With inflation, gas prices on voters' minds, Biden's domestic agenda muddied by war in Ukraine

Ahead of the midterms in November, political experts warn it won't be enough for Democrats to sell last year's passage of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law or $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.

  • Biden has increased his traveling in a push to talk directly to Americans about the economy.
  • Biden still hasn't moved forward on a smaller social-spending plan after Build Back Better stalled.
  • Some Democrats want one more push to pass pieces of Build Back Better.

WASHINGTON – After disembarking Air Force One in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, President Joe Biden was ready last week to talk about the historic infusion of infrastructure spending passed under his watch that will improve the city's harbor.

Instead, he was met by a reporter who asked about his latest call with Western leaders about Russia's war in Ukraine. 

"New Hampshire," Biden responded. "I'm here to talk about New Hampshire."

The moment captured a struggle for the White House: articulating the president's domestic agenda and biggest legislative achievements amid the growing carnage in Ukraine, which has consumed global and national politics for two months.

Biden's swing Friday through Seattle to commemorate Earth Day capped a two-week stretch that included visits to five states – Iowa, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Oregon and Washington – and marked the busiest period of travel of his presidency. It was an effort to get the president talking less about the war in Ukraine and more about Americans' top concerns: the economy and inflation.  

Torpedoed by a 40-year high in inflation, Biden's approval ratings have hovered around 40% for months. A Quinnipiac University poll earlier this month found it dropped to 33%, matching his low from January. But with every speech he gives on defending Ukraine, Biden risks looking more fixated on global issues than Americans' pocketbooks. On Thursday, Biden asked Congress to authorize an additional $33 billion in aid for Ukraine. 

"The Ukraine war is obviously huge," said Carly Cooperman, a Democratic pollster and CEO of the firm Schoen Cooperman Research. But "at the end of the day," she said, the president hasn't turned his response to Russia's invasion into wider support for his presidency. "It's just of utmost importance to be connecting with voters about the economic hardships that they're facing."

More:For voters, inflation is top of mind; Biden's signature legislation doesn't register

During last week's stops, Biden framed his proposal to lower prescription drug prices as one way to relieve rising costs for Americans. He blamed supply chain interruptions stemming from the pandemic and Russian President  Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine for high gas prices. He also has talked about making child care and senior caregiving more affordable. 

More:Biden's new Build Back Better strategy: 5 takeaways from his long (and feisty) press conference

Yet four months after Biden's Build Back Better bill stalled in Congress, the administration hasn't submitted a trimmed-down proposal. The White House has declined to discuss negotiations publicly in what officials call a "strategic decision." Previous talks that died with moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia often spilled into the media.

"I think if we had a bill that was ready to pass with 50 votes, we would make that clear," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. "So, not having a public speech from the president is not a reflection of what's happening behind the scenes."

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on infrastructure at the Portland Air National Guard Base April 21 in Portland, Oregon, the beginning of a multi-day tour of the Northwest.

More:As voting rights push fizzles, Biden's failure to unite his own party looms again

Some Democrats want one more push to pass stalled agenda

Ahead of the 2022 midterm elections in November, political experts warn it won't be enough for Biden and Democrats to sell last year's passage of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law or $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. 

"The American public tends to ask 'What have you done for me lately?" said David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron in Ohio, calling it "extremely important" that Biden and Democrats, who face major headwinds to retain power in Congress, pass something more they can run on in the coming months. 

If they don't, Cohen said, Democrats will undermine their claim as the party that “gets things done” and Republicans "the party of obstruction" led by Donald Trump.

Some Democrats in Congress sense time is running out to pass major legislation in Congress through reconciliation, which would allow Democrats in the Senate to pass a budget bill without Republicans' support.

Although that strategy failed after the White House was unable to secure votes from Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., they want to see the White House make one more push.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in a New York Times op-ed, argued that Democrats should use "every single one of the next 200 days" to pursue promises Biden and Democrats campaigned on. She said Democrats win elections when they show "we understand the painful economic realities facing American families" and deliver on change. She highlighted Biden using executive authority to cancel  student loan debt among a wish list of progressive priorities. 

