Joe Biden's presidency is only six months old, but the mood inside the White House can often feel like a race against time.
"The clock is running. We all know that," a senior adviser to Biden said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The President certainly knows that."
Biden has three-and-a-half years remaining in his term, but his senior advisers speak frequently about the sense of urgency facing his presidency, with the next year almost certain to be dominated by midterm elections that could take away the Democratic majorities in Congress he needs to pass his agenda.
In West Wing meetings lately, White House chief of staff Ron Klain has impressed upon aides the critical importance of the next few weeks.
Recognizing the stakes, Biden and his team are sharpening their strategy to confront an epic set of challenges that some of his allies fear could impart lasting political damage: Covid cases are spiking, inflation is up, border crossings are rising, the Taliban are taking over Afghanistan and a much-touted bipartisan infrastructure agreement is teetering on the brink.
If Biden ever had a honeymoon period -- after inheriting a raging global pandemic, there is a good argument he did not -- it is clear at the six-month point of his presidency that it is over.
At the White House and on the road, the President has begun adopting a more aggressive stance against Republicans and other critics, including on voting rights and the Afghanistan withdrawal.
'The clock is running': Joe Biden and his White House sharpen their strategy to confront epic challenges
The administration recently launched an offensive against vaccine disinformation it believes is helping to drive Covid cases among the unvaccinated, inadvertently sparking a tiff with Facebook.
And Biden himself plans to tighten his focus in coming weeks on popular elements of a sweeping legislative agenda that hangs in the balance, according to officials, hoping to sway Americans in red-leaning areas.
Still, internal divides persist among officials in some fraught areas, like immigration and Covid reopening plans, with heightened debate over how single decisions could resonate politically. And Biden's penchant for going off-script has thrown his team into cleanup mode at multiple points so far.
For all of his focus on returning a semblance of normalcy to the presidency, Biden has now entered the familiar territory of his predecessors: a period of uncertainty and events transpiring far outside of best-laid plans. How he and his team manage those events will have repercussions beyond a single piece of legislation or foreign policy decision.
Instead, they could determine his ability to navigate a sweeping legislative agenda, tenuous House and Senate majorities and, to a degree, his entire first term.
The coming weeks will play a considerable role in defining the success of the Biden presidency, particularly whether the White House is able to keep a bipartisan coalition together on the first piece of his infrastructure plan and keep Democrats united on a broader package that would dramatically remake the nation's social safety network by touching all facets of American life.
But other forces are also gathering that Biden's aides are eyeing closely, wary of their potential to distract from or consume his agenda.
Chief among them is the issue of rising Covid cases, driven by the highly contagious Delta variant, which has been tearing through communities where vaccination rates remain low. The average of new daily cases this week is up 66% from last week and 145% from two weeks ago, as cases surge in 44 states, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. In addition, hospitalizations are up 26% from last week.
Officials are also watching with concern as border crossings tick back up, mindful of Biden's relatively low approval ratings on immigration and the struggle the administration faced earlier this year when waves of migrants arrived at the border, overwhelming federal resources. US border authorities in June arrested or turned away the highest monthly number of migrants at the US-Mexico border in at least a decade.
The two issues have converged in discussions over how and when to reopen US borders to travel, leading to tense conversations among officials over the health and political risks of opening up too soon.
Biden and his team insist that little in their current predicament comes as a surprise. And they point to major strides against the pandemic and to an economic resurgence as signs of the President's capacity to lead the nation from a place of darkness.
"He identified, when he took office, four big priorities or crises of his presidency: health, the pandemic, climate ... and addressing racial injustice," press secretary Jen Psaki said on Tuesday. "Those are crises and those are challenges he will continue to spend his time working toward and making progress on."
In many areas, administration officials also believe, dire numbers paint a gloomier portrait than reality. Rising Covid caseloads have not prompted a similarly grave spike in hospitalizations or deaths, though both are still increasing among unvaccinated people.
And while prices are rising, causing anxiety over inflation, administration officials have firmly rejected the idea that price increases are here to stay or represent a broader threat to the economy.
Still, there was a recognition, officials said, that a one-off pushback against inflation attacks wasn't having a substantial effect. The issue had also started to elevate in polling, both publicly and in internal polls, according to officials, something that carried risks to Biden's sweeping legislative proposals.
