Tamara Keith and Amy Walter on Build Back Better setback, omicron’s spread

NPR’s Tamara Keith and Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report with Amy Walter join Judy Woodruff to discuss the latest political news, including the recent setback to President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill, and how the spread of the omicron variant and rise in COVID-19 cases is affecting the Biden administration and the country.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A stalled agenda in Congress and a surge in COVID cases, just two issues the White House is coping with in these final weeks of the year.

    It's a good time to turn to Politics Monday, with Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report With Amy Walter and Tamara Keith of NPR, both of us — both you joining us from your homes.

    So good to see you. I'm sorry. you are not here.

    But, Amy, let's start with you.

    Build Back Better, the president dealt a blow, as we said tonight, by Senator Joe Manchin's decision, but how big a blow is it?

  • Amy Walter, The Cook Political Report:

    Well, Judy, as Lisa and Yamiche pointed out, we don't know really where this goes from here, but it is pretty clear that for Democrats who had hoped that this year was going to end not just with passing his legislation, but that they would start 2022 selling it, that, instead of focusing on just all of the back-and-forth over process, as we have done now, it seems, week after week, talking about negotiations and how Democrats can agree, it was all about Democratic infighting, not a lot about what was actually in the legislation.

    Democrats I talked to were hoping, all right, 2022 comes around, we're going to spend all of it talking about the things that we have done.

    Instead, it looks as if they're going to start the new year in kind of a similar position. We're going to be talking about process. We're going to be talking about divisions within the Democratic Party. That is not helpful for Democrats who are up in 2022, who need an energized Democratic base.

    And it certainly isn't going to help President Biden, who is trying to show that he is able to give voters something for them to turn out and support Democrats in the midterm elections.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tam, how do you see this? How serious a setback is it for the president?

  • Tamara Keith, National Public Radio:

    Well, the White House, as Yamiche reported, is still sort of pushing ahead, though it's not clear where it goes.

    In an interview that's going to air tonight that we just got information about, Vice President Harris told CBS that they're just not going to give up, they can't give up.

    But, as Amy said, it does mean that they're starting 2022 without that victory for '22. The wild thing to think about is, if they hadn't tried for this big ambitious Build Back Better bill, and they had just taken the wins they had, if they — if President Biden and Congress, Democrats in Congress, had just passed the American Rescue Plan and the bipartisan infrastructure plan, that would have been a lot to campaign on.

    But now, because they haven't been able to get Build Back Better over the finish line, that's what's getting all of the attention, much to their chagrin.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Amy, is there a way to get any significant part of Build Back Better done now?

  • Amy Walter:

    Well, it does seem as if there are discussions going on right now about a bill that would maybe trim out some of the things that were problematic for Manchin or a bill that was much more focused on the one or two issues he was concerned about.

    I have also heard progressive lawmakers suggesting that the president himself just issue executive orders on some of these issues, so that they can be done immediately.

    But Tam is exactly right. I mean, the thing is that the Democrats have a story to tell. Every party has a story to tell when they have been in power. And the whole goal is to tell your story over and over again, convince voters that sending them back to Washington is a good idea because I have been able to do XYZ.

    They haven't done any of that. Instead, it's really been all about trying to sell this piece of legislation. And, quite frankly, I don't think it's particularly helpful for Senate Democrats, especially those Senate Democrats in marginal states, states that are purple, to have to go and campaign in 2022 to have to spend the next couple of weeks here still fighting, but also voting for a bill that's not going to pass.

    That is not a really helpful exercise. And, again, it's only going to help — for Democrats who were worried about 2022, this gives Republicans some very good talking points to say that the Senate couldn't pass legislation because even Democrats thought it went too far.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Tam, you were citing Vice President Harris saying, we're going to keep fighting for this.

    What does that look like then?

  • Tamara Keith:

    Conversations continuing. And really what it looks like is, for now, at least, the administration trying not to openly feud with Joe Manchin.

    Over the weekend, Press Secretary Jen Psaki put out got a pretty sharp statement. Since then, they have really tried to cool the temperature, including Vice President Harris trying to cool the temperature.

    And the other thing is, they have a lot of other things to worry about, primarily the Omicron variant, which is now the dominant variant in the U.S. and spreading like crazy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, exactly.

    And this comes — Amy, I want to show for our audience our new poll we have done with Marist, the president's approval rating at 41 percent, disapproval 55 percent. This — now, this poll was in the field a week ago, but it comes at a time with the Build Back Better news and, as Tam just said, this terrible news that we're hearing about the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

    It doesn't seem to be as serious, but a lot of people are getting sick. How does the president work his way through this?

  • Amy Walter:

    Look, I think part of the challenge that the president has had — through these last few weeks here, we have talked a lot about it's been all about process, negotiating within his own party.

    At the same time, this is a president who, on his inaugural day, said his goal was to bring unity to the country, a lot of folks not feeling that the country is very unified on a whole host of issues, including how to handle COVID and vaccines.

    And for his Democratic base, those who had said they really saw in Joe Biden someone who's going to be able to push over the finish line many of the ideals that he campaigned on in 2020, those haven't been accomplished.

    So put that on top of rising COVID rates, which, again, the president said on the campaign trail, in his first days in office said, is my number one priority, the fact that those have — continue to plague the country. COVID specifically, is a real, real challenge.

    And voters, of course, they take it out on the person who's in charge.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Tam, if you're in the White House right now, thinking about how you get through this and into the new year, what are you thinking?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Tamara Keith:

    Well, luckily, I don't work at the White House.

    But they are trying to frame the way the American public thinks about this wave that is going to hit with Omicron. You heard Press Secretary Jen Psaki talk about it today. You're going to hear President Biden talk about it tomorrow. The goal is to prevent severe illness and death.

    At the beginning of the administration, President Biden was talking about ending the pandemic. That's not what he's talking about anymore. They are preparing the public for a lot of people to get this virus, for vaccinated people even to get COVID, and preparing the public for that reality, that ending the pandemic isn't necessarily the goal anymore.

    And that puts a giant wet blanket on the president's approval, because that uncertainty, that fear that not knowing if they're going to be shut down, so they insist there won't be, but not knowing whether they're going to be enough staff who are COVID-negative to staff a school when you return from Christmas break, these are all things that are weighing on the American public and weighing on the president's approval.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Unwelcome news in just about any direction you can think of.

    Tamara Keith, Amy Walter, we thank you both. Stay safe.

  • Tamara Keith:

    You're welcome.

  • Amy Walter:

    Thank you.

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