NEW YORK – President Joe Biden is losing support among critical groups in his political base as some of his core campaign promises falter, raising concerns among Democrats that the voters who put him in office may feel less enthusiastic about returning to the polls in next year's midterm elections.
In just the past week, the push to change the nation's immigration laws and create a path to citizenship for young immigrants brought illegally to the country as children faced a serious setback on Capitol Hill. Bipartisan negotiations to overhaul policing collapsed and searing images of Haitian refugees being mistreated at the U.S.-Mexico border undermined Biden's pledge of humane treatment for those seeking to enter the United States.
Taken together, the developments threaten to disillusion African Americans, Latinos, young people and independents, all of whom played a vital role in building a coalition that gave Democrats control of Congress and the White House last year. That's creating a sense of urgency to broker some type of agreement between the party's progressive and moderate wings to move forward with a $3.5 trillion package that would fundamentally reshape the nation's social programs.
Failure to do so, party strategists warn, could devastate Democrats in the 2022 vote and raise questions about Biden's path to reelection if he decides to seek a second term.
“Quoting Benjamin Franklin, if they don’t hang together, they’ll hang separately,” said James Carville, a veteran Democratic strategist. “They’ve got to get something done to have a chance.”
Despite such concerns, it's likely too early for Democrats to panic.
While Biden's approval ratings have taken a hit, for instance, they are significantly better than Donald Trump's were at the same point in his presidency. With the midterms more than a year away, Biden and party leaders have time to course-correct.
Some of the past week's challenges are more the result of inertia in a narrowly divided Congress rather than a failure of leadership by Biden. Other issues, including concerns about the future of abortion rights and anger at Republican efforts to restrict voting rights, may galvanize Democrats even if they're disappointed by Washington's persistent gridlock.
"I said it’s going to take me a year to deliver everything I’m looking at here,” Biden told reporters on Friday when he was pressed about the slow pace of progress.
“No. 2, take a look at what I inherited when I came into office. When I came into office, the state of affairs, and where we were: We had 4 million people vaccinated. We had no plan. We had — I mean, I can go down the list," Biden added. “So, you know, part of it is dealing with the panoply of things that were landed on my plate. I’m not complaining; it’s just a reality.”
A recent poll from the Pew Research Center, in line with internal polling on the Republican and Democratic sides, paints a darkening picture for the president and his party. It found a 14-percentage point drop since July in his support from voters between the ages of 18 and 29, a 16-point drop among Latinos and an 18-point drop among African Americans. The shift among Black voters from 85% to 67% was particularly troubling given that they were Biden’s most reliable source of support in 2020.
“A year from now, the political environment is going to be a lot different,” said Biden pollster John Anzalone.
He emphasized the popularity of key elements of Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda being debated in Congress.
“We’re going to have a good narrative going into 2022, not only what the Biden administration and Democrats have done for Americans, but also to contrast what Republicans are doing,” Anzalone said, suggesting that voters would blame the GOP for any Democratic failures.
For now, however, Democratic pollsters and strategists privately attribute Biden's shaky standing to a number of factors.
Some point to the administration's messy withdrawal from Afghanistan as a turning point among some disappointed Democrats and independents. Things deteriorated further when Biden faced a fierce backlash from the left for his administration’s aggressive treatment of Haitian immigrants gathering on the U.S.-Mexico border. Some African Americans have expressed concerns about some of the most far-reaching Democratic-backed pandemic restrictions in places such as New York City, which recently imposed a vaccine requirement for indoor dining. Some Black Lives Matter leaders in the city have called such mandates racist.
The Democratic frustration has begun to seep into midterm elections like the one in Illinois' 7th Congressional District, where Kina Collins is challenging Rep. Danny Davis in the Democratic primary.
Collins says the people of her Chicago-area district want less talk and more action. Her party has not done enough, she said, to move past Trump's divisive leadership.
“Is Trump gone?” Collins asked. “I don’t know if the remnants of Trump are really gone. People are afraid.”
Most Washington Democrats are betting their political fate on the legislative package being debated on Capitol Hill that would lower prescription drug prices; establish universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds; upgrade Medicare to cover dental, vision and hearing; and combat climate change, among other liberal priorities.
Senate Democrats can use a special process to approve the measure with a simple majority, rather than the 60 votes needed to proceed with most pieces of legislation.
But even if Democrats are successful in enacting it — far from certain, given resistance from moderates such as like Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — they still face intense pressure to deliver on immigration and racial justice. On both fronts, the odds of Democratic success are even more bleak.
Immigration advocates are reeling from a ruling by the Senate parliamentarian that Democrats could not add immigration provisions, including a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants, to their massive package. And top Democrats have conceded that negotiations failed to produce a compromise policing bill in response to sweeping protests last summer against police violence.
Biden pledged to keep fighting on both fronts, though the path forward is murky at best.
“There is cost to inaction,” warned Lorella Praeli, who led Latino outreach for Hillary Clinton's last presidential campaign and now serves as co-president for Community Change Action.
Her organization and others are pressing the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress to fight the parliamentarian's ruling or disregard it altogether.
She predicted that the Democrats' ability — or inability — to deliver on what has been a party priority for more than a decade would resonate with voters in states such as Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin and Nevada, among others that host high-profile elections next fall.
“At the end of the day, no one’s going to give a damn about the parliamentarian's ruling,” Praeli said. “They’re just going to remember there was a Democrat in the White House and a Democratic majority in Congress.”
Sensing opportunity, the Republican National Committee recently opened Hispanic community centers in Laredo, Texas, and Milwaukee. The GOP already has some momentum with Latino voters, who backed Trump's party at higher rates last fall than Democrats expected. In June, Republicans won a mayoral race in McAllen, Texas, a border town whose residents are overwhelmingly Latino.
“Joe Biden and Democrats are solely responsible for their failures," RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel said. “With rising prices, the largest tax increase in decades, a crisis at our southern border, and forced vaccine mandates all disproportionally impacting lower income communities and communities of color – this isn’t working.”