President Joe Biden is facing his first holiday season as commander in chief while confronting a slew of problems from the new variant of COVID-19 to stalled legislation and his own unpopularity.
The president could be bracing for a winter of discontent as the Omicron variant is expected to surge and efforts to pass the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better Act flounder due to opposition from Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV).
He may also have to sacrifice the enhanced child tax credit in the new year as part of a deal to pass Build Back Better—a key achievement that could further damage his standing with voters if it’s not extended.
Here are the major problems facing Biden and the Democrats as the nation heads into the holidays.
1. Stalled Legislation
There now appears to be little prospect of getting the Build Back Better Act passed into law by Christmas as originally planned. The $1.75 trillion infrastructure and social spending package had already been reduced from its earlier $3.5 trillion cost but on Sunday Senator Manchin announced he was a « no » on the bill.
Build Back Better is a central piece of Biden’s agenda but without Manchin’s support, there is practically no way it will be approved in the evenly divided Senate.
The president may have to give up an extension of the enhanced child tax credit, which Manchin opposes, if he wants to reach a deal in the new year that keeps most of the measures in the bill.
The White House sees the tax credit as a major achievement but it will likely expire in January if it’s not extended.
Separately, Democrats have also so far failed to pass voting rights legislation, which Republicans have successfully opposed.
This comes at a time when GOP-led states have introduced new restrictions on voting in the wake of the 2020 election and former President Donald Trump repeated an unfounded claim that his loss was due to the election suffering from fraud and other irregularities.
Passing landmark voting rights legislation would likely require reforming the Senate filibuster, which Manchin has repeatedly ruled out.
2. The COVID-19 Pandemic
Biden came to office in the midst of the global pandemic and his administration has made efforts to tackle the virus through widespread vaccination and other measures but the crisis has rumbled on.
The new Omicron variant is now dominant among new COVID cases in the U.S., accounting for 73.2 percent of new cases in the week ending December 18. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said on Wednesday that Omicron now accounts for up to 90 percent of new cases in some parts of the country.
There has been significant controversy over CDC guidance advising mask-wearing in schools for all children over 2 years old, with the CDC’s international counterparts offering different advice on masking young children and some scientists questioning how the agency arrived at its decision.
The Biden administration this week made a significant U-turn when it announced the federal government would purchase half a billion at-home COVID tests and distribute them to Americans who want them free of charge. The administration had garnered criticism for earlier dismissing the idea.
And there is still a risk that Biden’s vaccine-or-testing mandate for employers with 100 or more employees could be struck down. The Supreme Court is set to consider an application for a stay of the mandate and the lower courts still have to decide challenges to the requirement on their merits.
3. Student Debt
The Biden administration’s apparent inaction on the issue of student loan debt has also created a headache for the White House in recent days and it’s not likely to disappear in the new year.
The administration announced on Wednesday that an interest-free pause in repayments on federal student loans and federally held student loans would be extended until May 1. Repayments had been set to resume on February 1 and Biden had initially indicated he would not extend the pause before making a U-turn.
Nonetheless, Biden is still facing criticism for his failure thus far to fulfill a campaign promise to cancel $10,000 of student loan debt for borrowers, with some Democrats saying he has the power to do so through executive action.
Biden has expressed skepticism of his authority to cancel debt and the Department of Education was tasked with preparing a memo on the matter in April. No memo on the subject has yet been released and White House press secretary Jen Psaki suggested last week that Congress should pass legislation on the matter.
4. The Economy and Inflation
The U.S economy has shown significant signs of improvement since Biden came to office in January but many Americans remain skeptical and have a gloomy outlook about the economy.
That pessimism is partly driven by high inflation, which rose to 6.8 percent in 2021—its highest level since 1982. Prices for basic goods like gas and meat also rose in November.
There are concerns about whether the current level of inflation is transitory or lasting, with Senator Manchin among those voicing worries about rising prices. It remains to be seen if the trend will continue into January.
5. Kamala Harris
Vice President Kamala Harris has suffered a string of damaging stories amid rumors of a rift between her and Biden. She has also faced a staffing exodus in recent weeks and is losing two of her most senior communications advisers at the end of this year.
Harris is also suffering from stubbornly low approval ratings and is less popular than the president himself. Though Biden’s focus may not be on his vice president at the moment, reports of dysfunction in her office may serve as a distraction from the administration’s agenda.
Poll tracker FiveThirtyEight, which tracks Harris’ approval using a variety of polls and its own system of pollster ratings, found the vice president enjoyed just 39.4 percent approval as of December 21 compared to 47 percent disapproval.
Harris’ apparent difficulties could become a long-term concern for Biden heading into the 2024 election cycle. He has said repeatedly that he intends to run for president again despite his age, while Harris’ low approval rating could diminish her chances of succeeding him if Biden chooses to bow out.
6. Low Approval Ratings
While Biden enjoys a higher approval rating than Harris, he is still underwater, with poll after poll showing most Americans disapprove of him. Nonetheless, there are indications that the president’s approval is creeping up, though recent gains may be tenuous.
FiveThirtyEight gave Biden 43.4 percent approval as of December 22 compared to 51.4 percent disapproval. Biden’s approval has been in negative territory since August 30—the day before the final withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
However, he is still in a better position than former President Trump was at the end of his first year in office.
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