WASHINGTON – The collapse of the Afghan government, a surge of COVID-19 cases caused by the delta variant, devastating weather events, a disappointing jobs report. What next?
After a torrent of crises, President Joe Biden is hoping to turn the page on an unrelenting summer and refocus his presidency this fall around his core economic agenda.
But the recent cascade of troubles is a sobering reminder of the unpredictable weight of the office and fresh evidence that presidents rarely have the luxury of focusing on just one crisis at a time. Biden's unyielding summer knocked his White House onto emergency footing and sent his own poll numbers tumbling.
“The presidency is not a job for a monomaniac,” said presidential historian Michael Beschloss. “You have to be multitasking 24 hours a day.”
Never has that been more true than summer 2021, which began with the White House proclamation of the nation’s “independence” from the coronavirus and defying-the-odds bipartisanship on a massive infrastructure package. Then COVID-19 came roaring back, the Afghanistan pullout devolved into chaos and hiring slowed.
Biden now hopes for a post-Labor Day reframing of the national conversation toward his twin domestic goals of passing a bipartisan infrastructure bill and pushing through a Democrats-only expansion of the social safety ne t.
White House officials are eager to shift Biden’s public calendar toward issues that are important to his agenda and that they believe are top of mind for the American people.
“I think you can expect the president to be communicating over the coming weeks on a range of issues that are front and center on the minds of the American people,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
“Certainly you can expect to hear from him more on his Build Back Better agenda, on COVID and his commitment to getting the virus under control, to speak to parents and those who have kids going back to school."
During the chaotic Afghanistan evacuation, the White House was central in explaining the consequences of Biden’s withdrawal decision and the effort to evacuate Americans and allies from the country. Now, officials want to put the State Department and other agencies out front on the efforts to assist stranded Americans and support evacuees, while Biden moves on to other topics.
It’s in part a reflection of an unspoken belief inside the White House that for all the scenes of chaos in Afghanistan, the public backs his decision and it will fade from memory by the midterm elections.
Instead, the White House is gearing up for a legislative sprint to pass more than $4 trillion in domestic funding that will make up much of what Biden hopes will be his first-term legacy before the prospects of major lawmaking seize up in advance of the 2022 races.
On Friday, in remarks on August's disappointing jobs report, Biden tried to return to the role of public salesman for his domestic agenda and claim the mantle of warrior for the middle class.
“For those big corporations that don’t want things to change, my message is this: It’s time for working families — the folks who built this country — to have their taxes cut,” Biden said. He renewed his calls for raising corporate rates to pay for free community college, paid family leave and an expansion of the child tax credit.
“I’m going to take them on,” Biden said of corporate interests.
While Biden may want to turn the page, though, aides are mindful that the crises are not done with him.
Biden is planning to speak this week on new efforts to contain the delta variant and protect kids in schools from COVID-19. And his administration continues to face criticism for his decision to pull American troops from Afghanistan before all U.S. citizens and allies could get out.
“President Biden desperately wants to talk about anything but Afghanistan, but Americans who are hiding from the Taliban, ISIS, and the Haqqani network don’t give a damn about news cycles, long weekends, and polling — they want out,” said Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska. He called on the Biden White House on Friday to provide a public accounting of the number of Americans and their allies still stuck inside Afghanistan.
Biden also will soon be grappling with fallout from the windup of two anchors of the government’s COVID-19 protection package: The federal moratorium on evictions recently expired, and starting Monday, an estimated 8.9 million people will lose all unemployment benefits.
The president also is still contending with the sweeping aftereffects of Hurricane Ida, which battered the Gulf states and then swamped the Northeast. After visiting Louisiana last week, he'll get a firsthand look at some of the damage in New York and New Jersey on Tuesday.
Already, he is trying to turn the destruction wrought by the hurricane into a fresh argument for the infrastructure spending he's been pushing all along, telling local officials in Louisiana, “It seems to me we can save a whole lot of money and a whole lot of pain for our constituents — if when we build back, we build it back in a better way.”
According to White House officials, even as other issues dominated headlines, Biden and his team have maintained regular conversations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., about the president’s legislative agenda. His legislative team held more than 130 calls and meetings with members of Congress, their chiefs of staff and aides on the infrastructure bill and spending package, and his administration has held over 90 meetings with legislative staff on crafting the reconciliation bill.
Responding to concerns raised by pivotal Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., over the price tag on the roughly $3.5 trillion social spending package, White House chief of staff Ron Klain told CNN on Sunday that he was convinced that the Democrat was “very persuadable” on the legislation.
Cabinet officials have also been engaged with lawmakers, officials said, and traveled to 80 congressional districts to promote the agenda across the country while Biden was kept in Washington.
Biden, said Beschloss, may have a leg up on some of his predecessors at moving beyond the crises to keep his legislative agenda on track, given his 50 years of experience in national politics.
“If there’s anyone who has a sense of proportion and distance and perspective at a time like this, he does,” Beschloss told The Associated Press. “For someone who’s been in national life much more briefly and was new to the presidency, you’re being stunned by things all the time.”