(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden is struggling with a surge in coronavirus cases, an impending wave of evictions and a spike in consumer prices that have left the White House looking unprepared and threaten to undermine months of more sure-handed work on the pandemic.
Biden surprised Congress on Thursday with a last-minute plea to extend a moratorium on evictions, two days before the ban’s expiration, leaving lawmakers little time to act.
Federal authorities also this week recommended that Americans resume wearing masks in indoor public places to curb the delta variant’s rapid spread -- an outbreak telegraphed nearly a month ago when cases began rising in under-vaccinated parts of the South and Midwest. Biden implored vaccine holdouts to get inoculated, even offering them $100 for a shot -- and warning federal workers they’d have to wear masks, socially distance and restrict their travel if they refuse.
The moves reinforced the impression that the Biden administration was somehow caught off-guard by delta, after the president had previously won high marks in opinion surveys for his handling of the pandemic.
The sudden eviction chaos, coupled with the pandemic’s comeback and Biden’s response, overshadowed a major achievement earlier in the week when the president sealed a bipartisan deal in the Senate for a $550 billion public works bill, one of his top priorities.
House Democrats hurried Friday to try to assemble votes for a potential extension of the eviction ban, but the effort failed as lobbyists for landlords pressured lawmakers to let the moratorium expire. The chamber is now in recess and won’t return for votes until, possibly, late September.
As the extension foundered, a round of finger-pointing ensued between Democrats at the Capitol and in the White House.
“Really, we only learned about this yesterday. Not really enough time to socialize it within our caucus” and build consensus, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters.
“I quite frankly wish he’d asked us sooner” to extend the eviction moratorium, House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, said Friday. A day earlier, New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a leading progressive, called the White House’s handling of the moratorium’s expiration “reckless and irresponsible.”
A Supreme Court ruling at the end of June had made clear that the moratorium could not be extended beyond July 31 without congressional action.
Biden on Friday evening pressured states and cities to speed up disbursal of emergency rental assistance funds. “Every state and local government must get these funds out to ensure we prevent every eviction we can,” he said in a statement
The White House’s deputy press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, said Friday that “we’ve been having conversations with Congress for some time” about extending the eviction ban, in defense of Biden’s 11th-hour request. She declined to be more specific.
Jean-Pierre said in response to Ocasio-Cortez that “I disagree” and that the administration had been working on implementing a $47 billion rental assistance program.
“Just last month we saw $1.5 billion in just one month in rental assistance, which was more than the last five months,” she said. “So we have been working really hard in a whole of government approach that we do here at this White House and this administration and we’ll continue to do that.”
Biden’s stumbles on delta and the eviction moratorium echo the White House’s difficulty responding to rising inflation. The phenomenon, virtually a non-issue in American politics for decades, has bedeviled the president’s economic agenda and given Republicans a line of attack for midterm elections next year.
White House officials have monitored the delta variant for weeks but were surprised by the extent of its spread, according to a senior White House official. That prompted the urgent warning on the eviction ban as well as the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s reimposition of a masking recommendation and Biden’s speech imploring millions of Americans who have refused to be vaccinated against Covid-19 to get their shots.
‘Kick the Can’
The ban on evictions expires on Saturday.
“Even though the Biden administration has been well aware of the calendar, it was not until yesterday that the president requested the Congress to act,” Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, said Friday. “Now, we are being asked to take emergency action to kick the can down the road yet again.”
Earlier: Biden’s Power Over Shots Hits a Wall in Fight to Curb Delta
Biden’s rushed moves stand in contrast to his actions during the first few months of the administration, when he and his advisers sought to demonstrate steady command of the fight against the pandemic and draw a contrast with former President Donald Trump’s approach.
That strategy allowed Biden to claim credit for progress made against the virus, while casting blame for any shortcomings on Trump. But more than six months into his presidency, Americans appear to be pointing the finger at Biden for the continuing crisis -- a growing political problem for the president.
A Gallup poll released last week showed Biden’s approval rating falling to 50% from 56% in June. His ratings among Democrats and independents were their lowest to date, with less than half of independents saying they approve of his job performance.
The CDC’s reissuance of stricter mask guidance this week was a particularly jarring moment for Americans who only recently had shed face coverings. Just six weeks ago, as virus cases rapidly fell, Biden proclaimed a “summer of joy” for Americans whose lives had been shadowed for a year and a half by the pandemic.
From Biden’s perspective, the hope is that the delta surge will be short-lived, and that hospitalizations and deaths will remain relatively low even with more cases of minor and moderate illness -- the experience in the U.K. over the past month.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.