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President Biden speaks to reporters after a meeting with Senate Democrats to discuss voting rights and the filibuster on Jan. 13, 2022, on Capitol Hill.

President Biden speaks to reporters after a meeting with Senate Democrats to discuss voting rights and the filibuster on Jan. 13, 2022, on Capitol Hill. (Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post)

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WASHINGTON — Nearing the first anniversary of his swearing in, President Joe Biden has suffered through arguably the worst week of his presidency. Whether he has a strategy for a course correction is the question on the minds of nervous Democrats looking ahead to the November elections.

Biden's road ahead looks as challenging as it did when he took the oath of office a year ago, though for different reasons. A year ago, he was arriving in the middle of a crisis — just days after the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol and with a coronavirus pandemic that was raging. He said he was determined to lower temperatures, seek unity and demonstrate competent leadership after four chaotic years under President Donald Trump.

Today, Biden is dealing with challenges that have much to do with how he tried to govern in his first year, problems compounded by resistance from Republicans and his predecessor's ongoing efforts to undermine faith in democratic processes. He also begins the year with far less popular support than a year ago. Despite some successes, his approval ratings remain in perilous political territory. How he responds will be critical.

Biden has failed to win passage for both voting rights and his Build Back Better legislation, signature priorities of his first year. He could scale back on some of the ambitions and accept smaller victories, but that would require him to confront a liberal, activist wing of his party that has kept the pressure on him to deliver on his big campaign promises. Neither the use of the bully pulpit nor backroom negotiation skills honed over three decades as a senator has produced all that he had hoped or promised. Now what?

The setbacks for Biden last week came from every direction. Inflation last year hit a 40-year high. The Supreme Court blocked his vaccine-or-test mandate for employees of large companies while upholding the mandate for health-care workers. He struggled to defend against criticism that his administration had no plan to make coronavirus testing easily available and that it was providing confusing guidance about dealing with the omicron variant. Talks with the Russians aimed at avoiding war in Ukraine broke off with no apparent progress.

And then there was the issue of voting rights.

The president traveled to Atlanta to pump for two pieces of long-stalled voting legislation, the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Instead of being welcomed by allies, he found voting rights activists in Georgia choosing not to show up. Their absence was embarrassing for the White House while unhelpfully highlighting the lack of a strategy to enact either bill.

Biden's speech in Georgia was rhetorically red-hot, as when he said, "Do you want to be the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?"

A week earlier, Biden had won praise for a tough speech on the anniversary of the assault on the Capitol in which he repeatedly called out Trump, though not by name, and issued a vigorous defense of democracy under threat.

The Georgia speech prompted a far different reaction. Republicans panned it, and while many Democrats praised Biden for the forcefulness, even though some of them suggested he had gone too far with his words. The speech was meant as a rallying cry for the Democratic base, demonstrating Biden's passion on the issue. As a piece of rhetorical persuasion, it appeared to have the opposite effect by hardening the opposition.

On Thursday, Biden met with Senate Democrats, having called for a change in the filibuster rules to help ease passage of the legislation. Before he even arrived, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., delivered a speech on the Senate floor outlining again her firm opposition to changing the rules, a position she shares with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

Her speech erased any doubt about the fate of the legislation. Leaving the meeting with the senators, Biden told reporters: "I hope we can get this done. The honest to God answer is, I don't know whether we can get this done." The Senate will vote next week with the outcome seemingly preordained.

One week does not make a presidency, and several things can be said at this point for the president. First, Biden has a record of accomplishment in his first year. He won passage for a roughly $2 trillion stimulus package (with the help of Manchin and Sinema) early in his tenure and followed that with enactment of a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill with bipartisan support. The early rollout of vaccines was successful — though it hit a wall of resistance in midsummer that has continued to this day.

Second, some of Biden's problems stem from solid Republican opposition. Beyond the bipartisan infrastructure package, Republicans have resisted working with Biden. They have opposed his stimulus bill, his Build Back Better legislation and voting rights. (They also opposed creation of a bipartisan, independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol and now condemn the House committee formed to do the same.)

Third, the pandemic has put a cloud over the entire country. Lives continue to be disrupted. People are irritable because life cannot return to normal, even if they understand why. Some of this is beyond Biden's control, but as president he bears the brunt of criticism. The problems of dealing with the pandemic are now his, not Trump's.

Biden's first year in office points as much to the limitations of the presidency as to its powers. A president has various tools to move an agenda. Among the most important is public opinion, and right now Biden doesn't have that on his side, as he did a year ago. Elements of his agenda are popular, but his personal approval ratings have sagged. He is seen differently today than when he took the oath.

Another tool is power in the form of legislative majorities, and on this front, too, Biden is distinctly limited and has been from the start He and the Democrats have control of Congress, but it is partly illusory. A 50-50 Senate, as has been demonstrated over and over, is a shaky foundation upon which to base a transformative presidency. Was it a mistake by Biden to assume otherwise?

A year of fruitless negotiations suggest that Biden and his party now might have to accept a Build Back Better bill designed almost entirely by Manchin, though it's not clear there is any such formula acceptable to the West Virginian. Even on Manchin's terms, passage of a bill in the neighborhood of $1.75 trillion would be a substantial accomplishment, though Biden would have to persuade the left that a scaled-down measure represents real progress.

On voting rights, if the more comprehensive bill lacks votes, can Biden and Democrats narrow its focus to the immediate threats brought about by GOP-sponsored changes in the states that would put the counting and certification of elections in the hands of partisans rather than nonpartisan election officials? Or, short of that, should they agree to a revision of the Electoral College Act of 1887, which would clarify final certification of the presidential vote?

On both the economy and the pandemic, Biden must hope that there will be a gradual improvement that the voters begin to feel by early this summer. For months, this has been the mantra of administration officials: Things have to improve and naturally will. Yet nothing the administration can say will persuade people who are feeling bad, about the pandemic or the economy, that they shouldn't feel bad. As David Axelrod, the Democratic strategist, said, "You can't jawbone people into feeling better."

Looking to November, absent a turnaround, the more the elections become a pure referendum on the president, the more his party will suffer. Biden's opportunity could be to try to shift the focus, to prompt swing suburban voters to ask themselves whether a Republican Congress would return the country to the chaos of the Trump years, with House GOP leaders promising retribution if they take control and the party generally lacking a clear governing agenda.

This is how the first year of the Biden presidency is ending. His fellow Democrats will be looking to the president to signal the course ahead, including any changes that might entail, and hope that he can steer to safety.


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