- Democrats united behind Biden in 2020 in part because he wasn't Trump.
- But Democrats have found a lot to complain about lately.
- They're worried that Biden's window is closing to do anything big.
- See more stories on Insider's business page.
The messy Afghanistan withdrawal. Tanking poll numbers. A looming government shutdown. An epic feud over the filibuster.
Just about every Democrat has found a reason to be anxious about the Biden administration so far, and tensions are on high as the fate of President Joe Biden's domestic policy agenda faces a pivotal moment in a deeply divided Congress.
"The bed-wetters, nervous Nellies - they're out in force," said Jim Manley, a longtime Senate aide who worked for Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. "It's probably hard to find a Democrat on Capitol Hill that isn't dissatisfied with the administration for some reason right now."
The anything-is-better-than-Trump unity that ushered Biden into the White House has waned, and intraparty tensions are high. Progressives are worried Democrats will lose their chance to deliver on big promises from the climate crisis to voting rights to student debt, while centrists fear a push leftward will kill the party's chances of maintaining control of both chambers in Congress in the midterm elections now just over a year away.
The former vice president and seven-term senator, though known for being prone to gaffes, was expected to deliver a return to normalcy and a steady hand in governing after four years of chaos under former President Donald Trump. Now Biden admits that things aren't all going as planned.
"I think it's understandable - people being frustrated," Biden recently told reporters when asked about criticisms that he has failed to deliver on the agenda he promised on the campaign trail. Biden pointed to problems he inherited from the Trump administration on the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, defended his Afghanistan withdrawal, and criticized congressional stalemate over his economic plans.
"I'm sure, along the line, that there are things I could have done better, but I make no apologies for my proposals," Biden said, predicting that "we're going to be in a very different place" by the end of 2021.
Despite Biden's public pronouncements, there's a growing sense of panic among Democratic insiders right now.
"I would imagine they're at DEFCON 4," one former Democratic White House official said of the likely scene inside Bidenworld right now.
The party unity that came when Biden booted Trump from the Oval Office is indeed fading as competing Democratic factions disagree about how the White House and Congress should press ahead with a liberal agenda in the face of staunch GOP opposition.
History will "shine bright" on Biden for expelling Trump from office, a former Democratic Senate aide told Insider. Once Biden's administration kicked off, "I think they were rolling along pretty good until the second wave of COVID" and the Afghanistan withdrawal, that person said.
"I think overall on balance it's been good, not great," the person said of the administration so far. "I think Biden's up by a field goal instead of up by a touchdown."
Criticisms pile up
Biden wasn't aggressive early enough in fighting the Delta variant, the Democratic pollster Brad Bannon said when asked to size up the president's early mistakes. Bannon added that he wished Biden's "action plan" to beat the surge had come a couple of months ago.
"The Delta variant influences the economy, and the economy influences everything," he said. "Especially in a midterm election, Americans vote their pocketbooks."
Biden's administration fell short of its goal to get 70% of Americans vaccinated against COVID by July 4, as the Delta variant plowed through the country. The president also took heat from his political friends and foes alike for an Afghanistan withdrawal that critics said could have been handled better.
"It could have been done less chaotically," said former Rep. Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat who served on the US House subcommittee that controls Pentagon spending. "He didn't need to withdraw the United States out of Afghanistan so peremptorily," Moran added. "I think he should have listened to his military."
On the domestic-policy front, progressives are frustrated that the administration hasn't fought to abolish the Senate filibuster, which is a key procedural obstacle to passing Biden's voting-rights agenda, or done more to secure a $15 federal minimum wage in a massive COVID-19 relief bill that passed earlier this year. They're anxious to see whether the White House pushes for measures like universal pre-K, free community college, and efforts to combat the climate crisis along with major infrastructure spending.
Biden takes "progressive power" more seriously than he did previously, but he now needs to "use some muscle" with the party's "corporatists" to get results, said Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of Our Revolution, the political organization launched by Biden's former 2020 Democratic primary rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The group has led demonstrations outside dozens of Democratic congressional offices, so far, to demand their votes on the social programs in the budget reconciliation package that the president is lobbying for but which remains very much in limbo on Capitol Hill. Geevarghese said many progressives "will be really pissed off if Biden comes back empty-handed."
