Start Your Day Here: Manchin derails Build Back Better; Biden's poll numbers at a low point; omicron continues its perilous spread

Published December 20, 2021 at 7:50 AM EST
Sen. Joe Manchin is followed to his car by reporters after participating in a vote at the Capitol on December 14.
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Sen. Joe Manchin is followed to his car by reporters after participating in a vote at the Capitol on December 14.

Good morning,

Here's what we're following today:

Sen. Joe Manchin rejects Build Back Better: The West Virginia Democrat delivered his final word on the president's key domestic policy bill on Fox News over the weekend, objecting in part to its provisions on climate change. NPR's climate team broke down some of his misleading claims.

President Biden's poll numbers: A new poll shows Biden's approval rating at 41% as his first year in office comes to a close. His numbers were hit by rising prices, the raging coronavirus pandemic and the struggle to pass his signature Build Back Better social safety net and climate legislation.

Omicron surge: The U.S. is averaging more than 125,000 COVID-19 cases a day, with cities like New York and Washington, D.C. breaking their pandemic daily case records. Dr. Anthony Fauci joined Morning Edition to discuss the Biden administration's plan to combat the spread.

🎧 Also on Up First, our daily podcast, a leftist millennial wins Chile's presidential election.

— The Morning Edition live blog team

(Carol Ritchie, Rachel Treisman, Nell Clark and Chris Hopkins)


Goldman Sachs cuts its U.S. growth forecast after Manchin pulls support for Build Back Better

Posted December 20, 2021 at 11:25 AM EST
Sen. Joe Manchin walks outside of the White House.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images
Sen. Joe Manchin outside the White House in November.

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin's rejection of the Build Back Better plan could mean that economic growth is weaker than expected next year, according to Goldman Sachs.

Economists at Goldman Sachs cut their GDP forecast again on Sunday after Manchin told Fox News that he would not support President Biden's hallmark legislation aimed at expanding the social safety net and combatting climate change.

"We had already expected a negative fiscal impulse for 2022 as a result of the fading support from COVID-relief legislation enacted in 2020 and 2021, and without BBB enactment, this fiscal impulse will become somewhat more negative than we had expected," they wrote in the research report.

After adjusting their forecast to no longer account for Build Back Better becoming law, the economists now expect the U.S.' gross domestic product, or GDP, to grow at an annualized pace of 2% in the first quarter, down from its previous estimate of 3%. It's also anticipating slowed GDP growth of 3% in the second quarter (down from 3.5%) and 2.75% in the third (compared to 3%).

The report pointed specifically to the expiration of the child tax credit and the "lack of other new spending we had been expecting" as factors in the darker economic outlook.

"The most important question for the near-term outlook is the fate of the expanded child tax credit," it added, noting that Manchin has proposed adding work requirements on the credit and briefly debating the likelihood of some sort of congressional compromise.

As it stands, the expanded child tax credit is set to end on Dec. 31.

"While we still think there is some chance that Congress extends the expanded child tax credit retroactively in some form, the odds of this happening seem to be less than even at this point," it concluded.

The report ends on a dramatic but slightly less gloomy note, noting that there are some winners.

"While the apparent demise of the BBB legislation has negative implications for near-term consumption, for financial markets there are also likely to be some offsetting positive effects," it says.

Those include lesser odds of corporate tax increases, and a win for the biopharma sector, which would have been hit with $100 billion in price reductions in the Medicare program.

Economists at Goldman had already cut their U.S. growth forecasts for 2021 and 2022 in October, citing a lagging recovery in consumer spending. Here's more from Planet Money's The Indicator on the economic implications of inflation concerns and the omicron surge.


Davos organizers are pushing the conference to this summer, citing omicron

Posted December 20, 2021 at 11:05 AM EST
A sign on a screen reads "World Economic Forum: Committed to improving the state of the world" as people set up ladders and equipment in the background.
Vincenzo Pinto/AFP via Getty Images
The World Economic Forum main stage at of the Swiss resort of Davos in 2012. This year's conference was postponed from January to the summer because of the COVID omicron variant.

The World Economic Forum said Monday it will delay its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, citing the "continued uncertainty over the omicron outbreak."

The event was originally scheduled for Jan. 17-21, but will now be held sometime in the early summer.

"Current pandemic conditions make it extremely difficult to deliver a global in-person meeting," the WEF said in a statement. "Preparations have been guided by expert advice and have benefited from the close collaboration of the Swiss government at all levels. Despite the meeting’s stringent health protocols, the transmissibility of Omicron and its impact on travel and mobility have made deferral necessary."

