WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden has an election-year message for frustrated voters: At least he's trying.
For those who think he isn't doing enough to help Ukraine fend off the Russian invasion, Biden announced $800 million in new military support on Thursday. To ease the pain of high gas prices, he's tapped the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and reopened onshore sales of oil and natural gas leases on public land. And to address historic inflation, Biden has tried to smooth out supply chain-crimping bottlenecks at the nation’s ports.
The president hopes the moves, which are being announced in near-daily rollouts and in a stepped up travel schedule, will present a contrast with Republicans — who, he argues, spend more time complaining about problems than proposing solutions.
“I mean this sincerely — name me something the national Republican Party is for,” Biden said at a recent Democratic National Committee meeting.
But it's not clear he's attracting much support. A new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds just 45% of Americans approve and 54% disapprove of how Biden is handling the presidency. The approval rate in the poll taken from April 14-18 is about the same as last month, but down from the president’s 63% approval rating a year ago.
There are bright spots for Biden. Applications for unemployment benefits have fallen to the lowest levels in decades and wages are rising. The economy is growing after the pandemic-induced doldrums.
Still, with crime rates rising in some parts of the country and inflation at its highest levels since 1981, these don’t feel like boom times to many. Seventy percent of Americans call the nation’s economy poor. Further, just 33% say they approve and 66% say they disapprove of Biden’s handling of the economy, with about a third of Democrats, along with almost all Republicans, disapproving.
Primary elections that begin next month will help show whether Democrats are embracing Biden’s vision of a moderate party that counters the increasingly far-right GOP.
In Ohio, Rep. Tim Ryan is well positioned to win the Democratic nomination for an open Senate seat with a message appealing to centrist, blue collar workers that is in line with Biden’s overall approach. But in the president’s native state of Pennsylvania, moderate Conor Lamb could be in a tight Senate primary against the more progressive John Fetterman.
Biden has suggested that one way to address his political challenges is to get on the road and make the case directly to voters about the impact of his administration's policies. He has increased his domestic travel lately to promote a $1 trillion, bipartisan infrastructure package that cleared Congress last fall. Biden has visited Iowa, North Carolina, New Hampshire and Oregon since last week, and is in Seattle on Friday.
But some top Democrats running for office aren’t clamoring for the president’s help. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke says he has no interest in national Democratic figures visiting his state as he now runs for governor. Florida Rep. Val Demings, as she campaigns for Senate, was non-comital about Biden’s help, as was Ryan.
“My philosophy is like: I’m running. I’m the candidate. I don’t need any validators,” Ryan said at the Knox County Democratic Party office in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Nearby stood cardboard cutouts of Obama and Hillary Clinton. There wasn’t one of Biden, though there was a campaign sign bearing his name outside.
Asked if appearing with Biden could be damaging, Ryan was unusually blunt.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I really don’t.”
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris nevertheless plan on boosting U.S. trips in coming weeks, as well as stepping up their fundraising on behalf of the Democratic Party, according to administration officials and allies. But most of their activity is likely to take place in the late summer and early fall — after primaries are concluded and as voters will have their choice at the ballot box laid out for them.
Some in the administration have pressed for Biden and Democrats to draw a stronger contrast with Republicans, for instance arguing that the president should be more forcefully highlight a new study that Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to introduce redundant inspections on truck travel cost the U.S. economy $9 billion in 10 days.
At a Thursday Democratic fundraiser at a yacht club in Portland, Oregon, Biden predicted that Democrats would add two seats in November to secure a 52-48 Senate majority.
“The far right’s taken over that party,” he said of Republicans. “And it’s not even conservative in a traditional sense of conservatism. It’s mean. It’s ugly."
But trying to blame the other side amid mounting problems can have its limitations. Democrat Terry McAuliffe attempted to make last year’s Virginia governor’s race a referendum on the dangers of modern day GOP — even branding Republican opponent Glenn Youngkin “Trump in a sweater vest.” McAuliffe lost in a state Biden had carried by 10 points barely a year earlier.
Some who would otherwise be the White House's fiercest allies say it'll be up to Biden to energize voters ahead of November — regardless of what Republicans do.
“He’s not an effective communicator,” said Wes Bellamy, founder of Our Black Party, which advocates for issues to strengthen African American communities.
The president “speaks in a tone that doesn’t really resonate with much of his base and I don’t think they do a good enough job of being active on the ground,” Bellamy said.
Adding to the challenge is the fact that, when the president addresses one problem, he may prompt another. Some of what the administration has done to tame prices at the pump, for instance, run counter to Biden's promises about combating climate change — especially after his signature social spending bill, “Build Back Better,” collapsed in Congress.
“His midterm strategy with respect to the environment is pretty underwhelming and not likely to work,” said Brett Hartl, chief political strategist at the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund.
Hartl said Americans, particularly young ones who backed Biden in 2020 thinking he’d help make the country dramatically greener, are now disillusioned with “a really steady trail of defeats on the climate crisis.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki suggested Biden may help Democrats avoid a Republican midterm romp by evoking the phrase “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative." That's something Biden said frequently as vice president and while campaigning for the White House in 2020.
“Really, if you look at the other side, they have nothing in the cupboard. They have no plan,” Psaki said during a recent event for “Pod Save America.” “We could be saying that more.”
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in Mount Vernon, Ohio, and Josh Boak in Portland, Oregon, contributed to this report.