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What went wrong for President Biden this week


It's Friday. And for President Biden, the end of this week couldn't come fast enough. Politically, it's been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week for him. Though, at the end of it, he was gamely trying to spotlight one of the few things that is going according to plan - rebuilding the nation's infrastructure.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: There's a lot of talk about disappointments and things we haven't gotten done. We're going to get a lot of them done, I might add. But this is something we did get done, and it's of enormous consequence to the country.

SHAPIRO: Well, NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow has been making a list, and he's here to share it with us.

Hi, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good afternoon.

SHAPIRO: OK, so what went wrong for the president this week?

DETROW: Where to begin? Kind of chronologically and also in order of importance to the presidency - there's a new report showing inflation continues at a high pace. That is bad for consumers. That is politically toxic. Biden gives a major speech on voting rights. He calls for Senate action on voting bills. That call is immediately and very publicly rejected by members of his own party. The Supreme Court struck down a broad vaccine mandate Biden tried to impose to force holdouts to get COVID shots even though the court did uphold a similar one for health care workers. And amid all of this, it's just increasingly clear that Biden's signature bill, Build Back Better, with a lot of his top priorities is as stuck as ever.

SHAPIRO: And so how does this one bad week fit into the first year of his presidency? I mean, where does he stand right now?

DETROW: Look, one thing that really struck out to me is that when you look for whether a president has strong standings or showing sign of weakness, one thing to look for is whether members of a president's own party start to criticize him or distance themselves from him. That happened in several big occasions this week, and I think it is notable. You know, Kyrsten Sinema - I mentioned this before - going on to the Senate floor, saying she will vote against Biden's push to change Senate rules. And that happens just as Biden is heading to Capitol Hill to make his case to Senate Democrats.

Then Biden goes to Georgia to talk about voting rights. The most prominent advocate for voting rights in his party, Stacey Abrams, who is running for Georgia governor, doesn't attend the speech. And now both she and Biden insist it was a legitimate scheduling error. But the truth is if you want to make time to meet the president of your own party on your key issue, you can do that.

Then lastly, over the course of today, several more letters came out from Democratic lawmakers pressing Biden on tests, saying, why did you not do more to make COVID tests available during this monumental surge? These are all push-backs on some of Biden's top priorities.

SHAPIRO: And what's the response from the White House about all this?

DETROW: A few different arguments - one is what you heard from the president at the beginning of the segment. Biden is arguing he has gotten a lot done - hundreds of millions of vaccinations in people's arms, that bipartisan infrastructure act, a lot of judges confirmed, a lot of other things. That is true.

But if you look at some of the key promises, the top promises he made to voters, those are some of the stalled things right now. You know, the other argument, there is definitely a culture in the Biden White House of totally dismissing political analysis like the type I'm delivering right now.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

DETROW: You know, Jen Psaki pointed out - and it's true - throughout the Democratic primary, Biden was discounted, dismissed, said he was going to lose and drop out. He's president now. Here is one of the more colorful moments of Psaki pushing back on some of these critiques and questions about what happens next.


JEN PSAKI: We could certainly have proposed legislation to see if people support bunny rabbits and ice cream. But that wouldn't be very rewarding to the American people, so the president's view is we're going to keep pushing for hard things.

DETROW: But the math is going to stay the same though; a 50-50 Senate with a couple Senate Democrats saying, I'm just not voting for these priorities right now.

SHAPIRO: So short of bunny rabbits and ice cream legislation, how does Biden turn things around in the next three years?

DETROW: I don't know if he'd get unanimous approval for even that right now.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

DETROW: You know, I did speak to Barbara Perry about this. She's the director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Center, which closely studies the presidency, does these massive oral histories on it. She said this is kind of a familiar spot for a White House to be in about a year into office.

And she said in recent history, administrations have typically responded a few different ways. You can change the way you communicate with voters. You can look for legislative wins, even if it means scaling things down - smaller wins - looking for ways to maybe change some staff in some key areas.

BARBARA PERRY: Which ones of these should we do? - all of the above. And the presidents who come out of these difficult downturns are the ones who handle those three- or four- or five-pronged approaches the best.

DETROW: So I will certainly be keeping a close eye on the White House to see if they're making any tactical or staffing changes. But the other thing Perry pointed out is that often, it's just events beyond a president's control. We have certainly seen a lot of negative events hurt the Biden presidency.

SHAPIRO: All right.

DETROW: Things could turn around. More big picture, I think first and foremost is clearly the pandemic if those numbers start to improve.

SHAPIRO: NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow, thank you.

DETROW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.