WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden has reached Memorial Day with his agenda seemingly at an inflection point at home and abroad, looking ahead to coming weeks that could shape the trajectory of his presidency.
If things break Biden’s way, he could close out the summer with bipartisan bills signed on infrastructure and police reform and the U.S. on improved footing internationally after his first overseas trip and a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Or he could find his domestic policy stuck in a partisan morass and his foreign policy ambitions floundering.
In the early months of Biden’s presidency, he was able to mostly set the course. His administration had a clear focus with the Covid-19 pandemic and he was able to exceed the goals he set around vaccinating millions of Americans and passing a $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package.
But in recent weeks a number of challenges have emerged, from a gas shortage to fighting in the Middle East, and he missed a key deadline he set for himself on enacting police reform legislation. June will present a number of high stakes moments for Biden that will give him an opportunity to take back control of the agenda.
Administration officials acknowledge the significance of the moment they face and concede that time is of the essence, but said they are confident about the path forward.
“As we turn the page on this dark chapter in America’s history, we stand at an inflection point about what kind of economy — and country — we want for ourselves and for future generations,” top adviser Mike Donilon said in a memo sent to White House staffers last week.
The White House knows it is in a race against time: Veterans of the Obama administration experienced firsthand how limited a window a president has to get significant work done, White House officials have said. By the end of the year, members of Congress will be focused on their re-election campaigns and if Democrats lose the House, as often happens in midterm elections to the party that holds the presidency, Biden will have lost his chance at any major legislative achievements for the rest of the term.
“They know they have a very finite amount of time in that first crucial year-and-a-half in office to get stuff done,” said Democratic strategist Adrienne Elrod. “They aren’t taking anything for granted to get these monumental pieces of legislation done.”
On the domestic front, the White House plans to resume talks after the holiday weekend with Republicans over Biden’s sweeping infrastructure proposal with the hopes of reaching a “clear direction” on how to advance the bill when Congress comes back in session June 7, press secretary Jen Psaki said May 27.
Senate Republicans put forward a nearly $1 trillion counterproposal last week to Biden’s latest offer of $1.7 trillion and Biden said he plans to meet this week with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who has been leading the GOP talks with the White House.
The Republican bill would include funding for many of Biden’s key priorities, like rail, broadband and public transit, but the two sides remain at a loggerhead over how to pay for it. The Republican plan relies heavily on repurposing unused Covid-19 relief money, something the White House quickly pushed back on. Biden has proposed paying for the plan by rolling back parts of the 2017 tax overhaul, which Republicans have said is a red line.
The Republican proposal also leaves out hundreds of billions of dollars for social programs, like elder care and public housing improvements, that Biden has said are crucial to his vision for trying to revamp government to help lower and middle income earners.
But Biden could salvage those programs using a budgetary process that wouldn’t require any Republican support. To do that though, he will have to keep Democrats united, including Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia., who has said he’s concerned about higher spending driving up the country’s deficit.
On another front, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have been making progress on a police reform bill that could give Biden another win over the summer. Sens. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Corey Booker, D-N.J., said they are optimistic an agreement can be reached in the coming weeks.
The White House has mostly stayed out of those negotiations, which have been going on since before Biden was in office, to avoid upsetting the dynamics. But Biden has repeatedly called on Congress to act on police reform and would benefit politically with the Democratic base if a bill makes it to his desk.
One person close to the White House said they were optimistic Biden will end August with multiple bipartisan bills signed, including on police reform and infrastructure, and an economy on the rebound, putting Democrats in a strong position heading into the midterm elections.
"This is the most optimistic I've been, and I'm never optimistic," the person said.
Internationally, Biden will set off on his first overseas trip that will include a face-to-face meeting with Putin during a summit in Geneva on June 16. Biden has said he’s looking for a “stable, predictable relationship” with Russia and to work together with Putin on areas where they share a common interest, like nuclear security and climate change.
“We don't regard the meeting with the Russian president as a reward. We regard it as a vital part of defending America's interests,” Psaki said May 25, “President Biden is meeting with Vladimir Putin because of our country's differences, not in spite of them. It's an opportunity to raise concerns where we have them and, again, to move toward a more stable and predictable relationship with the Russian government.”
But the meeting will come just weeks after a Russian-based group launched a new campaign that appears to target government agencies, think tanks and nongovernmental organizations, researchers said May 28.
Giving Putin such a high-profile platform also comes with the risk of elevating him further on the international stage and boosting his standing domestically from the prestige the meeting will bring. The White House said there is no change to the meeting schedule.
Prior to his sitdown with Putin, Biden will meet with leaders of the G7 nations in the U.K. followed by a NATO summit in Brussels in an effort to reset the relationship with America’s allies after a contentious four years under the Trump administration.
Trump sparred with the G7 leaders on everything from tariffs to climate change and often brought theatrics to such international meetings, such leaving one G7 summit early to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and bashing the Canadian prime minister on Twitter on his way out the door. He often positioned himself publicly as being closer to America’s adversaries than allies.
Biden has been trying to counter Trump’s “American first” doctrine with his “America is Back” approach by re-engaging in alliances, such as rejoining the Paris climate agreement. The meetings in Europe will be his first major opportunity to set the stage for his foreign policy vision on the international stage, and an opportunity to convince his counterparts that American can be a trusted partner again.
His first foray onto that stage this month kicks off a three-month stretch that may well shape the next three years of his presidency.