"As he's negotiating, he needs to remember ... there's a real risk that progressives won't turn out if he fails to deliver on what he said he would," Geevarghese said. "He's got to be an advocate for the policies that elected him and for the voters that elected him."
Recent polling has shown that Biden's approval ratings have taken a dive. A Gallup survey released last week showed Biden's approval rating slumped to 43% after months of relatively steady approval ratings that stayed above 50%, according to an analysis from FiveThirtyEight.
Voters "don't see the 'return to normal'" that Biden had promised during his presidential campaign, the political handicapper Amy Walter wrote in a recent edition of The Cook Political Report. "The challenge for Biden is that these early mistakes go directly to the very rationale of his presidency; that it would be low drama and high competence."
All factions of the Democratic Party recognize that any remaining parts of Biden's agenda could be thwarted if Democrats lose control of either chamber of Congress in 2022.
The US president's party often loses seats in Congress during midterm elections. Most recently, the House flipped from GOP to Democratic control in 2018, giving Trump's opponents much more power on Capitol Hill and resulting in two Trump impeachments.
The Democratic guru John Podesta wrote a memo to Democratic members of Congress earlier this month warning them that if they don't scale back a $3.5 trillion spending plan, they could hurt their chances of keeping their current slim majorities on Capitol Hill, The New York Times reported.
And Democratic operatives are sending out desperate fundraising pleas to fill their coffers ahead of the expected onslaught of negative midterm-campaign ads from pro-Trump Republicans. "BEGGING you," was the subject line from a recent email from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Republicans have unveiled their plan to unseat 57 House Democrats," the email warns. "They only need to flip FIVE seats to win back the Majority."
"I'm extremely worried," said Moran. "I think we've got an enormous challenge to keep the majority."
Moran - who represented Washington, DC, suburbs in northern Virginia - said Democrats will need to focus on keeping swing congressional districts to maintain control of Congress in 2022.
"It's those suburban moderate districts that are going to determine whether he's able to get much done in the last two years of his term," Moran said. "It's not the safe districts whose representatives are sometimes the most aggressive in pushing him."
Republicans are hopeful that Democrats' 2022 fears are correct, and they're eager to make their case to voters next fall.
"Every single thing this administration's done, they've done very poorly," Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio told Insider earlier this month. "I don't know that they've done one thing right. And the American people are figuring that out, too, I think, real quick."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's communications director, David Popp, took his shot on Twitter when a reporter asked whether anyone had policy questions about Biden's economic agenda.
"Knowing you would offer these terrible policy positions, did you predict all of the disarray you're currently facing or was this a surprise?" Popp tweeted.
Not one to miss an opportunity, Trump too is going after the Democrats and the Biden administration as the bad news piles up. "This withdrawal was developed by a child's mind, and only the Biden Administration is responsible for it," the former president said in a Tuesday statement that left out any mention of his team's work to broker a May 1 deadline for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Biden's fans are optimistic
Voters know what Democrats are up against - a Republican Party "taken over by extremists who no longer have any interest in seeking common ground," said Eric Schultz, former White House principal deputy press secretary during the Obama administration.
Despite intraparty debates that look messy, Schultz said he's confident Democrats will be united on votes for Biden's Build Back Better agenda. "I think that voters will grade him on the handling of the pandemic … and how he's been able to keep his promise to build a better economy," he said.
Voters right now are "depressed" by the Delta variant, generally dissatisfied with elected officials, and uncertain about the economy, even if economists don't share that view, said Celinda Lake, a top pollster for the Biden 2020 campaign who is now polling for the Democratic National Committee.
But she thinks those numbers will turn in Biden's favor.
"The best thing that can happen to improve ratings with voters is to pass the Build Back Better plan," she said, pointing to polls that show its popularity. "Democrats are having debates around the edges of how much and what components but the Republicans are opposing it, and their numbers show it. Their negativity has skyrocketed."
Democrats aren't happy right now because, for whatever reason, they are hurt when the president's job rating declines, said Bannon, who is polling for individual candidates this cycle.
But some Democrats say they're still optimistic that Biden's efforts will pay off in the long run.
"My advice to my clients is, 'Yeah, it's worrisome that Biden's job rating has declined, but we've still got 14 months to go before the midterms,'" Bannon said.
If Democrats can get their big spending priorities through, Manley said, Biden and Democrats will be in a much stronger position heading into 2022. "We're gonna give Democrats a lot to run on."