Efforts to forge a bipartisan gun control deal in the Senate have fallen apart. A sweeping Democratic elections reform bill has failed. A self-imposed White House deadline for a police reform bill has come and gone. And while there was a breakthrough on infrastructure talks on Wednesday evening, the fate of that legislation remains unclear.
Five months into the post-Trump era, the promise of Democrat-occupied Washington is crashing into reality. Donald Trump may be gone, but the sense of hope that permeated the Democratic Party’s rank-and-file after his defeat — and the accompanying capture of Congress — is being replaced by a haze of disillusionment that threatens the party’s prospects of generating enthusiasm in the run-up to a critical midterm election.
Biden and his major spending plans remain popular, according to most polling, with Biden’s job approval rating still holding above 50 percent. But even Biden’s marks have inched down in the FiveThirtyEight polling average from a high of about 55 percent in March to about 52 percent today.
More significant, the number of Democrats who say things broadly are heading in the wrong direction is ticking up. The percentage of Americans who believe the country is off on the wrong track hit 57 percent in a Monmouth University poll last week, and that includes nearly a third of Democrats. An Economist/YouGov poll found one-fifth of voters who cast their ballots for Biden last year now think the country is heading in the wrong direction.
And though Democrats are still broadly behind Biden, they are souring significantly on Congress. A Gallup poll on Tuesday put Congress’ approval rating at 26 percent, the lowest level since January, the month Biden took office. That swing was driven largely by Democrats, whose support for Congress plummeted 16 percentage points from last month, to 38 percent.
“It’s just frustration,” said Kelly Dietrich, a former Democratic fundraiser and founder of the National Democratic Training Committee, which trains candidates across the country. “Even us realists want it to move faster.”
The frustration isn’t just showing up in polling. Progressive Democrats have become increasingly vocal in recent weeks, popping off at Biden for relying too heavily on negotiations with Republicans to pass infrastructure spending or for making too little use of his bully pulpit to support elections reform.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) called Vice President Kamala Harris’ comments in Guatemala on immigration “disappointing,” while Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) chose even harsher words, rebuking Sen. Joe Manchin, the moderate Democrat from West Virginia, as the “new Mitch McConnell.”
On Tuesday, 10 people were arrested outside Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s Phoenix office during a protest of her opposition to abandoning the filibuster.
“A lot of people are jaded,” desperate to see Washington “actually start to move some stuff,” said Yvette Simpson, chief executive of the progressive political action committee Democracy for America.
Ever since Congress passed Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill earlier this year, Simpson said, “we’re flatlined. There’s no real significant change that we can see for anything else on the horizon.”
If Democrats can’t break the logjam, she said, the party will pay for it in 2022. “I think it hurts the energy. I think it hurts the momentum.”
In part, Biden and the Democratic Party are suffering from a hangover after sweeping Trump from office and emerging from the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. Doug Herman, who was a lead mail strategist for Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, described the moment as little more than a “natural dip” following the initial euphoria surrounding a new administration and a pandemic whose response “Biden nailed.”
Despite acknowledging on Tuesday that it will likely miss its goal of vaccinating 70 percent of the nation’s adults against Covid-19 by July 4, cases and deaths have declined sharply, and much of the country is opening up. The Biden administration estimates that for people aged 27 and up, it will hit the 70 percent vaccination threshold by July 4.
“Look, we’re six months into the administration,” Herman said. “Isn’t that when we always write these stories?”
Others are equally sanguine, pointing to the political realities currently confronting the party — among them, razor-thin Democratic majorities in Congress, and the effectiveness of blockades that have been thrown up by the GOP.
Joseph Foster, chair of the Democratic Party in suburban Philadelphia’s Montgomery County, said of the party’s legislative setbacks, “We have this tiny, thin majority … It’s not as though the party’s at fault.”
Still, Foster said he has been hearing more and more frustration from fellow Democrats recently.
“They feel as though the party has not come through,” he said.
It’s not just that the Biden honeymoon is coming to an end, as happens in every presidency. It’s that, for Democrats, the expectations for Biden were so much higher in comparison to Trump — and the reality so difficult to swallow. Democrats turned out in historic numbers in the presidential election last year. That was in large part a repudiation of Trump, but it was also based on Biden’s promise of an expansive agenda.
Democratic organizers and activist groups spent months registering and turning out young people and people of color who powered Democrats to victories in key swing states on the promise not just of outlasting Trump and surviving the pandemic, but of emerging better for it.
Today, reality has set in. In the most recent Monmouth survey, 32 percent of Democrats said things in the country were off on the wrong track, compared to 12 percent in the same poll in April, a 20 percentage point swing.
That’s a reflection of “angst that [Biden] won’t get everything done that they thought he might be able to get done at the beginning of this term,” said Patrick Murray, who oversees the Monmouth poll.
“It’s more of his own base becoming less enthusiastic because they might not get everything they thought they would get down the road,” he said. “The problem for that for the midterms is a less enthusiastic base hampers turnout.”
Even moderate Democrats are growing worried about stasis in Washington — and what it could mean for upcoming midterm elections, where historical trends suggest the party could lose its House majority in the absence of a robust turnout.
“You’ve got to make the case that Biden and the Democrats are doing everything they possibly can to move the country forward, and they’ve got more work to do to make that case,” said Matt Bennett of the center-left group Third Way.
Bennett said Democrats need to do a better job reminding voters about the massive scale of Biden’s coronavirus relief package Congress passed. Still, Bennett said, “What I worry about most is that if that’s the only major legislation that gets done in this Congress, and I’m not convinced it will be … [but] if it’s the only thing, I worry that we won’t be able to weave that into a compelling story, even though we should be able to.”
One Democratic strategist who works with major party donors said bluntly that the party is “f—– in the midterms if we don’t get s— done soon.”
After Republicans blocked the voting rights bill Tuesday, Biden vowed that “this fight is far from over,” and his still-high approval rating among Democrats suggests that many are still willing to give him time.
Larry Cohen, the former Communications Workers of America president who now chairs the Bernie Sanders-aligned group Our Revolution, described the state of politics in Washington as “tragic.” But he insisted that Biden and Democrats in Congress still have time to make headway on Democratic priorities, including through executive actions and with a second spending package using budget reconciliation, the process by which Democrats can pass major budget-related measures on a simple majority.
“The question is going to be what does get done,” he said, “and is it enough to make a difference in people’s lives.”
The party’s success in bringing Manchin, a late holdout, on board for the voting rights bill unified the caucus, allowing Democrats to lay blame for that defeat explicitly at the feet of Republicans. Dietrich said Republican obstructionism is something that resonates with Democrats, and it’s the reason he’s not worried about intraparty frustration spilling into the midterms.
“Democrats understand the problem’s not with other Democrats,” Dietrich said. “The problem is we don’t have enough Democrats in the Senate right now.”
Like Bennett, Dietrich said Democrats are “accomplishing some pretty good stuff.”
The problem, he said, is “It’s not going to be the landslide we were hoping.”