Standing inside the cinder-block walls of the New Hampshire Port Authority in Portsmouth on Tuesday, Joe Biden had just praised the state’s politicians for helping pass last year’s infrastructure bill. He was about to launch into how the bipartisan law invested in ports and bridges, improved clean water, and expanded access to the Internet, when a baby in the audience let out a cascade of squeals.
The President turned to the interrupting infant and joked, “I agree. I agree completely.”
Biden has struggled to talk through the noise of the news cycle in recent months. Rising inflation has cut into American budgets, and the war in Ukraine has filled Biden’s schedule. Allies fear this has left Biden to react to news events more than shape them. Hoping to build some momentum outside Washington, the White House has launched Biden on a road show to key cities around the country to tout his Administration’s investments in infrastructure.
Political strategists around Biden see a host of global issues driving voter dissatisfaction that they believe Biden has few levers to impact. Americans are fatigued with the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though unemployment is low, American frustrations with the economy are colored by high rates of inflation and rising prices of gas and groceries that are hangovers from global supply chain challenges. Last year Biden signed the infrastructure bill and a nearly $2 trillion stimulus bill, but with Congress blocking the rest of his domestic agenda, Biden allies don’t see much room for any more big things to get done. This has led to a sense of resignation among those around the President. “All he can do is keep his head down and keep fighting,” says an advisor close to Biden.
With few other wins to trumpet, the White House’s current strategy leans heavily on Biden’s success six months ago at ushering through the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill signed into law in November. In the past two weeks, Biden traveled to promote the law to Menlo, Iowa and Greensboro, North Carolina, in addition to New Hampshire. And on Thursday, Biden flew across the country to visit Portland International Airport in Oregon where federal dollars are slated for refurbishing the runway to make it better withstand earthquakes.
“America can do big things again, we can do anything we want to do,” Biden said inside a cavernous hangar at the Portland Air National Guard Base. “We must build a better America.”
The midterm elections in November will be the first major referendum on Biden and the Democrats’ performance holding the White House and control of both chambers of Congress. Current polling data portends a harsh reckoning. When Biden was first elected, his job performance ratings consistently hovered around 60% approval among young voters. But that group has soured most on Biden’s performance in recent months, according to Gallup poll data released April 14. Biden’s approval rating has dropped 21 percentage points among Americans ages 18 to 25, and 19 points with Americans 26 to 41 years old since he took office, according to Gallup. Among all American adults, Biden’s job approval has dropped 14 points from 56% approval when he was elected to 42% in March.
Working to reach those who seem to be losing faith, Biden’s White House this week has promoted the release of U.S. oil reserves as a way to combat rising gas prices. The White House has tried to deflect blame on rising prices at the pump by calling it “Putin’s price hike,” even though gas prices were rising before Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his latest invasion of Ukraine. Trying to address frustration among supporters that Biden hasn’t done enough to eliminate student loan debt, Biden’s Department of Education released details this week about how it was expanding the definition of who is eligible for student loan relief. Biden also this week highlighted the low unemployment rates, saying that the unemployment rate among American veterans has tied the lowest rate on record at 2.4%, down from 6.5% in 2020.
But those messages haven’t yet shown success in breaking through or lifting his sagging approval ratings. That’s left Biden turning back to a classic Presidential playbook: get out into the country and talk about tangible wins. “America loves to see its Presidents,” says John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster and strategist who advised Biden’s presidential campaign. “What he’s showcasing is very important. If you believe all politics is local, this is important stuff that impacts people’s lives.”
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