(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden entered the New Year with his signature economic plan stalled, inflation at 40-year highs and Russia threatening war in Ukraine. Somehow, things have only gotten worse.

A series of setbacks this week further clouds the fate of Biden’s policy agenda and the trajectory of his presidency.

Fresh data on inflation showed prices surging 7% last year, the most since 1982. A speech on voting rights riled Republicans, didn’t persuade holdout Democrats and was skipped by a star organizer, Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. Talks with Russia and Iran yielded no breakthroughs. 

Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations hit records, while the Supreme Court gutted Biden’s signature effort to goose vaccinations, blocking a rule that would have required businesses to mandate shots or weekly testing for employees.

Biden’s attempted pivot to voting rights -- with a heralded speech in Atlanta, hometown of civil rights legends Martin Luther King Jr. and former Representative John Lewis -- is heading for a dead end, after a key Democratic senator, Kyrsten Sinema, declared she would not support changing Senate rules to pass legislation expanding access to the ballot over a Republican filibuster.

The president’s focus on voting rights was intended as a signal to disaffected liberals and Black voters, whom his party badly needs to turn out for midterm elections in November. But his domestic troubles risk rippling overseas, emboldening adversaries poised to exploit a weakened U.S. president. Democrats are increasingly concerned that voters are poised to hand control of the House, Senate or both to Republicans.

Approval Rating

A Quinnipiac University poll this week found that 33% of Americans approve of Biden’s performance, while 53% disapprove. Another poll published this week by the Economist and YouGov found that 52% of Americans say the economy is getting worse, while just 15% say it’s improving.

Biden’s political fortunes could improve in coming months if Covid recedes and the rate of inflation returns to normal levels.

On Friday, Biden attempted to regroup, promoting a clear victory -- his bipartisan infrastructure law, now nearly three months behind him -- with an announcement of billions in funding for bridge construction. 

“There’s a lot of talk about disappointments in things we haven’t gotten done -- we’re going get a lot of them done, I might add,” Biden said. “But this is something we did get done. And it’s of enormous consequence to the country.”

 

There’s no indication so far that Biden is considering the traditional response to White House floundering: replacing top aides. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Friday dismissed a question on whether the president is considering staff changes, citing a range of accomplishments over the past year.

On Thursday evening, Biden hosted Sinema and Senator Joe Manchin, the two key Democratic holdouts on both voting rights and Biden’s nearly $2 trillion economic plan, Build Back Better. But it isn’t clear whether he can get either initiative on track toward passage.

Voting Rights

His Atlanta speech didn’t help. The remarks drew mixed reviews from civil rights groups, as some called on the White House to go beyond rhetoric in combating scores of laws passed by Republican-led states last year to restrict voting rights, inspired by former President Donald Trump’s false claims that Biden’s election was fraudulent.

Black voters in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Detroit were particularly targeted by Trump and his allies, and they are a crucial Democratic constituency who have so far seen little movement under Biden on either voting rights or police reform, another priority.

Republicans, meanwhile, accused Biden of being divisive after he likened opponents of a federal voting rights expansion to Confederate leaders and notorious racists such as former Alabama Governor George Wallace.

“I did not recognize the man at the podium,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said. 

Even Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat, later said in a CNN interview that “perhaps the president went a little too far in his rhetoric,” though he castigated Republicans for blocking legislation.

Fresh signs of fissures in Biden’s party also emerged over his administration’s response to the latest surge in the pandemic, driven by the more transmissible omicron variant. Several groups of Democrats publicly criticized the White House for widespread testing shortages that have put the president and his spokespeople on the defensive.

Virus Surges

Coronavirus cases have soared since December, with about 1.5 million recorded on Monday. Both new cases and new hospitalizations stand at record levels. That has forced Biden -- elected in part on promises to quell the pandemic -- to grasp for yet another strategy in the face of tens of millions of Americans, many of them Republicans, who refuse to be vaccinated. 

This week, he announced he would double an order of 500 million at-home tests, placed just three weeks earlier, in order to send at least four to every American household that asks for them.

He’s also mobilized military doctors, nurses and other staff to ease pressure at hospitals sagging under a surge of Covid patients and staff shortages fueled by he virus.

Overseas, meanwhile, Biden faces growing crises in Ukraine and Iran. Talks with Russia this week failed to clarify the Kremlin’s intentions behind a military buildup on Ukraine’s borders, and the White House issued a fresh warning on Friday that Russian President Vladimir Putin may be preparing an invasion after cyberattacks hit scores of Ukrainian government websites.

Talks with Iran about returning to the 2015 agreement to curb its nuclear weapons program have been similarly unproductive, with U.S. officials warning this month that Tehran’s rapidly expanding uranium-enrichment program will soon render the accord obsolete. “It is a critical time; it’s how the president sees it as well,” Psaki said. EU and Russian diplomats, though, said this week that a deal may be in sight.

Biden will hold a rare news conference at the White House on Wednesday, a day before the anniversary of his inauguration. While he speaks regularly with reporters in informal encounters, it’s only the second formal domestic news conference of his presidency. 

Psaki downplayed concerns that the president is struggling to govern, citing the vaccination of some 200 million Americans since he took office, as well as economic growth and low unemployment.

“The truth is, an agenda doesn’t wrap up in one year,” she said Friday. “We’re going to continue to fight for every component of his agenda.”

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.