US President Joe Biden cut a beleaguered figure Thursday as he raced to extinguish political fires on the left and right, at home and abroad, in an attempt to save his hopes of transforming the United States.
Whether it's war, diplomatic incidents, economic shocks or an obstructionist Congress, all presidents feel the heat sooner or later.
Biden's feeling all those flames at once.
To the south, there is the human and national security drama of thousands of Haitian migrants abruptly appearing across the border from Mexico and camping under a Texas bridge.
To the east across the Atlantic there is a disgruntled ally in France, furious at losing a conventional submarines contract when Australia accepted an offer for US nuclear submarines.
All over the United States there is the fight against Covid-19, which Biden declared on the way to being defeated in July, only to see it roar back with the Delta variant.
And right in Washington, the 78-year-old president faces the mind-boggling task of juggling a Republican opposition eager to wreck his presidency and a Democratic Party flirting with self-destruction.
"I've been here for cliffs and crises and wars, and this is going to be the biggest mashup we've ever had since I've been here," Democratic congressman Peter DeFazio, from Oregon, told NBC News.
DeFazio was talking about the perfect storm brewing in Congress, where Republicans are fighting Democrats over Biden's agenda and Democrats are fighting themselves.
Put simply, Republicans and Democrats did agree earlier this year – back when Biden's presidency seemed to be going far better – to pass a roughly US$1-trillion infrastructure bill.
This was good news for America's crumbling bridges – and for Biden's promise that he could heal national divisions.
However, the real prize was Biden's push for a separate, mammoth US$3.5-trillion social spending bill that he argues will redress gross inequalities by reforming taxes, reinforcing education and resisting climate change.
On this, he never had Republican support, yet with Democrats holding a narrow majority in Congress he didn't have to worry.
That was the theory.
Fast forward to this week and both the smaller and bigger packages are on life support, with conservative Democrats insisting on whittling down the US$3.5-trillion figure and leftist Democrats threatening to reject the US$1-trillion version if the bigger version isn't passed first in its entirety.
Gleefully watching the infighting, Republicans have upped the tension now by refusing to join Democrats in authorising more government debt.
In previous years this has been a largely uncontroversial, bipartisan decision that simply allows the government to keep borrowing so it can pay its bills.
This time, hardball-playing Republicans are forcing the Democrats to take the decision by themselves, apparently to try and portray them as spendthrifts. Democrats so far refuse to cave in, insisting that Republicans join them.
Worst case scenario?
Paralysis in Congress. Current debt limits max out some time in October. The borrowing spigot dries up. The government shuts down. And the United States defaults on debts, sending stock markets into a panic.
"I have no idea how it all works out," DeFazio said.
Biden remains sunny
The mess – especially the Covid rebound and the ugly Afghanistan withdrawal – has made Biden deeply unpopular.
His latest Gallup approval rating of 43 percent is at Donald Trump levels and marks a plummet from 56 percent in June.
Yet for now, the veteran Democrat has not lost his trademark sunny optimism – or belief in his vaunted experience as a lifelong Washington insider.
On Wednesday, he got on the phone with French President Emmanuel Macron to bury the hatchet in the submarine spat.
Then he spent hours in the White House with different Democratic factions to air out differences on the spending packages.
Biden is "rolling up his sleeves," Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, brushing off doomsayers by describing the congressional impasse as "a messy sausage-making process."
But even Psaki, master of the half-glass-full narrative, acknowledges that her boss is up against it.
"Well, I think the country is going through a lot right now," she replied when asked about his plunge in the polls.
by Sebastian Smith, AFP