That was the driving force behind the White House decision to proactively address inflation concerns in scheduled economic remarks this week -- remarks that sought to flip the attack on its head by citing the design of Biden's spending proposals as a long-term balm to price instability.
"If your primary concern right now is inflation, you should be even more enthusiastic about this plan," Biden said in the remarks.
Still, officials have reiterated they are keeping a close eye on the subject and have put a particular focus on efforts to ease supply-chain issues, both in the near term and in laying the groundwork for longer-term solutions.
In an acknowledgment of the uncertainty at the heart of economic data in this moment, Biden also added, "My administration understands that if we were to ever experience unchecked inflation over the long term, that would pose a real challenge to our economy. So while we're confident that isn't what we're seeing today, we're going to remain vigilant about any response that is needed."
Selling the agenda
Biden's role in the days and weeks ahead will be to sell the public on his most popular proposals, according to officials. He has voiced repeatedly a desire to avoid what he saw as a mistake during his tenure as vice president, when he said his advice to then-President Barack Obama to better explain his agenda went unheard.
Internally, there is a recognition that individual pieces of Biden's plans -- from child and home care to education and paid leave -- poll well in isolation. Highlighting those pieces, instead of a broad focus on the entirety of what would be a transformative agenda, will be a focal point.
It's an open question whether the President will deliver on his quest to reach a bipartisan agreement on infrastructure or police reform, but the White House is intent on showing the country that he is trying. The White House selected Ohio as the site of a Wednesday town hall meeting on CNN, following in the line of several recent Biden trips to areas that are more red than blue.
Bill Stearns, a Cincinnati lawyer, said the opening months of the Biden administration have exceeded his expectations, given the myriad challenges facing the White House.
"It's such a relief to be able to wake up in the morning, know that the nation is in safe hands," Stearns said in an interview this week, reflecting on the last six months. "I think it's even better than I thought, doing what he's attempting to do with the economy and trying to get out of the pandemic."
For Biden, a salesmanship strategy tracks closely to his own stated desire to find the best ways to message his plans. In private meetings, he's constantly asking advisers for the best way to explain, in layman's terms, why the proposals should garner support across the country, two officials said.
That was on display when he defended his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan this month, insisting forcefully that no amount of sustained American presence there could resolve the country's intractable problems.
Still, just as often, the result turns into remarks that can be detail-laden and even long-winded. Biden himself has taken to acknowledging that in real time, apologizing when he thinks he's getting too in the weeds on a specific issue or tacitly acknowledging that the details of tax or paid-leave policy may not exactly set the crowd on fire.
"I know that's a boring speech," Biden said after a half-hour address on infrastructure in the Chicago suburbs. But he quickly followed with a key point: "But it's an important speech."
Aides doubt there is a way to pull the President away from the details-oriented approach, and many believe explaining why specific policies matter to the broader public is his strong suit. Still, moves to sharpen the focus on narrow pieces of the plan are likely to become a more central element of his public appearances, according to people familiar with the plans.
Behind the scenes, White House officials have been deeply engaged in negotiations over both elements of Biden's legislative agenda: the bipartisan infrastructure plan and a more partisan budget bill. They have turned in recent days to the arduous process of turning the bipartisan framework into legislative text.
As Senate Democrats set a procedural vote this week as a deadline to help jump-start the talks -- and as some progressive Democrats in both chambers anxiously warned of wasting too much time in pursuit of a final agreement -- the White House has remained steadfast in its efforts, officials said.
They view the deal as a linchpin for Biden's overall agenda: critical to securing a major bipartisan win he deeply wants, while also providing a key element that moderate Democrats have made clear they must have in order to go along with the second proposal.
Back on the trail
In Congress, Biden's challenges are rooted in the narrow majorities held by Democrats in both chambers -- the same margins that Democrats fear could be at stake if the current turbulence extends into midterm election season. Biden, whose own campaign last year was drastically altered due to the pandemic, is set to resume in-person politicking this week when he stumps in Northern Virginia for Terry McAuliffe, who is looking to return to the governor's mansion in elections later this year.
