Opinion: Will Joe Biden's presidency escape its doldrums?

Opinion: Will Joe Biden's presidency escape its doldrums?
Image via The White House.

Joe Biden’s presidency looks stalled, moribund and broken.

His aggregate approval is hovering around 38 percent on 538’s tracking aggregator — slightly worse than Donald Trump’s at the same point in his presidency before Republicans were crushed in the 2018 midterms. Democrats seem set to lose the House.

Biden’s lackluster response to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision ending abortion rights has (rightly in my view) infuriated his own base. The filibuster-clogged Senate seems unable to act on … well, anything. Inflation remains a stubborn problem.

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Still, there’s reason to think things could get better.

There are signs that the economy may show some improvement before the November midterms. There’s also hope that the Congress may be able to pass some measures that genuinely help people.

The constant Republican attack line on Biden for the past months has been inflation and gas prices. Pushed by the ongoing pandemic and by sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine, in mid-June, the average price of gas hit $5 for the first time ever.

The link between gas prices and presidential approval isn’t one to one. Still high gas prices can hurt presidents. And very, very high gas prices have almost certainly contributed to Biden’s polling decline.

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Inflation remains a serious problem. It climbed to 9.1 percent in June. Prices at the pump, though, seem to be coming back to earth. Though gas is still about $1.50 more expensive than it was at this time in 2021, the price has dropped every day for four weeks.

It’s not clear whether these declines will continue. Some of them are sparked by drops in global oil prices which are linked to fear of a recession, which obviously would not be great economic news.

Still, if we’re looking at a several month decline in oil prices come November, that would be a quite different economic environment than the one Republicans are hoping for and even counting on.

The recession may also be overhyped.

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The federal reserve hiked rates to pull down inflation. When the price of borrowing goes up, economic activity generally slows, causing an increase in the rate of unemployment and stalled growth.

However, last week the jobs report showed that 372,000 jobs were created in June. The unemployment rate remained at 3.6 percent, among the lowest in history. As Jared Bernstein, a member of the White House council of economic advisors said: “Numbers like this are just very much inconsistent with any kind of recession call.”

There also seems to be some good news on Biden’s stalled economic agenda. Senate Democrats and the White House are again negotiating to try to pass reconciliation legislation without Republicans. The choke point, as usual, is conservative West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. Still, discussions seem positive so far.

One item on which there is supposed to be progress is legislation to allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices. The pharmaceutical industry has long spiked such legislation. But Democrats may finally be in a position to defeat the lobbyists.

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The bill would allow the government to negotiate prices on many medicines, bringing down the cost. It would also cap out-of-pocket expenses for drugs for Medicare recipients at $2,000 a year.

The bill would prevent drug companies from raising prices above inflation and allow more access to assistance to afford medications.

The price controls in the bill could help tame the rate of inflation by bringing down drug prices. It would also help a lot of people. Period.

Manchin has also signaled he might be open to extending Obamacare subsidies. If the subsidies aren’t extended, many Americans will see sudden insurance rate hikes in October – right before the election.

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The final component of the potential trillion dollar deal is supposed to involve climate and energy. The Post’s Jeff Stein reported that Manchin and the White House have a blueprint. It involves a number of fossil fuel projects in exchange for Manchin’s agreement to a package that will provide substantial funding for renewables.

The problem is that while renewables can be done through reconciliation, the fossil fuel approvals are regulatory.

Manchin would have to vote yes and then trust the White House to follow through. Or the White House would have to approve the fossil fuel projects, and then Manchin would vote yes.

They’d have to trust each other.

Which is tricky, because Manchin betrayed Biden and progressives by scuttling the president’s economic agenda last year after promising to support it.

There are also some actions Biden could take unilaterally.

He has been contemplating forgiving $10,000 in student debt for all borrowers. That would be an important accomplishment. It would honor a campaign promise to help millions crushed by college debts.

If he increased it to $50,000, as Elizabeth Warren suggested, it would provide complete relief for 36 million people. That would arguably be one of the defining progressive achievements of the last 40 years.

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Obviously, this is all tentative.

Negotiations could fall apart, gas prices could spike again, recession could hit, as some predict, Biden could decide against debt relief. He could stumble into midterms even worse off than he is now.

But overall, the outlook in July looks better than it did in June.

There’s a reasonable chance that Biden’s approval rating has bottomed out and can start crawling toward something better.

Even if his approval doesn’t rebound, a bill that controlled prescription drug prices and continued ACA subsidies would have a major material effect on the lives of millions of Americans.

The Democrats can still help people.

That’s what Biden was elected to do.

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