WASHINGTON — With the White House legislative agenda in shambles less than a year before the midterm elections, Democrats are sounding the alarm that their party could face even bigger losses than expected without a major change of strategy led by the president.
The frustrations run the gamut from those of the liberal wing of the party, which feels deflated by the failure to adopt a bold platform, to the concerns of moderates, who fear losing suburban voters and had believed that Democratic victories would usher in a return to normality after last year’s upheaval.
Democrats were already anticipating a tough midterm climate, given the ruling party historically loses seats in a president’s first term. But the party’s struggle to act on its biggest legislative priorities has rattled lawmakers and strategists, who fear their candidates will find themselves battling the perception that Democrats have failed to deliver on President Biden’s central campaign promise of restart a broken Washington.
“I think millions of Americans have become very demoralized – they’re asking, what do the Democrats stand for?” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent in charge of the Senate Budget Committee. In a lengthy interview, he added: “Obviously the current strategy is failing and we need a major course correction.”
Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democrat from a blue-collar district in Ohio who is running for the state’s open Senate seat, said his party is not responding to voter concerns about school closures , the pandemic and economic security. He faulted the Biden administration not only for failing to push through its national agenda, but also for lacking clear public health guidance on issues such as masking and testing.
“It seems Democrats can’t do it alone,” he said. “Democrats need to do a better job of being clear about what they’re trying to do.”
The complaints capped one of the worst weeks of Biden’s presidency, with the White House facing the impending failure of voting rights legislation, the defeat of their vaccine or test mandate for large employers to the Supreme Court, inflation reaching 40- year high and friction with Russia over aggression against Ukraine. Meanwhile, Mr. Biden’s top national priority — a sweeping $2.2 trillion spending, climate and fiscal policy plan — remains stalled, not just because of Republicans, but also the government. opposition from a centrist Democrat.
A preview of the 2022 US midterm elections
“I’m sure they’re frustrated — I am,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, when asked this week about the chamber’s inability to act on the issue. Biden’s agenda. Discussing the impact on voters ahead of the midterm elections, he added: “It depends on who they blame for it.”
The end of the week provided another painful marker for Democrats: Friday was the first time since July that millions of American families with children did not receive monthly child support, a payment established under the relief plan in $1.9 trillion pandemic case that Democrats have bolstered. in March without any Republican support.
Plans to extend the expiry date of payments, which have helped keep millions of children out of poverty, have been stalled by failed negotiations on the sprawling domestic policy plan. And additional pandemic-related provisions will expire before the end of the year without congressional action.
“It’s about as easy as it gets,” Mr. Ryan said. “If the Democrats can’t agree on a tax cut for working families, what good are we?”
In recent days, Mr Biden has faced a rising wave of anger from the party’s traditional supporters. Members of some civil rights groups boycotted his speech on suffrage in Atlanta to express their disappointment with his push on the issue, while others, including Stacey Abrams, who is running for governor in Georgia, were conspicuously absent. Mr. Biden has vowed to make another strong push for the protection of the right to vote, only to see it crumble the next day.
And last week, six of Mr Biden’s former public health advisers went public with their criticisms of his handling of the pandemic, calling on the White House to adopt a strategy suited to the “new normal” of living with the virus indefinitely. Others have called for the firing of Jeffrey Zients, who heads the White House pandemic response team.
“There doesn’t seem to be any appreciation for the urgency of the moment,” said Tré Easton, senior adviser to the progressive group Battle Born Collective. pushing to overthrow the filibuster to allow Democrats to push through a slew of their priorities. “It’s kind of, ‘OK, what comes next?’ Is there something going to happen where voters can say, yes, my life is noticeably more stable than it was two years ago.
White House officials and Democrats insist their agenda is far from dead and talks continue with key lawmakers to pass the bulk of Mr Biden’s national plans. Talks on an omnibus package to keep government open beyond Feb. 18 have quietly resumed, and states are beginning to receive $1 trillion in infrastructure act funds.
“I guess the truth is, a program doesn’t end in a year,” said Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary.
While there is broad consensus around the electoral peril facing the party, there is little consensus on who, exactly, is to blame. The Liberals have been particularly scathing in their criticism of two centrist senators, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and their longstanding objections to undermining the Senate filibuster, as well as Mr. Manchin’s decision to abruptly reject the $2.2 trillion spending plan. last month. For months, Democratic lawmakers, activists and officials have worried about declining support among crucial segments of the party’s coalition — black, female, youth and Latino voters — ratings that many fear could drop further without action on issues. issues such as voting rights, climate change, abortion rights and paid family leave.
“In my view, we’re not going to win the 2022 election unless our base is energized and ordinary people understand what we’re fighting for and how we’re different from Republicans,” Sanders said. “It’s no longer the case now.”
But many in the party admit the realities of their narrow congressional majorities and united Republican opposition have blocked their ability to pass much of their platform. Some have blamed party leaders for responding to the ambitions of progressives, without the votes to execute.
“Leadership started with a failed strategy, and while I guess maybe they can send a message that they’ve tried, it’s not going to produce real laws,” said Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a centrist of Florida, who is retiring but has signaled aspirations. for a future Senate race.
Rep. Cheri Bustos, a Democrat from rural Illinois, said Democrats should consider less ambitious bills that could attract some Republican support to give the party the achievements it can claim in the mid-election. mandate.
“We really need to reset at this point,” said Ms. Bustos, who is retiring from a district that passed to Donald J. Trump in 2020. “Hopefully we’re focused on what we can do. , then focus like crazy selling it.
Mr. Biden effectively staked his presidency on the belief that voters would reward his party for leading the country out of a deadly pandemic and into economic prosperity. But even after a year that produced record job growth, widely available vaccines and stock market highs, Mr. Biden has not begun to deliver a message of success or focus on promoting his legislative victories. .
Many Democrats say they must do more to sell their achievements or risk the midterm elections going the way of an off-year election, as many party members were surprised by the intensity of the backlash against them at races in Virginia, New Jersey and New York.
“We need to get into promoting and selling and stop moaning and moaning,” said Bradley Beychok, president of American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic group.
Others say that as president, Mr Biden is out of step with many voters by focusing on issues such as climate change and voting rights. While crucial to the country, these topics are not high on the list of concerns for many voters still trying to navigate the uncertainties of a pandemic spanning a third year.
“The administration is focused on things that are important but not particularly important to voters and sometimes as president you have to do that,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank. . “Now we have to start getting back to talking about the things that people care about.