ANALYSIS — Joe Biden is on fire. Too bad he just can’t catch a break.
No, the COVID-19-positive — again — president does not have a fever. The White House released letters this week from his doctor that stated Biden's temperature and other vital signs are “entirely normal.”
But he is piling up legislative and other wins, even amid record-low approval ratings.
“He is a president with an extraordinary record, not only bipartisan bills on guns, he’s passed bipartisan bills now on a chips and science act, bipartisan bills on infrastructure and burn pits,” Sen. Cory Booker told CQ Roll Call on Thursday. “I mean, this guy is hitting singles and doubles.
“He’s literally passed some of the most historic bills in American history,” said the New Jersey Democrat, a former presidential candidate.
As far as wins: Biden got one Tuesday when the Senate approved a measure aimed at helping military veterans who have fallen ill due to toxic burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq. That follows passage late last month of a bill to boost the U.S. semiconductor industry.
The chamber gave him another late Wednesday afternoon when senators overwhelmingly approved a treaty of agreement on Finland and Sweden joining NATO. Alliance expansion is part of Biden's plan to counter Russia's war in Ukraine and other aggressive acts.
But wait, there’s more.
Sometime over the weekend, the Senate could vote on a $370 billion bill with climate and energy provisions that also would alter the health care system, allowing Medicare to negotiate some prescription drug prices, a policy goal for Democrats long out of reach.
White House officials and Democratic lawmakers continue to boast about Biden’s early-term COVID-19 vaccine distribution plans and several pandemic recovery bills he signed into law last year, as well as a bipartisan infrastructure law.
The commander in chief also gave the green light to a CIA strike that killed al-Qaida boss Ayman al-Zawahri on Saturday in Kabul, Afghanistan. In one of the most presidential moments of his term, Biden dropped this warning to other violent extremists in a Monday evening address to the country from the White House's iconic Blue Room balcony: “We will hunt you down and make you pay.”
Collectively, the 46th chief executive has been quite busy. He and Democrats should have a clear message for November’s midterms and as he begins to formulate what he insists will be a 2024 reelection campaign.
But they don’t.
“We have a story to tell,” Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Chair Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., recently told CQ Roll Call. “We just have to do a better job of telling it.”
‘Really bad luck'
Despite his ever-growing resume, Biden just cannot, in the words of one former official, “break through.”
Booker noted some of Biden’s biggest bad breaks with a few shakes of his head.
“If you just look at presidential records, he’s somebody … that’s had the most headwinds,” he said, “including a global pandemic, recessionary winds that started under his predecessor, he’s going to be able to show what he’s doing for the American people.”
Those forces are part of the reason Biden’s approval rating remains below 40 percent, according to an average of 10 polls tabulated by RealClearPolitics, which puts his disapproval rating at 56.4 percent.
To be sure, Biden himself has admitted his communications strategies have not worked. It is curious, then, that he asked White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield to stay in her post after she previously announced her intention to depart the administration earlier this summer.
“I’m a business guy,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Rick Scott, R-Fla., told CQ Senate on Tuesday. “The first step in fixing a problem is acknowledging you have one.”
So, paradoxically, the president has acknowledged his lackluster communication efforts but left in place the official who oversaw them.
There is something else, which is tougher to measure — and even harder to fix: Biden simply cannot catch a break.
Consider this week alone.
The president was ready to get back to business after testing positive for COVID-19, including taking his message on the road. But he caught a “rebound case” of the virus and is again quarantining in the White House residence. Only about 5 percent of those who get COVID-19 test positive again after taking treatment drug Paxlovid, according to the White House.
A quintessentially Biden bad break.
Then, about 16 hours after he announced al-Zawahri's death, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., went ahead with a stop in Taiwan over Biden’s objections and China’s warnings that it would be viewed as a major diplomatic insult. The speaker’s brash trip overshadowed Biden’s Afghanistan strike, a foreign policy win he badly needed after his chaotic removal of all U.S. military personnel from the country last year.
The bottom line, in the words of the former official: “This is a president who just has really bad luck.”
The Pelosi stop in Taipei was a stinging blow for Biden, Democrat-on-Democrat friendly fire.
Not only did it drown out Biden’s al-Qaida strike, it forced the White House into an embarrassing public reversal. “The military thinks it’s not a good idea right now,” Biden told reporters on July 20.
Diplomatic ‘looking glass‘
Fast forward to Monday in the White House briefing room, one day before a U.S. Air Force jet carrying Pelosi and other lawmakers touched down in Taipei.
Pelosi “has the right to visit Taiwan and the speaker of the House has visited Taiwan before without incident, as have many members of Congress, including this year,” said John Kirby, chief spokesman for the White House National Security Council, referring to former Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who visited in 1997.
In a twist, it was Republican members who were vocal in their support for Pelosi’s Biden-defying Taiwan stop on a broader Asia swing.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said it was “unseemly and counterproductive” for the Biden administration to publicly discourage the trip, adding: “I welcome the speaker’s display for support for Taiwan’s democracy.”
Notably, some Democratic members this week sided with the speaker, completing Washington's latest political “Alice In Wonderland”- like “through the looking glass” moment.
“I’m trying to understand the current vulnerabilities from this,” Cardin, a senior Foreign Relations Committee member, told CQ Roll Call. “Clearly, a member going to Taiwan, it should not be an issue. I don’t want to overreact to the unreasonableness of China.”
Booker, also a Foreign Relations member, said: “You cannot have one visit from one American official be the pretext for Chinese belligerence. Talk about something that is being exploited by them to take actions that threaten peace in the region.”
Still, China started live-fire military exercises Thursday, sending missiles into Taiwanese — and alarmingly, Japanese — waters.
And rather than hailing its growing list of perceived wins, the White House instead was forced to clarify its adherence to the decades-old tightrope of a policy meant to avoid poking China.
“Nothing has changed about our adherence to the 'One China Policy,'” Kirby said. “Nothing has changed about our stance on Taiwan independence, which is that we do not support Taiwan independence.”
That came in response to a question at a Tuesday briefing when a reporter asked Kirby about the final three words in this Tuesday Pelosi speech in Taiwan: “Forty-three years ago, with the Taiwan Relations Act, America made a bedrock promise to always stand with Taiwan.”
Now Biden must deal with an aggravated China that feels needlessly insulted. But to what end?
Ashok Swain, a peace and conflict research professor at Sweden’s Uppsala University tweeted: “Pelosi came, Pelosi left, China still surrounds Taiwan with all its military power.”
That is a nuclear-armed problem that lands squarely on Biden’s desk. Just another bad break.
Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-only CQ Senate newsletter, an afternoon examination of politics and policy.