Biden doesn't see his presidency as a failing enterprise

Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

If you were expecting President Joe Biden to announce a major relaunch of his presidency during the press conference Wednesday marking his first year in office, you heard something quite different. His approval ratings have fallen, but Biden is not acting like a president who thinks he got very much wrong. Instead, he acknowledged the country faces difficulties, but vigorously defended how he handled them.

Frida Ghitis

“It’s been a year of challenges,” he declared at the outset, “but also been a year of enormous progress.”
    Biden took questions for well over an hour in what was essentially two separate press conferences. The audience for the first was the American public. The second one was directed at Russian President Vladimir Putin, who undoubtedly paid close attention to everything America’s commander-in-chief — the unofficial head of NATO — had to say about the growing tensions with the Kremlin over what Washington says is an impending Russian assault on its neighbor Ukraine. More on that in a moment.
      On the domestic side, Biden acknowledged all is not well. “I know there’s a lot of frustration and fatigue in this country. And we know why: Covid-19.”
        He also acknowledged the spiking inflation, the troubles with supply chains and the so-far failed efforts to convert some of his key legislative proposals into law.
        But rather than announce a change in strategy, a retooling of his administration’s goals or personnel, he explained, “What I have to do is a change in tactics.” Biden said he will spend more time on the road and even on social media, making sure the American people understand what he has accomplished and what he plans to do. He also promised to work hard to help elect Democrats in November, perhaps a response to some grumbling on that front.
          Biden sounded at times like a man frustrated, feeling misunderstood. “Can you think of any president who’s done more in one year?” he asked. He listed the trillions of dollars in massive infrastructure and Covid relief bills enacted earlier in the year. He noted that just two million people had been vaccinated when he took office, compared to more than 200 million today, and listed a litany of significant administration achievements.
          He made no apology for his ambitious plans and vowed to keep pushing to get them enacted. His Build Back Better social safety net plan, he said for the first time, will have to be broken up into pieces and he expects “big chunks” to pass before the midterm elections in November. With Biden’s approval sinking, Democrats are shuddering at the thought of being painfully punished by voters and losing their majorities in Congress.
          He conceded that his hopes for bipartisanship have been frustrated by the GOP. Biden repeatedly asked of Republicans and of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, “What are they for?” — suggesting they have nothing to offer beyond their efforts to block his agenda, as they cower in fear of upsetting the former president and facing a primary opponent.
          Given the unprecedented challenges he has faced, Biden said McConnell’s argument that the primaries will be a referendum on his presidency does not worry him. His first-year score card, he said, is “pretty good.”
          Biden’s big bet is that supply chain troubles and the pandemic will ease before the midterms, lowering inflation and allaying discontent. That, he clearly expects, would lift his approval ratings and the prospects for Democrats.
          On Russia, Biden issued some even-keeled but tough warnings to Putin. He said he doesn’t think Putin has decided whether or not to invade Ukraine, but chillingly added, “My guess is he will move in.”
          After a mobilization of this magnitude, and after all the ultimatums the Kremlin has issued, it’s not surprising that Biden thinks that Putin feels like “he has to do something.” If so, Biden said, “I think he will regret having done it.” Biden’s references to a more limited response to a “minor incursion” were unclear. Whether that was by design is impossible to know.
          The President warned that a “further invasion” (Russia has already invaded Ukraine and seized some of its territory) would bring repercussions like Putin has never seen. It would be “a disaster for Russia,” vowing that the US and its allies and partners would inflict “significant harm.” He noted the hundreds of millions of dollars in defensive military equipment and training the US and its allies have transferred to Ukraine, noting that Russia could ultimately defeat its neighbor, but the cost would be severe.
          When a reporter suggested the US might accept Putin’s demand that NATO remove its military forces from eastern Europe, Biden swiftly rejected the idea. “We’re actually going to increase troop presence in Poland, Romania and the like,” if Putin invades.
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            To anyone who has been watching the breathless analysis of the Biden presidency as a failing enterprise, it may have come as a surprise to see that Biden doesn’t see it that way. If he did, he would be changing directions.
            Instead, he seems to plan simply to shift gears, to rev up the messaging and get more input from people outside the administration. If he’s right, if his slumping approval is primarily the result of temporary circumstances and inadequate communications and he can push his legislative plan of action in smaller, somewhat more modest portions, his stepped-up messaging effort might just convince voters to see his presidency through the same pleasantly tinted Ray Bans as Biden does.

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