At an Independence Day barbecue, with crises pouring around him, Joe Biden said he had “never been more optimistic about America than I am today “.
Of course, there were challenges, serious ones, the US president told military families gathered on the South Lawn of the White House. And the nation has had a disturbing history of “giant steps forward” and then “a few steps back,” he acknowledged.
But Biden delivered a hopeful speech that reflected his often unwavering faith in the American experience on the 246th anniversary of his founding.
Yet many Americans, even his own supporters, no longer share the president’s confidence. For many observers, Biden appears to be at a deep crisis moment in his presidency: and he is struggling to deal with it. 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 Biden’s White House.
With decades of high inflation, near-weekly mass shootings, a drumbeat of alarming revelations about Donald Trump’s attempts to reverse his election defeat, and successive Supreme Court rulings that have abruptly shifted the political landscape of the country to the right, Biden’s rosy speech struck even his compatriot. Democrats are ill-adjusted to what they see as a moment of existential peril for the country.
A new poll from Monmouth has captured the depth of American pessimism: Currently, only 10% of Americans think the country is on the right track, compared to 88% who say it is on the wrong track. Trust in the nation’s institutions has fallen to historic lows this year, according to the latest Gallup survey. The presidency and Supreme Court suffered the most precipitous declines, while Congress attracted the lowest levels of trust of any institution at just 7%.
“If this sunny optimism were coupled with concrete steps to secure the future that the president claims to be excited about, it would ring less hollow,” said Tré Easton, a progressive Democratic strategist. “But at the moment it seems out of touch with the reality that many people, especially people who worked very hard for President Biden and Vice President [Kamala] Harris elected, live.
Last month, a conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court ended the constitutional right to abortion, paving the way for new restrictions and bans in Republican-controlled states across the country. Meanwhile, democracy experts are sounding the alarm as Republican candidates who have embraced 2020 election conspiracy theories win primaries for key positions of power.
With control of Congress, governorates and state homes on the line in November, many supporters and allies are imploring Biden to lead with the urgency and force they believe this moment demands.
Under mounting pressure from his supporters and allies for a more assertive response, Biden signed an executive order on Friday that the White House said would protect women seeking abortions. In his most impassioned remarks to date, Biden said the Supreme Court’s decision was “an exercise in crude political power” and warned that Republicans would seek a nationwide ban on abortion when they take control of the country. Congress in November.
Democrats widely hailed the order and passion. Still others hoped it was just a “first step,” noting that the action did not include some of the more groundbreaking actions called for by Democrats, such as opening clinics. abortion on federal lands in states where the procedure is prohibited or the declaration of a national emergency. .
Ahead of Friday’s signing ceremony, Bloomberg reported that the White House considered declaring a national public health emergency as a number of lawmakers and Democratic activists urged it to do, but ultimately decided against it. not do it.
This 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 right now. It’s really existential,” Easton said. “It just doesn’t seem like he understands that.”
New reports of a White House struggling to respond to mounting challenges have even fueled a discussion among Democrats over whether Biden should seek re-election in 2024.
In recent weeks, speculation has swirled about potential alternatives. Among them, California Governor Gavin Newsom positioned himself as a tough leader in the fight to protect abortion rights and Illinois Governor JB Pritzker offered a guttural response to the shooting of the Independence Day in his state 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 another “senseless act of violence” and observed a minute’s silence for the victims at the White House.
The White House dismissed that criticism, arguing that Biden responded — quickly and forcefully — to the growing crises facing the nation. Asked about Democrats’ criticism of Biden, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the president has been quick to address the country’s crises.
“The president has shown urgency. He showed fury. He showed frustration,” she said of Biden’s response to the recent mass shootings, and that his leadership paved the way for a bipartisan compromise on gun safety, shattering decades. deadlock in Washington on how to deal with gun violence.
The Democrats’ fears come as the party faces a historically difficult election landscape, with prognosticators anticipating a Republican takeover of Congress in November.
Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, president and executive director of NextGen America, a youth engagement organization in the country, said the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe clarified the issues for many young people. But she said they were looking for bold leadership in Washington.
Democrats must put “everything on the table” to prevent a “far-right, extremist minority from taking over every major institution in our country,” she said. “That’s what’s on the ballot in 2022.”
Biden said Friday his executive powers were limited and there were not enough Democrats in Congress to protect abortion rights nationally.
“Vote, vote, vote, vote,” he implored Americans angry at the decision. “We need two more pro-choice senators and a pro-choice House to codify Roe. Your vote can make it a reality.
For months, the White House has careened from crisis to crisis. Inflation, war in Europe, record gasoline prices, an unstoppable pandemic and a shortage of formula milk have all contributed to national unease and Biden’s low approval rating.
Sarah Longwell, a moderate Republican strategist who hosts focus groups with suburban women, said voters constantly tell her they want to know more about Biden.
Facing a difficult political landscape, she said voters want to see Biden is ready to take on the “most extreme elements of the Republican Party.”
“Even if he can’t do anything about it, the bullying pulpit is a powerful thing,” she said, adding, “People think it’s madness. They want to be able to take their kids to a 4th of July parade and not worry about someone getting shot and they want their leader to reflect that on them.
On Friday, Biden sought to do just that. He hammered Republicans for pursuing a ban on abortion without exception for rape or incest and highlighted the case of a 10-year-old rape victim who was forced to travel out of state to have an abortion. .
He previously approved an exception to the Senate filibuster rule to pass abortion protections, but has so far refused to accept calls for court reform like term limits. or expansion of courts. And in response to the extraordinary revelations about the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, Biden mostly declined to comment, deferring to the congressional committee investigating the attack and the Justice Department, which is considering whether to sue Donald Trump for his role in the violence. attack on American democracy.
“In this hour, if you want to commit yourself to democracy, the thing to do is not to praise the institutions that we have as they are presently constituted, but to get to work to modify these institutions in order to meet current demands,” said William Howell, a political scientist at the University of Chicago and author of Presidents, Populism, and the Crisis of Democracy.
He said Biden’s commitments to democratic norms and traditions are essential, especially after the Trump years, but that shouldn’t stop him from meeting the “acute need for us to review our institutions.”
“The prior status quo was dysfunctional – it was unacceptable in the face of the pressing challenges facing our country,” he said. “While there is a need for a reset, there is a greater need for leadership in terms of institutional reform.”