Officials said they expected his message to underscore the progress the country has made against the virus -- while also taking apart Republicans for standing in his way.
Democrats are fighting to maintain control of Congress in 2022 in contests that historically fare poorly for the sitting president's party. Biden has visited several House battlegrounds in recent weeks where Democrats hope to either hang on to vulnerable seats or defeat Republicans who won narrowly last year.
So far, Biden hasn't ventured further west than Texas, where he visited in February to tour the site of devastating storms. And he has not spent a night at a hotel in the United States, limiting his travel to states where he can return home at the end of the day.
The close-to-home itineraries are partly due to the pandemic, which limited travel options in the early months of Biden's presidency. But Biden has also expressed a penchant for returning home at the end of the day, a trait he shares with his predecessor.
By this point in their presidencies, Trump and Barack Obama had each traveled to a relatively similar number of states: Trump had visited 15 at the six-month mark, while Obama had been to 17. Like Biden, Trump stuck close to the East Coast, traveling only as far as Iowa during his first half-year in office. Obama had ventured farther afield, making stops in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California.
Then versus now
One thing the White House has no plans to depart from is Biden's regular public remarks on the pandemic. They serve a dual purpose, officials say: reminding the country, particularly as the Delta variant ravages unvaccinated portions of the country, that despite the administration's success in delivering vaccinations, the pandemic is very much still ongoing.
But it's also an area where Biden has consistently held high marks in polling for his administration's efforts -- success that administration officials stress was not a sure thing when he first set foot in the White House.
It's not a small consideration inside the White House, where officials have varying levels of concern that progress on the economic and public health fronts could be forgotten or dismissed amid new challenges or crises that confront Biden -- a natural occurrence for any president, but one that officials have pushed to counter by repeatedly harking back to where the country stood when he was inaugurated.
It's what drives the top of most of Biden's remarks -- a deliberate effort to walk back through where things were, and where things are now, officials say. At this point it almost feels pro forma -- yet the explicit recaps are viewed internally as an essential public reminder as Biden drives into a moment of his presidency that is, in many ways, out of his control.
Gone are the 100-day plans, the leveraging of underutilized or atrophied executive branch authorities or powers to boost advances or sweeping reviews to forestall definitive action on complex issues.
In place of those actions are tenuous negotiations with fickle lawmakers and the narrowest of majorities, geopolitical forces constantly probing and testing, and crises both man-made and natural -- lying in wait.
"I really do believe that, temperamentally, the President is thinking more in terms of years and decades than his predecessor was ever even remotely capable of doing," said Jon Meacham, the presidential historian who has advised Biden.
"It's fascinating that we have a 78-year-old American President who thought his political career was done," he said. "And yet history and fate have brought this man back to try to manage a pandemic, manage a deep crisis in democracy, manage what I think of is a crisis of trust."
Here’s Joe Biden’s report card after six months in the White House
The first marking period is over and President Biden’s grades are coming in.
During his bitter, hard-fought race with former President Donald Trump, Biden made promises that include beating the coronavirus, reviving the economy and restoring bipartisanship and national unity.
Six months after Inauguration Day, some of his pledges have been kept while most remain either clear failures or unfulfilled.
Meanwhile, Biden’s longstanding tendency toward gaffes has political opponents questioning whether age is finally catching up with him after being sworn in at 78 to become the oldest president in US history.
Here are some of the make-or-break subjects that will determine Biden’s fate as the nation’s 46th commander-in-chief:
Even before he was inaugurated, Biden set a meager goal of administering 100 million shots of COVID-19 vaccines to Americans during the first 100 days of his administration — with the US reaching that benchmark in just 58.
But after announcing that the government had bought “enough vaccine supply to vaccinate all Americans,” he set a July 4 target for having 70 percent of adults vaccinated so people “will be able to get together in your backyard or in your neighborhood and have a cookout or a barbecue and celebrate Independence Day.”
As the pace of vaccinations slowed amid bizarre conspiracy theories circulated online as well as other factors, the White House gave up on that goal and Biden warned that the pandemic “has not been vanquished” during the annual Fourth of July cookout on the South Lawn.
