Biden Returns to U.S. Facing Challenges After Election

WASHINGTON — President Biden on Wednesday returned from his second trip abroad since taking office aiming to celebrate the return of U.S. leadership on the global stage and hoping for Democratic victories in key elections in Virginia and New Jersey. It did not work out like that.

Instead, as the president stepped off Air Force One on Wednesday morning, Glenn Youngkin delivered a victory speech as the first Republican to win the governorship of Virginia in more than a decade. In New Jersey, an unexpectedly strong Republican showing against Gov. Philip D. Murphy made the race too close to call until later in the evening, when he narrowly won. And a central piece of Mr. Biden’s sweeping domestic agenda remained stalled after Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, raised new doubts about the $1.85 trillion climate change and social safety net bill.

The political losses meant that within hours, the president went from celebrating American credibility abroad to contending with growing anxiety in his party back home.

The results in Virginia and New Jersey exposed the party’s limitations in relying on anti-Trump sentiment to galvanize voters, and they also highlighted a growing concern for Democrats and the White House: that failure to pass Mr. Biden’s agenda or make good on his campaign promise of overcoming the coronavirus pandemic fueled dissatisfaction.

“People are upset and uncertain about a lot of things, from Covid to schools to jobs to a whole range of things,” Mr. Biden said on Wednesday when asked about the election results. He added that he believed passing his infrastructure and social spending bills would address those concerns “quickly and swiftly.”

He sidestepped questions about how much his stalled agenda was to blame for the Democratic loss in Virginia. But a White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy, said the administration would use it to highlight the urgent need to pass the president’s legislation.

Mr. Biden and his advisers are intent on emphasizing progress in negotiations to empower Medicare to lower the price of prescription drugs, an issue that White House officials view as one that can win support among a range of voters, including the suburban and rural Virginians who turned to Mr. Youngkin on Tuesday.

But it remains unclear when the president will have a legislative victory to show voters. This week, after liberals signaled support for votes on both bills, Mr. Manchin outlined his concerns with the revised social policy package and said he would not be pressured by their demands.

That left Mr. Biden without a major piece of his domestic agenda to use to rally foreign allies, and it left Democrats without a victory that they could promote to voters.

David Axelrod, who was a top adviser to President Barack Obama, said the Republican gains came at a particularly vulnerable time for the White House. Mr. Biden’s approval rating has declined across the board in recent months amid concerns about rapidly increasing inflation, a persistent pandemic, the botched U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and a record high number of illegal border crossings.

“On some level, it’s not that complicated. When you have a country that’s stressed or ornery, the party in charge is in a bad position,” Mr. Axelrod said. “This has been an unsettling time from the summer on.”

Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia, had begged the White House and Speaker Nancy Pelosi to push for passage of the infrastructure bill to galvanize voters.

Black voters who supported Mr. Biden are also waiting to see progress on other issues like police reform and voting rights, said Quentin James, a founder of Collective PAC, an organization dedicated to electing African American officials.

“We asked the entire country to show up to vote last year. We gave the Democrats the House, Senate and White House, the presidency, and people are questioning now: What have they done with that?” he said.

While his legislation is pending, Mr. Biden and other Democrats will also need to develop a more effective message to voters, including a response to Republicans who tapped into the white grievance politics of the Trump base by focusing on how the history of racism is taught in schools, Mr. James said.

“They’re talking about prescription drugs and paid leave and climate change,” Mr. James said, referring to the Democrats’ messaging. He added that while those issues were important, “there’s a different conversation happening in Loudon County, Virginia.”

White House officials said some election results pointed to Mr. Biden’s growing influence on the Democratic Party. Eric Adams, a former New York City police captain, won the city’s mayoral race on Tuesday in part by striking a similar balance as the president on public safety: appealing for reform while not hesitating to support funding for the police.

But the election outcomes on Tuesday showed that Mr. Biden will need to address not just the potential impact of his sweeping policies, but also issues that are currently animating voters, Mr. Axelrod said.

“It’s a very uphill fight,” he said. “But you’ve got an uphill chance if the economy is better; you pass these bills, and the approval rating is in better shape.”

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