In the meantime, it said, leaders in business, government and civil society will join a series of online sessions, called State of the World, to "focus on shaping solutions to the world's most pressing challenges."

"Public-private cooperation has moved forward throughout the pandemic and that will continue apace," said Professor Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the WEF. "We look forward to bringing global leaders together in person soon.”

Critics love to hate Davos, which is known for its exclusivity and elitism. Last year, NPR interviewed more than half a dozen leaders in global health, economic development and social justice to ask: Does the conference actually do any good?

Here's what they said.


Millions push to reduce the 110-year sentence of the truck driver behind a deadly 2019 accident

Posted December 20, 2021 at 10:45 AM EST
A firefighter sprays water on a charred truck at the scene of a car crash.
Ronda Scholting/AP
West Metro Fire Rescue
This April 25, 2019 file photo provided by West Metro Fire Rescue shows a firefighter working the scene of a deadly pileup involving over two dozen vehicles near Denver.

Four million people and counting have signed a petition calling for a reduced prison sentence for Rogel Lazaro Aguilera-Mederos, the semitruck driver behind a deadly 28-car pileup in Colorado in April 2019.

The truck slammed into a group of cars that were backed up in traffic on a stretch of Interstate 70 along the western edge of Denver, setting off a large fire and killing four people between the ages of 24 and 69. Aguilera-Mederos, a Cuban immigrant and Texas resident who was 23 at the time, survived the catastrophic crash with minor injuries.

Aguilera-Mederos has said that he lost control of the truck after its brakes failed, and tried to pull over to the shoulder to avoid stopped traffic but another semi had already stopped there. The crash happened as he passed one of the state's runaway truck ramps.

As Colorado Public Radio reports, a jury found Aguilera-Mederos guilty in October of vehicular homicide and 23 other charges, including six counts of first-degree assault, 10 counts of attempt to commit assault in the first degree, two counts of vehicular assault, one count of reckless driving and four counts of careless driving.

He was sentenced last week to the minimum available on all counts, to be served consecutively, totaling 110 years in prison.

Bruce Jones, the district court judge in the case, said that he did not believe Aguilera-Mederos deserved life in prison, that Colorado state law requires sentences for each count to be served consecutively instead of concurrently.

“If I had the discretion it would not be my sentence,” he said, according to CBS Denver.

The decision has sparked outrage over Colorado's minimum sentencing laws, as well as calls for Aguilera-Mederos' punishment to be reduced.

A petition asking Gov. Jared Polis to commute Aguilera-Mederos' sentence or grant him clemency has already garnered more than 4.3 million signatures.

"Rogel has said several times that he wishes he had the courage to crash and take his own life that day, this tragic accident wasn’t done with Intent, it wasn't a criminal act, it was an accident," reads the petition, which was created three years ago and revived last week.

Read more about the petition's arguments and other efforts to reduce Aguilera-Mederos' sentence below.

The petition says that Aguilera-Mederos has no criminal history, passed all of his drug and alcohol tests and "complied with every single request" by case investigators and the courts. It adds that he took responsibility for his actions and apologized to the victims' families, at least one of which has said they wouldn't have given him a lifetime sentence, according to CPR.

The petition also says that the trucking company he worked for should be held accountable, as it's had several mechanical violations since 2017.

It doesn't name the company, but local and national outlets have identified it as Houston-based Castellano 03 Trucking LLC. Citing records from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Global Trade magazine reported in 2019 that 30 violations were reported out of 19 inspections over the course of two years, some of which were related to brakes.

When asked about the push to reduce Aguilera-Mederos' sentence, a spokesperson for Polis told NPR over email that the governor's office is "aware of this issue."

"The Governor and his team review each clemency application individually and we welcome an application from Rogel Lazaro Aguilera-Mederos and will expedite consideration but have not received one yet at this time," he added.

NPR has reached out to Aguilera-Mederos' lawyer, James Colgan, for comment.

There are other efforts underway to draw attention to the case and try to shorten Aguilera-Mederos' sentence.

Some truckers have said on social media that they will boycott Colorado during their routes.

Domingo Garcia, the national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, told ABC13 that the civil rights organization sent a letter to Polis on Aguilera-Mederos' behalf, asking for a pardon or reduced sentence.

And the Denver Post published an editorial on Wednesday asking Polis to commute Aguilera-Mederos' sentence and urging lawmakers to reform the state's sentencing laws.

