WASHINGTON — When President Joe Biden took to the road this week, looking to shift attention back to his domestic policy efforts, there was a heavy focus on the economy — and no mention of his most progressive agenda items.
Biden made stops in Iowa and North Carolina, his first domestic travel in more than a month, with just over six months to go until the midterm elections. The president plans to make trips to Oregon and Washington next week as other top officials make swings through 25 states over the next three weeks, with a specific focus on rural communities.
As Biden ramps up his travel again, his message has increasingly focused on promoting the work his administration is doing to try to lower prices amid record inflation, and to pin the blame on Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Voters have said inflation is a top concern, and just a third approve of Biden's handling of the economy in a March NBC poll.
"I’m doing everything within my power, by executive orders, to bring down the prices and address the Putin price hike," Biden said at an Iowa event promoting the use of ethanol next to a large pile of cornmeal and signs reading “lowering costs for families.”
But gone from Biden’s remarks recently have been top issues among the Democratic base, including immigration, student debt and voting rights. White House officials have acknowledged they have little chance at passing any major legislative policies this year given divisions not only among Democrats and Republicans but also within the president's own party.
Instead, the White House has been focused on more modest efforts, such as Covid funding and passage of a bill to support the semiconductor industry, the focus of this week's trip to North Carolina.
Biden has also been turning more to executive actions, signing an executive order last week on health insurance, signing an emergency waiver on ethanol fuel this week during a trip to Iowa allowing it to be sold during the summer months, and using the defense production act to boost production of batteries used in electric vehicles.
Cabinet-level officials have also been traveling across the country to promote the infrastructure law, an area Democratic strategists see as a selling point with voters ahead of the midterms. The officials plan to focus on promoting the law in rural communities, which have struggled in the past to get federal funding for infrastructure projects.
In Washington, the White House has been holding high profile events to promote relatively incremental advances. Earlier in the week, Biden held a gun control event in the Rose Garden where he promoted the finalization of a rule change on privately assembled firearms that he’d announced a year earlier at a similar event.
Unable to get legislation passed that would limit drug prices, Biden held a celebratory event at the White House with former President Barack Obama talking up the Affordable Care Act and an executive order he was signing that would make more families eligible for health insurance subsidies.
The efforts come as Biden’s overall job approval rating has declined to 40 percent, the lowest of his presidency, in a national NBC News poll from March 27. The survey also found Republicans enjoyed a 2-point lead on the question of which party should control Congress ahead of November’s midterm elections.
In the poll, only a third of respondents said they approved of Biden's handling of the economy.
But when it comes to some of the key priorities for progressives, there has been little action from the White House. Democratic strategists say that could hurt Democrats in November if their supporters continue to feel their top issues aren't being addressed.
“There’s been a lot of disappointment,” said one Democratic strategist who works closely with progressive groups. “There is a lot of apathy, I think voting rights was kind of the thing that broke the will.”
Biden hasn’t spoken extensively about voting rights since January, when he came under heavy pressure from civil rights groups to do more ahead of Martin Luther King Day. During his State of the Union address, he only made a passing reference to legislation that would restore and strengthen parts of the Voting Rights Act.
Even climate change, which Biden emphasized heavily at the start of his administration, has appeared to take a backseat amid high gas prices. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to a spike in prices, Biden has called for more oil drilling by oil companies, including on public lands.
During a trip to an ethanol production facility in Iowa Tuesday, Biden signed an emergency waiver that will permit the sale of a blend of ethanol gas during the summer months that he said could reduce gas prices by 10 cents.
Environmental groups criticized the action and said the move could hurt air quality. They also cited evidence that increased corn production for ethanol could increase greenhouse gas emissions and a study published in February said ethanol may be worse for the climate than gasoline.
One progressive priority where the White House has suggested it may take action soon is police reform. After bipartisan efforts to pass legislation failed in Congress last year, the White House has been reviewing an executive order Biden could sign on the issue, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this week.
But when Biden makes a West Coast swing next week — in Oregon, where he is planning to talk about his infrastructure law, and in Washington, where the focus will be on efforts to lower prices — he will look to put the spotlight back on the economy, with the midterms just half a year away.