Meanwhile, coronavirus cases and deaths have been spiking across the US, fueled in part by the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant and the slowdown in vaccinations, which Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said Friday was creating a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
Phil Kerpen, of the conservative group “American Commitment,” a Washington, DC-nonprofit that promotes free markets and property rights, said Biden deserved a “C” for his handling of the pandemic.
“Can’t give higher because he hired Walensky, let the teachers unions hold kids hostage for tax dollars, and kept the ‘maskerade’ going for months and even now for kids,” Kerpen said.
“But can’t give him lower because he kept the vaccine rollout on track and it has been successful.”
Government spending to ease the impact of the pandemic, coupled with mass vaccinations, led the country’s gross domestic product to surge 6.4 percent during the first quarter of 2021, with some economists saying the growth is likely to continue throughout the year.
But last week’s unemployment figures showed 3.2 million workers remained out of work even as new claims for jobless benefits dipped to a new pandemic low.
And a poll last week showed that more than 1.8 million jobless people turned down work during the pandemic due to hefty unemployment benefits.
Meanwhile, inflation has been surging, with consumer prices rising 5.4 percent in June, marking the highest monthly increase in almost 13 years — when the economy was about to collapse amid the financial crisis that led to the Great Recession.
On Monday, Biden called the price hikes “temporary” and “expected” following the COVID-19 pandemic, saying about 60 percent were the result of “transitory effects” that resulted in shortages of semiconductors and lumber.
“The reality is you can’t flip the global economics light back and not expect this to happen,” Biden said.
But Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) held Biden responsible for the rising consumer costs.
“At this six-month point on this economic report card, we would give him an inflation-adjusted F,” Brady told CNBC.
Kerpen gave Biden an “F” on his handling of the economy.
“Every single thing Biden has done has pointed in the direction of higher prices, from the trillions in spending, to the unemployment bonuses, to the energy production and distribution restrictions,” he said.
“And now he’s proposing 30 tax hikes including a second death tax, another $3 to $5 trillion in spending, and everything on the wish list of union bosses.”
Biden served as a US senator from Delaware for 36 years and earned a bipartisanship ranking that placed him 47th out of all 250 senators between 1993 and 2008, according to a study by The Lugar Center, a nonprofit think tank founded by the late Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), and Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.
And during his campaign, Biden repeatedly pledged to work with Republicans, including during an Oct. 6 speech in Gettysburg, Penn., where he invoked President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and said, “We need to revive the spirit of bipartisanship in this country, the spirit of being able to work with one another.”
But his first major legislative achievement — a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill dubbed the “American Rescue Plan Act” — was pushed through both the House of Representatives and the Senate without any Republican votes following a failed effort by 10 GOP senators to scale back the spending to $600 billion.
During remarks at the signing ceremony, Biden claimed that the measure still enjoyed bipartisan support due to polling that showed it was favored by “an overwhelming percentage of the American people — Democrats, independents, our Republican friends.”
Meanwhile, Biden’s signature infrastructure plan has been marked by a series of bipartisan fits and starts over a $1.2 trillion spending proposal — on transportation, clean drinking water, broadband internet and the power grid — to which Republicans agreed in principle last month.
But GOP support for that measure is jeopardized by Democratic plans to tie its passage to that of a larger, $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” budget bill that includes increased spending on social programs and the potential granting of permanent residency or citizenship to millions of illegal immigrants.
On Monday, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) also accused Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) of trying to thwart ongoing negotiations over the bipartisan bill by scheduling a vote on it for Wednesday, saying, “We’re not going to proceed to a bill that’s not written, because that makes no sense.”
Ryan Williams, president of the conservative Claremont Institute think tank in Upland, Calif., said, “The first six months of the Biden administration have shown his campaign promises to heal and unite to be lies or at best disingenuous.”
“President Biden seems determined to deepen our civic divisions and play with the fire that has often consumed republics,” he added.
Ahead of a 2019 Democratic presidential debate in Miami, Biden penned an op-ed that accused then-President Donald Trump of having replaced the “sound strategy” on immigration of former President Barack Obama “with hostility and inflammatory rhetoric” and instead promised new policies “that reflect our American values.”
