WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden cast blame Wednesday in directions that pleased many fellow Democrats: away from himself and the party.
In a news conference on the last day of his first year in office, Biden blamed Senate Republicans, rather than Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., for blocking his top agenda items.
“One thing I haven’t been able to do so far is get my Republican friends to get in the game of making things better in this country,” he said.
Watch President Biden's full press conference marking first year in officeJan. 19, 202201:57:57
Biden laid the responsibility for inflation entirely on the nation's supply chain problems and the Federal Reserve.
And he attributed Americans' "frustration and fatigue" to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, even though most voters say they don't approve of the job he's doing.
He’s right that Republicans are opposing him at every turn, that he can’t wave a wand to reverse inflation, and that the pandemic weighs heavily on the nation. But pleading powerlessness is an unusual tack for a president — and one that may not sit well with the political independents who have been moving away from him in recent polls.
The nearly two-hour back-and-forth with the press highlighted the challenge Biden faces in taking attention away from divisions in his own party and focusing it on external adversaries — from the coronavirus to the GOP. And some Democratic strategists question whether his approach will be effective. But his framing of the first year of his presidency — and this year's midterm elections — gave a morale boost to Democratic lawmakers.
Many of them believe he hasn't done a good enough job of promoting their shared accomplishments or calling out Republicans for their recalcitrance.
"Biden reminded Americans that over the past year, he has put free shots in arms, millions of bodies back to work, and invested in infrastructure to connect the disconnected," Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., said. "He also acknowledged what is frustrating most Americans: a protracted pandemic and rising costs of goods and services. And where he has come up short, he offered new solutions."
Namely, Biden said he has a plan to boost the nation's productivity as a salve for inflation, alongside the Federal Reserve's expected tightening of monetary policy.
"Now we need bold, energetic action," Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., said. "Here is how we will build semiconductor [fabrication plants], produce masks and tests and antiviral pills, and solve the logistics of food delivery. We need a mobilization of America's productive capacity."
But even in his clear pivot toward the midterms, which included repeatedly asking what Republicans stand for, Biden left plenty of room for criticism from Democrats who saw his remarks more as posturing than a promise of delivery on policy.
"The stakes are too high for performance politics," Nomiki Konst, a progressive activist, said. "Great on President Biden for holding a record-long press conference — but until he seriously champions the PRO Act [a measure backed by organized labor] and uses his pen to eliminate student debt, I worry the Democrats will lose a generation to the far right, which has invested in every corner of this country."
Biden acknowledged early stumbles in providing Covid testing, but he said he is making up for that now. He also refused to accept accountability for failing to fulfill vows he made on the campaign trail and in the early months of his presidency.
"I didn’t overpromise," he said. "And I have probably outperformed what anybody thought would happen."
And he ripped into Republicans for following former President Donald Trump in lockstep opposition to him.
"Did you ever think that one man out of office could intimidate an entire party where they're unwilling to take any vote, contrary to what he thinks should be taken, for fear of being defeated in a primary?" Biden asked. While the GOP is unified against his Build Back Better bill and voting rights legislation, his signature infrastructure bill, opposed by Trump, won bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress.
But some Democrats say Biden is misguidedly obsessed with proving he's already a giant success, rather than addressing the concerns of voters who aren't pleased with his performance. In the latest NBC poll, 43 percent of Americans approve of his work as president, while 54 percent disapprove.
"This isn't about a failure of spin, or voters don't hear about successes, it's a failure of addressing the core issues voters worry about," Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis said, naming inflation, Covid, crime and political division as areas where Biden is coming up short. "Blaming Trump, Republicans or others doesn't help — other than the base, voters don't care."
And, he added, Biden could be bringing about his worst fear: a midterm rout.
"Bottom line, if the president and the White House don't focus on these fundamental issues, we will face a political Armageddon in 2022."
If he can't first unify his own party, though, Biden will have trouble reigniting his coalition of Democrats and disaffected Republicans. Encouraging voters in both parties to take a long look at the GOP — "What is Mitch for?" he asked about Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., — could start that process, according to some party operatives.
"Last year was entirely made up of fights between people who most Americans don't agree with," Michael Halle, a top aide with Pete Buttigieg's 2020 presidential campaign, said referring to the centrist Manchin and progressives such as Reps. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
"Republicans skated the whole year," Halle said.
The question for Biden is whether voters will reward Democrats for not being Republicans or grow more frustrated with what he hasn't been able to achieve.
There’s reason for him to believe the choice between parties is better than a referendum on him: he owes his presidency in part to voters who would have chosen anyone over Trump. But there’s also reason for Democrats to worry that he’s not flexing enough muscle on behalf of their shared priorities.
"The administration is still acting incrementally in response to the economy and has been slow in basic pandemic response, as we saw with the at-home test debacle," Konst said, adding that Biden has executive powers at his disposal that remain untapped.
"The buck does not stop with Joe Manchin," she said. "It's with President Biden."