Why some Democrats are frustrated with Joe Biden

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For Brett Bruen, a former White House official, the current U.S. president has failed to rise to the occasion in the wake of recent and consequential domestic events.

Whether it be a spate of deadly mass shootings, Supreme Court decisions including the overturning of Roe v. Wade, or the startling revelations coming out of the Jan. 6 hearings, Joe Biden should have offered more aggressive and robust responses, he says.

“What we’ve gotten, quite frankly, has been a pretty unsatisfactory string of statements and superficial gestures,” Bruen, who served as Barack Obama’s director of global engagement from 2013 to 2015, told CBC News.

“I think a lot of Democrats feel like the time for the superficial stuff has long since passed. We have got to seize control of these issues and really drive change.”

Bruen is certainly not the lone Democratic expressing such frustrations.

“I think [Biden] has to give voice to the urgency,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. “He isn’t using the bully pulpit effectively.”

A man puts a medal around the neck of a woman in a wheelchair, who is saluting.
Biden awards the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to Wilma Vaught during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House this week. (Susan Walsh/The Associated Press)

With a slim Democratic majority in the House and even slimmer in the Senate, there may be little Biden can do legislatively on some of the issues most vexxing Democrats.

But Bruen says Biden needs to be “really pushing the debate, whether it’s through his travel, through his events, through his personal engagement on some of these things. I just don’t see the White House focused in a smart, strategic way.”

Other Democrats have similarly claimed that the White House is “rudderless, aimless and hopeless,” and that some party members have grown impatient.

Meanwhile, a recent piece in The Atlantic headlined Is Biden a Man Out Of Time?, written by veteran political reporter Ronald Brownstein, says many Democrats feel that, on a number of issues, “Biden and his team have been following, not leading.”

And that has prompted “persistent chatter” about whether he should run again in 2024.

“The concern among Democrats about the White House … is palpable,” Michael D. Shear, a longtime White House reporter for The New York Times, told the paper in a recent interview.

Frightened children flee a building, guided by police officers.
Children run to safety after escaping from a window during a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. (Pete Luna/Uvalde Leader-News/Reuters)

“The main issue seems to be a performative one. Democrats want Biden to seem tougher, more engaged and more in the moment,” he said.

Shear said it was “striking” that in a week with so many sweeping issues  — Roe v. Wade, inflation, recession fears, mass shootings — you wouldn’t have known it from the president’s schedule, when instead he awarded medals and gave a speech on pensions.

All this comes while Biden’s polling numbers continue to tank. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that only 36 per cent of Americans approved of the president’s handling of his job, the lowest level of his presidency.

But Biden’s support within his own party has declined somewhat — just 69 per cent of Democrats polled approved of his performance, compared to about 85 per cent in August.

Of the many issues facing the White House, perhaps the biggest frustration among Democrats has been the White House response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Some wanted a more aggressive response. For example, shortly after the decision, Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Tina Smith of Minnesota urged Biden to declare a public health emergency.

Women protest on a street, waving pro-choice signs.
Pro-choice activists protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court moments after Roe v. Wade was overturned. Biden signed executive orders on Friday that would ease access to abortion pills. (Mark Gollom/CBC)

‘Use the bully pulpit’

When Biden expressed support for an exception to the 60-vote filibuster rule in order to codify abortion rights, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, approvingly: “Time for people to see a real, forceful push for it. Use the bully pulpit. We need more.”

On Friday, Biden signed executive orders to expand access to abortion medication. Some welcomed it as a first step, however others complained that Biden should have had those orders ready the day after the decision, Bannon says.

The five weeks between the leak of the Roe v. Wade opinion and the actual decision was a lot of time for the Biden administration to respond, he said.

“But they didn’t. And I think that’s what created a lot of unhappiness among progressive Democrats,” he said.

But Bruen, who considers himself a moderate Democrat, says he believes the frustration with Biden is a “shared concern across the party.”

“It comes down to the message and the messaging from this White House has not been particularly strong,” he said. 

“The Democrats look to the president to lay down — what is their argument on this issue? The White House has got to do a better job of that. They also have to do a better job of trying to package these issues up together.”

Jim Kessler, a Democratic strategist and executive vice-president for policy of the centre-left Third Way think-tank, says Biden could do a better job of providing optimism for Americans.

In 1982, with the U.S. facing high unemployment, President Ronald Reagan was successful at “selling the destination,” Kessler said.

“He basically said, ‘We’re going to get through this. We’re going to have strong growth, but growth is going to be shared by everyone in every place in America. Bear with me. Stay the course.’ And I think that Biden could do a better job of selling the destination of a prosperous, free, growing nation.”

He agrees that there have been some White House fumbles, and that the administration was late on tackling inflation and realizing it is more than a transitory issue. 

But Kessler says there are “a lot of crestfallen Democrats” upset over events unrelated to the president, including the Supreme Court decisions that bolstered gun rights but took away abortion rights. And he suggests some criticisms are not warranted.

“We had a July 4th mass shooting. And some people were saying, ‘The president needed to be angrier.’ That’s ridiculous. The president’s been plenty angry for the last year and a half,” he said.

‘The dumbest, dumbest thing’

Brian Doory, a Democratic strategist and managing director of Scarlet Oak Strategies, a public affairs firm, agrees there’s frustration among some Democrats, but says much of it is misplaced.

I think the obstruction on the other side has just not allowed [Biden] to move the ball as much as he would like,” he said. “The frustration should be directed at Trump and his supporters and I think all the Republicans who have essentially followed suit not to work with Democrats at any level.”

Democratic strategist Kevin Walling says Democrats have an unfortunate habit of abandoning their leader when their polling numbers slide.

“When Donald Trump was down … Republicans rallied around President Trump and the flag. And I think we Democrats often when we see a dip in popularity among our president, we wring our hands, we abandon the president,” he said.

With midterms on the horizon, Democrats seeking election who run away from the president and his record, do so at their own peril, Walling said.

Walling referred to the Democratic candidates in Ohio who did not meet with Biden when he recently visited Cleveland.

“It is the dumbest, dumbest thing that you can do,” he said. “It’s stupid to run away from the president and the leader of the party, especially when Air Force One comes to town to that local community airfield. That is a huge deal.”

“My advice to every Democrat is run with this president because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you’re not supporting him, you’re going to see those numbers continue to slide.”

Still, Bannon agrees there have been rumblings about a change in leadership for 2024, but that it would be very tough for a Democrat to take down Biden if he wants to run for re-election.

“There are unhappy Democrats. But most Democrats, the Democrats in the primaries, are still supportive of Joe Biden. I don’t see anybody making  serious preparations about running for president.”



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