Within weeks of Biden’s election victory, hundreds of Hondurans began organizing caravans to the US on social media following a pair of hurricanes that devastated the Central American country amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.
And although Biden reversed course and said he wouldn’t immediately undo Trump’s asylum restrictions, just days before his inauguration, one Honduran migrant whose caravan was stopped at the Guatemalan border told CNN that the incoming president was “going to help all of us.”
“He’s giving us 100 days to get to the US and give us legal…papers, so we can get a better life for our kids, and for our families,” the man added.
When the number of children illegally crossing into the US from Mexico later surged, Biden in March appointed Vice President Kamala Harris “to lead our efforts with Mexico and the Northern Triangle and the countries that are going to need help in stemming” the flow.
More than three months later, Harris in late June finally made her first trip as immigration czar to the southern border and met with detained migrant children, later claiming there’s been “extreme progress” to stem the crisis, including “in addressing the root causes.”
But she skipped US border towns that have been greatly impacted by the surging crisis.
Meanwhile, preliminary data recently showed that attempted border crossings during the first seven months of 2021 will likely exceed 1 million, hitting a mark last reached in 2006 — when it took until December.
US Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) on Tuesday released a report that blamed Biden for creating a “security, humanitarian and public health crisis on the southwest border.”
“In just six months, President Biden has ignited the worst crisis at the border in decades,” Comer said in a prepared statement.
“Starting on day one in office, President Biden in both word and action has put illegal immigrants first and Americans last through his radical open borders agenda.”
Police oversight commission
Shortly after last year’s caught-on-camera murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin — and amid mass protests and riots across the country — then-candidate Biden promised that if elected, he’d create a national police oversight commission during his first 100 days in office.
“We need each and every police department in the country to undertake a comprehensive review of their hiring, their training and their de-escalation practices,” he said during a June 2, 2020, speech in Philadelphia.
“And the federal government should give them the tools and resources they need to implement reforms.
But the White House put the plan on ice 81 days after Biden’s inauguration, saying that national civil rights groups and police unions both believed the proposed commission wasn’t needed.
“Based on close, respectful consultation with partners in the civil rights community, the administration made the considered judgment that a police commission, at this time, would not be the most effective way to deliver on our top priority in this area, which is to sign the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act into law,” Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice told Politico.
Congressional Democrats introduced that bill in June 2020 following an event at which party leaders donned African-style kente cloth scarves and kneeled for eight minutes and 46 seconds in memory of what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Floyd’s “martyrdom” when Chauvin kneeled on his neck for the same amount of time.
But although the House overwhelmingly passed the bill days later, it languished in the Senate amid Republican objections to provisions that include the elimination of “qualified immunity” for cops who get sued in civil court over alleged brutality.
Lawmakers blew past a deadline Biden set for May 25 — the first anniversary of Floyd’s slaying — before announcing a deal on the outlines of a compromise measure late last month.
But the negotiators — Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) — noted, “There is still more work to be done on the final bill, and nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to.”
Biden’s history of insults, angry outbursts and tone-deaf remarks — especially on the subject of race — led him to bluntly acknowledge in 2018: “I am a gaffe machine.”
And on that subject, he’s more than lived up to expectations since taking office, with a series of unforced errors and flubs that included referring to Vice President Kamala Harris as “President Harris” during a March 18 speech at the White House.
Earlier that month, Biden also appeared to forget the name of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin during a White House event, referring to the former US Army general as “the guy who runs that outfit over there.”
Biden’s first overseas trip as president featured several bloopers during last month’s G-7 summit in Cornwall, England, where he was caught on camera trying to correct British Prime Minister Boris Johnson for not introducing “the president of South Africa” as a visiting dignitary — even though Johnson had already done so, by name.
The incident led other world leaders to burst out laughing as French President Emanuel Macron tried to make light of the situation.
During a subsequent news conference, Biden repeatedly referred to the international COVAX vaccine distribution program as “COVID” — which the White House corrected, using brackets, in an official transcript — and he also confused Libya and Syria three times while discussing efforts to aid residents of the latter, war-torn country.
Days later, a group of House Republicans — led by former White House doctor and Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-Texas) — called on Biden to take a cognitive test and release the results “so the American people know the full mental and intellectual health of their President.”