WASHINGTON — With the White House legislative agenda in ruins less than a year before the midterm elections, Democrats are sounding the alarm that their party could suffer even greater losses than expected without a major change in strategy led by the president.
The frustrations span the spectrum from those of the liberal wing of the party, who feel deflated by a failure to set a bold agenda, to the concerns of moderates, who are concerned about losing voters in the suburbs and thought that democratic victories would herald a return to normalcy after last year’s upheaval.
Democrats were already anticipating a difficult medium-term environment, as the party in power historically loses seats during a president’s first term. But the party’s struggle to act on its biggest legislative priorities has left lawmakers and strategists confused, who fear their candidates will be left to fight the perception that Democrats are violating President Biden’s central campaign promise to broken Washington restart, have not fulfilled.
“I think millions of Americans are very demoralized — they’re asking what the Democrats stand for?” said Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent in charge of the Senate Budget Committee. In a lengthy interview, he added: “Obviously the current strategy is failing and we need a major course correction.”
Representative Tim Ryan, a working-class Ohio Democrat who is running for the state’s open senate seat, said his party is not addressing voters’ concerns about school closures, the pandemic and economic security. He blames the Biden administration not only for failing to meet the domestic agenda, but also for not having clear public health guidelines around issues like masking and testing.
“It seems like the Democrats can’t go out of their own way,” he said. “The Democrats need to do a better job of being clear about what they’re trying to do.”
The complaints capped off one of the worst weeks of Biden’s presidency, as the White House faced the impending failure of voting rights legislation, the defeat of their vaccine-or-test mandate for major employers in the Supreme Court, and inflation soared to 40-year high and friction with Russia over aggression against Ukraine. Meanwhile, Mr. Biden’s top domestic priority — a sprawling $2.2 trillion in spending, climate and tax policy plan — continues to grind to a halt, not only because of Republicans, but also because of the opposition of a centrist Democrat.
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“I’m sure they’re frustrated — I am,” Illinois Senator Richard J. Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said when asked this week about the chamber’s inability to act against Mr. Biden’s agenda. . Discussing the impact on voters ahead of the midterm elections, he added, “It depends on who they blame.”
The end of the week marked another painful milestone for Democrats: Friday marked the first time since July that millions of American families with children were denied monthly child support payments, a payment enacted as part of the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief plan that was launched. the Democrats pushed through in March without any support from Republicans.
Plans to extend the due date of payments, which helped lift millions of children out of poverty, were thwarted by the failure of negotiations on the comprehensive domestic policy plan. And additional pandemic-related provisions will expire before the end of the year without action from Congress.
“It’s as simple as it gets,” said Mr. Ryan. “If the Democrats can’t go through with a tax cut for working families, what are we in for?”
In recent days, Mr Biden has faced a wave of mounting anger from traditional party supporters. Members of some civil rights groups boycotted his Atlanta suffrage speech to express disappointment at his pressure on the issue, while others, including Stacey Abrams, who is running for governor in Georgia, were conspicuously absent. Mr Biden promised to make another strong effort to protect voting rights, but saw it hiss the next day.
And last week, six of Biden’s former public health advisers came out with criticisms of his handling of the pandemic, calling on the White House to adopt a strategy aligned with the “new normal” of living indefinitely with the virus. Others have called for the firing of Jeffrey Zients, who leads the White House’s pandemic response team.
“There seems to be no appreciation for the urgency of the moment,” said Tré Easton, senior advisor to Battle Born Collective, a progressive group that urges the toppling of the filibuster to allow Democrats to pass a range of their priorities. “It’s kind of, ‘OK, what comes next?’ Is something going to happen where voters can say yes, my life is appreciatively more stable than it was two years ago.”
White House officials and Democrats insist their agendas are far from dead and talks with key lawmakers continue to approve most of Mr. Biden’s domestic plans. Talks about an omnibus package to keep the government open after Feb. 18 have quietly resumed and states are starting to receive money from the $1 trillion infrastructure bill.
“I think the truth is that an agenda isn’t ready in a year,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
While there is broad agreement about the electoral danger the party faces, there is little consensus about exactly who is to blame. Liberals have been particularly scathing in their criticism of two centrist senators, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and their longstanding objections to undermining the Senate filibuster, as well as Mr. Manchin’s decision to cancel the spending plan of $2.2 trillion to be abruptly rejected last month. For months, Democratic lawmakers, activists and officials have expressed concern about a loss of support among crucial segments of the party coalition — black, female, young and Latino voters — ratings many worry could fall further without action on things like voting rights, climate change, abortion rights and paid family leave.
“In my opinion, we will not win the election in 2022 unless our bases are strengthened and ordinary people understand what we are fighting for and how we are different from Republicans,” Sanders said. “That’s not the case now.”
But many in the party admit that the reality of their tight congressional majorities and united Republican opposition has blocked their ability to approve much of their agenda. Some have accused party leaders of meeting the aspirations of progressives, without the votes to execute.
“Leadership started with a failed strategy, and while I think they might be able to tell they tried, it won’t actually make any real laws,” said Representative Stephanie Murphy, a Florida centrist who is retiring but has signaled ambitions. for a future Senate round.
Representative Cheri Bustos, a Democrat from rural Illinois, said Democrats should consider less ambitious bills that could gain some Republican backing to deliver the party performance they can claim in the midterm elections.
“We really need to do a reset right now,” said Ms. Bustos, who is retiring from a district that transitioned to Donald J. Trump in 2020. “I hope we focus on what we can do and then focus like crazy selling it.”
Mr. Biden effectively staked his presidency on the belief that voters would reward his party for leading the country out of the deadly pandemic and into economic prosperity. But even after a year that saw record job growth, widely available vaccines and stock prices, Mr. Biden has not yet begun to deliver a message of success, nor has he focused on promoting his legislative victories.
Many Democrats say they need to do more to sell their achievements or risk the midterm elections going the way of the out-of-year election, when many in the party were surprised by the intensity of opposition to them at races in Virginia, New Jersey and New York.
“We need to focus on promotion and sales, not complaining and moaning,” said Bradley Beychok, president of American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic group.
Others say that as president, Mr. Biden has been out of step with many voters by focusing on issues like climate change and voting rights. While crucial to the country, these topics are not at the top of the list of concerns for many voters who are still trying to navigate the uncertainties of a pandemic stretching into its third year.
“Government is focused on things that are important but not particularly noticeable to voters and sometimes as president you have to do that,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank. “Now we need to start talking about the things people do care about.