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As Biden prepares to mark 1 year in office, there may not be a celebratory mood

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

This week, President Biden will mark one year in office, but the White House may not be in a mood to celebrate. The pandemic has persisted. Inflation has soared. The president's signature Build Back Better plan stalled in Congress. And senators from Biden's own party stand in the way of a possible win on voting rights. On top of all that, the Supreme Court last week dealt a blow to its COVID response plan, ruling against his vaccine mandate for big businesses. So what now?

Matt Bennett is a political strategist and co-founder of the think tank Third Way, and he joins us this morning from Syracuse, N.Y.

Matt, was last week as bad for Joe Biden as some politicians and pundits might want us to believe?

MATT BENNETT: I actually don't think so. I mean, in the life of a presidency, you have good weeks and bad. Last week wasn't fantastic. But I think what it marked was the end of the first year of the presidency. And that is a significant moment because, generally, new presidents have control of Congress. This one does, but only by the narrowest of margins. And so in the first year, what you do is you try to push through a bunch of legislative things. I think now he needs to make a pivot and focus a little bit outside of Congress on the things that people are really struggling with.

MARTINEZ: So having a bad week on the week that is your first year in office - the timing, I guess, wasn't perfect then.

BENNETT: No, it's not what they would have chosen.

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

BENNETT: But I think it's important to recognize that in that first year, when he was managing the broadest coalition in modern political history that spans from, you know, Joe Manchin on one side to people on - pretty far left with very, very narrow margins in the Congress, he was able to achieve some really big things - the infrastructure bill, the recovery act. And I think now he needs to kind of make sure that people know what he's done for them.

MARTINEZ: Well, so how much of the blame then rests on Biden's feet? And how much is it on obstacles that he can't really control?

BENNETT: It's really mostly things he can't control. As you noted at the top, the things that he's really struggling with, like omicron and inflation, are largely outside the control of the president. He had no control of the virus at all, and inflation is driven largely by monetary policy and by the virus and the shutdowns. But the other thing that he couldn't control was the fact that he had no margin at all in the Senate - literally couldn't lose a single vote, and he could only lose three in the House. And that comes on top of this huge coalition he had to manage, which is fairly restive. So he really inherited a bunch of messes and a very difficult political situation.

MARTINEZ: All right. So a year into his presidency, are we hearing a tone change then from President Biden? And if so, why is that?

BENNETT: I think a little bit - he was pretty sharp in his tone last week when talking about voting rights, because I think it's important to remember that what we are seeing from the Republican Party is, one, they have fallen in line behind Donald Trump and his big lie, which he was repeating in conversations with your team last week. And they are kind of openly plotting to steal the next presidential election. So I think the tone that he struck last week was appropriate.

MARTINEZ: President Biden has abandoned his social spending package, Build Back Better, to focus on voting rights. Was it too little too late - a case of that?

BENNETT: No, I don't think so. I mean, remember, what he took - when he took over, the economy was in freefall, and he had to do a whole bunch of things to deal with that. And he had other crises as well - not only the virus, but he had the climate crisis. And so the things that he proposed to do, some of which he has succeeded at doing in his first year, I think were exactly right. He turned to voting rights at a time when Congress was getting ready to take it up. I think that was appropriate. But look, this was never going to be easy, and it might never have been possible. Senators Sinema and Manchin have been very clear from the beginning that they were not going to carve out anything from the filibuster. And the Republicans have been intransigent. So there was really never a path forward there.

MARTINEZ: All right. So about that, though, because some Democrats think lawmakers should vote on Build Back Better and voting rights anyway.

Let's listen to Jim Clyburn speaking yesterday on "Meet The Press."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

JIM CLYBURN: We need to know who is with us and who is not so we'll know how to conduct ourselves going forward. We operate now in the blind. Let's have these votes. Let's let people have this debate, and let's see where we stand so we'll know how to conduct ourselves.

MARTINEZ: I mean, we kind of know where we stand, don't we? I mean, should the president be concerned that having those votes might draw even more attention to divisions within the Democratic Party?

BENNETT: Well, I think to your point, everybody kind of knows where we stand. Having the votes or not probably is relatively immaterial to that. And I think they probably will. Senator Schumer, who leads the Senate, has made clear that he does want to have the votes and put people on record. And I do think it's important to note that every single Republican is planning to vote no on bills to protect people's right to vote. I think that's probably an important thing to to do. And also, it's important to note that Senators Sinema and Manchin are going to vote with the Democrats on the underlying bill. The thing that they're unwilling to do is change Senate rules, and that's quite different.

MARTINEZ: One more thing - about 30 seconds left - I mean, what should Joe Biden be doing, both strategically and with messaging to maybe effectively reset and improve Democrats' chances in 2022 and 2024?

BENNETT: I think he needs to make a pivot right now. And I think he needs to start to focus on the things - it's - last year was the focus on legislative achievements. Now this year it's got to be the things that people are struggling with in their lives - COVID and schools and shutdowns, as well as inflation. I think Democrats need to really hammer home the things that they did for folks last year that are going to really make a difference and just ensure that they are talking about the same...

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

BENNETT: ...Kinds of things that people are talking about in their homes.

MARTINEZ: Matt Bennett with the think tank Third Way - Matt, thanks.

BENNETT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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