenging electoral landscape, with forecasters anticipating a Republican takeover of Congress in November.
Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, the president and executive director of NextGen America, a youth mobilization organization in the country, said the Supreme Court ruling on Roe clarified the commitment to many young people. But she said they are looking for courageous leadership in Washington.
Democrats must “put everything on the table” to prevent an “ultra-right and extremist minority from overtaking every major institution in our country,” she said. “That will be on the ballot paper in 2022.”
Biden said Friday that his executive powers were limited and Democrats lacked sufficient numbers in Congress to protect abortion rights nationally.
“Vote, vote, vote, vote,” he begged the Americans angrily over the verdict. “We need two additional pro-choice Senators and a pro-choice House to codify Roe. With your vote, that can become a reality.”
For months, the White House rages from crisis to crisis. Inflation, war in Europe, record gas prices, an unstoppable pandemic and baby food shortages have all contributed to Biden’s national malaise and low approval rating.
Sarah Longwell, a moderate Republican strategist who conducts focus groups with suburban women, said voters constantly tell her they wish they heard more from Biden.
Facing a difficult political landscape, she said voters want to see Biden’s readiness to tackle the “most extreme elements of the Republican party.”
“Even if he can’t help it, the bully’s pulpit is a powerful thing,” she said, adding: “People think this is madness. They want to be able to go to a 4th of July parade with their kids and don’t have to worry about someone getting shot and they want their leader to show that to them.”
On Friday, Biden tried to do just that. He chided Republicans for pursuing an abortion ban with no 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 approved an exception to the Senate filibuster rule to enforce abortion protections, but he has so far refused to accept calls for court reform, such as term limits or court extensions. And in response to the extraordinary revelations about the January 6 attack on the Capitol, Biden has largely declined to comment, deferring to the congressional committee investigating the attack and the Justice Department, which is considering prosecuting Donald Trump for his role. in the violent attack on American democracy.
“In this hour, if you want to commit to democracy, you should not praise the institutions we have as they are today, but work to adapt these institutions to meet current needs,” said William Howell , political scientist at the University of Chicago and author of Presidents, Populism, and the Crisis of Democracy.
He said Biden’s commitment to democratic standards and traditions is critical, especially after the Trump years, but that shouldn’t stop him from addressing the “acute need for us to revisit our institutions.”
“The ante status quo was dysfunctional — it was unacceptable in light of the pressing challenges our country faces,” he said. “While there is a need for a reset, there is a greater need for leadership in terms of institutional reform.”