With Biden's Agenda in Danger, Democrats Scramble to Lay Out 2022 Battle Plan

With just one interview with Fox News, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin dealt President Joe Biden's agenda a serious blow, leaving Democrats scrambling to figure out a way forward with voters ahead of the 2022 elections.

Manchin walked away from negotiations on the roughly $2 trillion Build Back Better (BBB) spending bill just before the holidays. It included a child tax credit, universal preschool, free community college, expanded Medicare and Medicaid, as well as significant climate provisions.

While some Democrats believe there is still a framework for Manchin and Biden to come back to the table and work on passing a smaller bill, it would leave the president with a very short window to pass major legislation and still have time to tout his accomplishments before the November midterm elections, which many analysts are predicting will go badly for his party.

Democrats know the urgency is real.

"As best as I can tell, Democrats have about three months to make due on that promise, or else we walk through an election season without anything to offer the American people," Brad Bauman, the former executive director of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told Newsweek.

"The truth of the matter is the American people elected Democrats," he said, "because after years of mismanagement by Republicans and Trump, they wanted competent leadership that was capable of passing the sort of bills that would help Americans get through a pandemic and an economic downturn."

One strategy supported by progressive leadership is for Biden to use executive powers to bypass Congress and enact his agenda.

In a Washington Post op-ed on Monday, Representative Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, wrote that, "Taking executive action will also make clear to those who hinder Build Back Better that the White House and Democrats will deliver for Americans."

She added that the progressive caucus will soon release a plan for the scope of these actions, "including lowering costs, protecting the health of every family, and showing the world that the United States is serious about our leadership on climate action."

Veteran Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg wrote in October that division among Democrats would make November 2021 more difficult, and he also foresaw trouble in Virginia ahead of Terry McAuliffe's embarrassing loss that month.

Democrats had to put the "debilitating period of rancor, of process and tactics behind us as soon as possible," he wrote, exhorting Democrats to come together and get a deal done, "recognizing the more time we spend fighting and not doing what the people want right now the harder 2022 (and Virginia) will be."

As he did then, he told Newsweek now that the chief concerns for the Biden administration and for vulnerable Democrats over the next 11 months are the coronavirus response and the economy.

"The 2022 elections are largely going to be a referendum on Biden's central and most important campaign promise, which was to defeat COVID, get the economy going again and get us back to something close to normal," he said. "If people feel that he's achieved these things by summer the elections will be competitive. If not, Democrats will struggle next year."

The administration points to record job creation, a roughly 70% vaccination rate, and nearly all schools reopening. But while the White House highlights the importance of the economy and COVID-19 response, it still believes Biden's Build Back Better agenda will pass despite the Manchin betrayal.

"Being president means taking on the country's challenges all at once," a White House spokesman told NBC News. "The American people support the Build Back Better economic growth plan for the middle class because it will cut the biggest costs families face and fight inflation for the long haul."

"They also support his mobilization against COVID-19, despite an unprecedented misinformation effort against vaccines and partisan obstruction that aids the virus," the spokesman added. "He's fighting to deliver on both."

Kristian Ramos, a Democratic consultant and expert on the Latino vote, predicted that a version of the Build Back Better plan will eventually pass, But he said Democrats must do a better job of connecting viscerally and emotionally with the COVID uncertainty and economic anxiety voters are feeling.

Democrats have done far more than Republicans to make the pandemic better for working-class Americans, he said, but voters don't know it or feel it.

"You have to do it in a way voters understand: 'When the chips were down Democrats and my administration got you through the winter and you were able to pay the bills and keep the heat on,'" he told Newsweek. "It's about messaging that we did this to make your life better."

But beyond calibrating midterm messaging just right after Build Back Better was dealt a serious blow, Democrats say it must also include a meaningful contrast to Republican obstructionism, including on pandemic response.

"Democrats have to start hitting Republicans," he said. "They're the reason this is going on."

"Omicron was able to come on strong because they're still telling people not to wear masks or vaccinate," Ramos added.

Democrats have taken note, for example, that polls have shown voters of both parties are tired of the pandemic, which is why they say Republican governors like DeSantis and Abbott have to start telling people to get vaccinated and wear masks.

But they also note that messaging against Democrats was successful in 2020 because there was so much money spent on it.

"They spent a billion dollars saying we're socialist extremists," Ramos said. "At some point we have to hit them and call them extremists who are the ones hurting the economy."

In her op-ed, Jayapal made clear what is at stake for Democrats.

"Nor can we underestimate the urgency to act, especially as COVID is surging and so many constituencies — seniors, people of color, working and young people — are disillusioned," she wrote. "Democrats must prove that their voices and their votes matter, and that we can produce tangible economic assistance."

Pramila Jayapal
Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) speaks at a "Go Bigger on Climate, Care, and Justice!" event on July 20 in Washington, D.C. Shannon Finney/Getty Images for Green New Deal Network)