"To put it bluntly," Warren said, "if we fail to use the months remaining before the elections to deliver on more of our agenda, Democrats are headed toward big losses in the midterms."

More:Biden pivots to burn pits, veterans health care amid mounting crises at home and abroad

In North Carolina recently, Biden highlighted his work to fund historic Black colleges and universities and boost domestic supply chains with high-tech workforces. In New Hampshire and Oregon, he hailed an "infrastructure decade" thanks to the new infrastructure law. He tried to localize that package, touting $1.7 million for maintenance dredging for Portsmouth Harbor and a $20 million upgrade at the airport in Portland. 

President Joe Biden touts his bipartisan infrastructure law  April 19 in a visit to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

But Biden's vision for the remaining year isn't so clear. The White House has retired the "Build Back Better" slogan, replacing it with "Building a Better America." In stops over the past two weeks, Biden made the case for raising taxes on multimillionaires and billionaires. The president also talked about proposals to lower the cost of insulin to help about 200,000 children in the U.S. who have Type I diabetes. 

"It's the best way Congress can address inflation right now," Biden said in New Hampshire as he tried to connect the war overseas to pain at home. "Folks, look, the fact is that we are in a situation where the war in Ukraine is going to continue to take its toll on the world economy."

More:Biden's dilemma: Pushing fossil fuels to cut gas prices while promoting clean energy agenda

Psaki later said steps to improve child care, health care, elder care and lower prescription drug prices "are no-brainers for most people." And yet these and other ideas have not been packaged together in a new spending proposal for Congress. 

Despite the lack of progress, Ron Klain, White House chief of staff, said the president has a "robust agenda between now and November" that includes a reconciliation bill, while acknowledging time is of the essence.

"I think what really serves as the motivator," Klain said in an interview April 13 on an NBC podcast, "is understanding that the calendar has only so months left in this year."

The sun sets on FDR comparisons 

In moves aimed at curbing high gas prices, Biden tapped the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, called for oil companies to drill on federal land where they've already received permits and allowed higher-ethanol gas to be sold this summer. The White House hasn't ruled out the possibility of a gas tax holiday.

Trying to counter the narrative that the economy is struggling, Biden has hailed record job growth during his presidency, a 3.6% unemployment rate and increases in average wages 

"Notwithstanding all that," Biden said at a Democratic fundraiser in Seattle last week, people feel "concerned and uncertain" because of inflation. "They're angry."

More:Biden says Americans will feel the pain of high gas prices. Will they be OK paying more to support Ukraine?

Shortly after taking office, Biden pushed a historic expansion of the social safety net, drawing comparisons of his domestic agenda to those of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson.

But in the absence of a new social spending plan, the White House has zeroed in on smaller wins. This month, Biden welcomed back former President Barack Obama to highlight improvements to the Affordable Care Act. The president hosted a ceremony for legislation to overhaul the U.S. Postal Service. In Seattle, Biden announced new executive action to make the nation’s forests more resilient against the threat of wildfires and climate change.

More:Biden Earth Day action targets protecting old-growth forests from wildfires, climate change

Those smaller moments came as he has confronted the war in Ukraine with $4 billion in U.S. military aid.

Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Center, said it's not unusual for presidents' domestic agendas to be challenged by events overseas. She said Johnson struggled to get credit for his Great Society programs during the Vietnam War – which, unlike today's events in Ukraine, involved U.S. occupation. President Bill Clinton juggled conflicts in Somalia and the Balkans to push his economic agenda.

"It's not as though he had a choice," Perry said of Biden having to navigate the crisis in Ukraine with economic concerns at home. She said that though Biden is "not going to get Build Back Better," he needs to "retool and reshape" a message around what's realistic. 

"He's going to have to run on a record," she said. "And if he doesn't get anything else through, they'll have to just run on the record that he does have."

Contributing: The Associated Press

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.