In other words, the president seems to be everywhere. But to what end? It is something that worries Democrats heading toward the November midterm elections. But is it a problem of messaging or of policy, of words without impact or simply a sign of a weary and unhappy electorate that has stopped paying close attention to a president? Whatever it is, the political ramifications are serious. Biden has little time to figure it out, if it can be figured out, before voters render their judgment on his first two years in office.
When Biden spoke about gun violence on Thursday night, there was applause from advocates of tougher gun laws for the specificity and passion with which he outlined measures to deal with the epidemic of mass shootings. He called for banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and enacting red-flag laws to take potential killers off the streets before they kill. After signals that he would stay out of the debate on Capitol Hill, he jumped in, prodded lawmakers and preemptively pinned blame on Republicans if nothing serious happens.
To those who liked the speech, Biden’s remarks could be seen as an example of presidential leadership in a time of national crisis, of a chief executive saying something with which many Americans agree, even if what he called for is not immediately achievable. But if the president’s words won’t move lawmakers to act, will they move voters to take out their dissatisfaction on Republicans in November, which was part of the president’s goal?
Thursday wasn’t the first time Biden has spoken out strongly with limited hope for real action. In January, he spoke in Georgia about voting rights, demanding action and comparing those who opposed a federal law to expand access to voting — which was blocked by Senate Republicans from even being debated — to George Wallace, Bull Connor and Jefferson Davis. Yet neither Biden nor Senate Democrats have a strategy to move the bill forward, a fact that exasperated civil rights and voting rights groups, who wondered what was the point of it all.
The roadblock on guns is long-standing. Biden isn’t the first president to fail to move Congress after a tragic shooting. The president he served as vice president, Barack Obama, couldn’t overcome the gun lobby after the horrific Sandy Hook shootings a decade ago.
Biden in fact has a record of success on the issue: As a senator, he helped pass what he is asking for now, a ban on assault weapons. That was in 1994. It lasted a decade and was allowed to lapse.
On Capitol Hill, a bipartisan group of senators continues to work. Signals are mixed about eventual success. Even the most modest piece of legislation, one that gains 60 votes in the Senate and lands on Biden’s desk, will be described as a triumph. Short of that, Biden and Democrats will try to turn failure by Congress into a political rallying cry for November to mobilize Democrats and others around the issue.
Biden’s days are filled with challenges, but inflation continues to present the most politically potent issue facing his administration. The president has limited tools to deal with the problem. He must work around the edges while hoping the Federal Reserve’s tightening of monetary policy succeeds in tamping down inflation without bringing about a recession.
Nothing Biden has said or done to date has made things notably better, either in lowering prices or improving his political standing. Despite a strong jobs market, underscored again on Friday when the Labor Department reported that the economy added another 390,000 jobs last month and the unemployment rate held steady at 3.6 percent, inflation is the issue driving political attitudes.
An example of his limited powers is seen in his decision in the spring to authorize the largest-ever release from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Gasoline prices dipped a bit around the time of Biden’s announcement but have since leapfrogged past where they were and could hit an average of $5 a gallon later this summer. Biden has blamed the spike on Russia’s war on Ukraine and the disruption of supplies — “Putin’s price hike,” as he calls it. Democrats, however, fear voters will take out their anger on them.
On Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen acknowledged that she was wrong about inflation last year, underestimating its staying power. Her honest admission was refreshing, even if it provided Republicans with ammunition to attack the administration for misjudging and perhaps worsening the upward spiral of prices.
Yellen’s comment on CNN was notable for another reason. It was a rare instance of a Cabinet officer in the Biden administration making news, bad or good, or of acknowledging error. The constant visibility of the president has come alongside the relative invisibility of senior administration officials. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have been in the public eye because of Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine. Attorney General Merrick Garland, dealing with the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, has made several well-covered speeches. Most domestic Cabinet officials have remained much more in the shadows.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Housing Secretary Marcia L. Fudge, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra — all have important portfolios and responsibilities responding to the many challenges around the country. But they aren’t much seen. Even Anthony S. Fauci, once ubiquitous, has been seen far less frequently as the focus on covid has been reduced.
On Tuesday, a frustrated Biden sent senior officials out in force across television programs to make their case that they are doing everything possible to slow the rise in prices. Some populate the Sunday morning talk shows. But while Cabinet officials take occasional bows, they are underemployed as messengers.
Instead, most things funnel through the president’s voice and through the White House communications and policy operations. That includes numerous background briefings to announce decisions that will be administered by agencies and departments. This has been an evolving pattern that started before Biden was elected, of the president’s advisers managing the bureaucracy — and they hope the message — from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Still, few administrations have been as centrally run from the White House as this one.
Biden’s opponents will criticize him no matter what posture he takes. During the 2020 campaign, he was blasted by President Donald Trump and GOP officials, who accused him of hiding in his basement in Delaware during the pandemic. His low-profile strategy worked. In that case less was more; he won the election. But the opposite approach, the always visible president, continues to show its limitations.