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Biden needs a win — or two

Analysis: If the president can't figure out how to pass his $4 trillion domestic agenda soon, Democrats will have to campaign on what they didn't do.

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden needs a win.

The coronavirus pandemic rages on. Congressional Democrats are at war over the size and scope of his Build Back Better domestic agenda. And he is getting hammered by Republicans for the execution of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and by Democrats over his immigration policies following the abuse and deportation of Haitian immigrants.

Republican critics say Biden's presidency has demonstrated the opposite of the competence he campaigned on, and his public approval ratings have settled under water — measured at 43 percent by Gallup last week. The RealClearPolitics average of multiple opinion polls shows Biden with a combined approval rating of 45.7 percent and a disapproval level of 50.3 percent.

It's not just that the honeymoon is over. The marriage between Biden and the public is on the rocks. Many Democrats believe his best chance to salvage it — maybe his last shot before the specter of midterm elections paralyzes Congress — is to enact as much as possible of his two-part, $4 trillion plan to bolster infrastructure and expand the nation's social safety net.

Few are betting that Biden will get all of it, and there's still a chance he could walk away with nothing. He is relying, as President Barack Obama often did, on Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to drive the most contentious parts of his agenda through the House. It is her biggest legislative test since the passage of the Affordable Care Act more than a decade ago, and she seems to know it.

"The next few days will be a time of intensity," she wrote Saturday in a letter to House Democrats. She has vowed to hold a vote on the bipartisan, Senate-passed infrastructure bill Monday and the Democrats-only budget "reconciliation" measure — the funding for social programs — "this week."

A handful of moderates in the House and the Senate want to trim the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill and have threatened to kill it outright if progressives don't back the infrastructure measure. Conversely, progressives say they will sink the infrastructure bill if moderates don't agree to back the social spending. Most progressives are coming to terms with the idea that they won't get all $3.5 trillion, but it takes as few as four House Democrats or one Senate Democrat to stop any bill.

Biden's allies hope this week becomes a turning point for him, predicated on the enactment of policies that they say are good for the public and for their party's politics. But they see peril, too.

"There's no question we (POTUS and all Dems) absolutely need both bills to pass," Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pa., said in a text exchange. "If they don't, it will be a disaster for Dems in 2022. But if they pass, then Biden and congressional Dems will have achieved the most significant changes to our social safety net since The Great Society. It would be a big, big win."

Biden clearly sees his 2.0 version of Lyndon Johnson's safety-net expansion shrinking before his eyes. Centrist Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have said it's too big for them. Bowing to that reality, Biden began signaling last week that he is willing to scale back the reconciliation bill to get moderates to vote for it.

So the first question for Biden and Democratic leaders in Congress is whether there's a number that will satisfy both factions. If they can't get progressives to swallow the part that moderates are willing to eat on reconciliation, the whole of Biden's remaining domestic legislative agenda could be headed for the congressional trash can.

It could be even harder to work out the details of the tax-and-spending mix. A few key lawmakers from high-tax states are apoplectic over Biden's preference to keep former President Donald Trump's cap on the federal deduction taxpayers can take to offset state and local taxes.

In addition, Manchin has said he doesn't support the reconciliation bill's expanded Medicare benefits when the program's hospital fund is due to run out of money in five years, and Sinema doesn't like the way the measure aims to hold down prescription drug prices.

Progressives are furious at moderates' failure to offer concrete counterproposals, which makes it more difficult — if not impossible — to negotiate with them. Neither side has budged despite months of public debate over the size of the legislation and the particulars of its provisions.

Faiz Shakir, the top aide on Sen. Bernie Sanders' 2020 presidential campaign, said Biden's penchant for civility and consensus is a double-edged sword: It's why people like him, but it could be preventing him from drawing the contrasts that mobilize support for an agenda and a politician.

"As president of the United States, you have to create the friction," Shakir said. "That rallies people to your cause, when they see you fighting for it."

Biden should be naming and shaming his adversaries in Congress and in industry, Shakir said.

"He's a carrots-approach person," he said. "But occasionally, the stick's got to come out."

He has been reluctant to whack Manchin, Sinema and their allies in the House, in part because it doesn't seem to work.

Biden met separately last week with Democratic congressional leaders, progressives and moderates. All sides came out declaring their sessions collegial and productive. But no one left the White House with a claim to concrete progress on either of the two bills.

The window for action is closing quickly, and Biden can't afford to let it shut without accomplishing a good part of what he set out to do. That could mean enacting the infrastructure package Monday and giving more time for reconciliation negotiations to progress, but liberals say they will vote down the former if there isn't an ironclad agreement on the latter.

After having touted his legislative acumen on the campaign trail, it's time for Biden to demonstrate it.

If he doesn't, Democrats will have to campaign on what they didn't do.

CORRECTION (Sept. 26, 2021, 7:05 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the first name of a senator from Arizona. She is Kyrsten Sinema, not Krysten.