"The reason Jones did not have discretion is that lawmakers have set mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes, and then required that the sentences be served consecutively and not concurrently," it wrote. "This case shows clearly that Colorado’s sentencing laws are in need of much more reform than the changes that have come in recent years."

An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Domingo Garcia spoke to ABC7. He spoke to ABC13.

Just In

Maryland's governor has tested positive for COVID-19

Posted December 20, 2021 at 10:29 AM EST
A bald man in a suit smiles off-camera while wearing a blue face mask.
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Getty Images North America
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan departs a news briefing in front of the Maryland State House April 17, 2020 in Annapolis, Maryland.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced on Monday morning that he had gotten a positive result from a COVID-19 rapid test.

Hogan, who is vaccinated and boosted, said the test was part of his regular testing routine, and that he is "feeling fine at the moment."

He took the opportunity to again urge all Marylanders to get the COVID-19 vaccine and booster shot as soon as possible, as the omicron variant becomes dominant.

Rapid tests are important public health tools that can deliver results in under an hour, but are considered less reliable than the more sensitive, time-consuming PCR tests that require laboratory processing.

Hogan did not say whether he had taken a PCR test.

The governor's announcement comes just three days after the state surpassed 1,200 COVID-19 hospitalizations, triggering a new round of orders for hospitals including making available all staffed bed capacity and reducing non-urgent surgeries.

Maryland currently has a positivity rate of 5.43%, according to the state's health department.


These three lawmakers have announced breakthrough COVID-19 cases

Posted December 20, 2021 at 9:55 AM EST
Sen. Cory Booker looks at Sen. Elizabeth Warren as she speaks, gesturing with her hands, on a stage.
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New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren chat during a break in the first Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season on June 26, 2019.

Democratic Sens. Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren both announced on Sunday that they had tested positive for COVID-19, despite being fully vaccinated and boosted.

Warren said in an afternoon tweet that she is regularly tested for COVID-19, and tested positive with a breakthrough case on Sunday after getting negative results earlier in the week.

"Thankfully, I am only experiencing mild symptoms & am grateful for the protection provided against serious illness that comes from being vaccinated & boosted," she added.

Hours later, Booker said he too had tested positive after first feeling symptoms on Saturday, calling them "relatively mild."

"I’m beyond grateful to have received two doses of vaccine and, more recently, a booster – I’m certain that without them I would be doing much worse," he said.

Later on Sunday, Congressman Jason Crow, D-Colo., announced he had tested positive for a breakthrough infection after returning from an official congressional delegation visit to Ukraine. Crow also said he had been vaccinated and boosted, and reported only mild symptoms — "the vaccine is safe and effective," he added.

All three lawmakers encouraged everyone who has not already done so to get their COVID-19 vaccines and, if eligible, booster shot.

They each shared a link to a tool from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that people can use to find vaccines in their area.

Their announcements come as COVID-19 cases are surging across the U.S., at least in part because of the highly transmissible omicron variant.


Meet Gabriel Boric, the leftist millennial who will become Chile’s next president

Posted December 20, 2021 at 9:35 AM EST
Gabriel Boric, president elect of Chile, speaks to his supporters after the presidential runoff election on December 19, 2021 in Santiago, Chile.
Marcelo Hernandez/Getty Images
Getty Images South America
Gabriel Boric, president elect of Chile, speaks to his supporters after the presidential runoff election on Sunday in Santiago, Chile.

Supporters took to the streets of Chile on Sunday night to celebrate the presidential election victory of leftist candidate Gabriel Boric.

At age 35, the millennial politician will become the youngest leader in modern Chilean history.

Boric gained political recognition during the massive protests over economic inequality that broke out in the South American country in 2019. The former student leader from the far south of Chile campaigned as an advocate for the protesters.

“In this election, he positioned himself as the champion of those huge anti-government protests over inequality that erupted in Chile in late 2019,” NPR’s South America correspondent Philip Reeves reported.

“Those protests were driven by a whole load of grievances, but particularly a general sense that the country’s conservative economic model pioneered during the Pinochet era meant that government was just not delivering a fair deal to most Chileans,” Reeves said.

Boric says he wants to unite a deeply polarized Chile and has vowed to continue the process born out of the protests to rewrite the country’s constitution. Combating climate change and expanding the government’s role in providing social services were also among his priorities, Reeves said.

Boric sailed to victory — taking 56% of the vote — over his ultraconservative rival José Antonio Kast, who had expressed sympathies for some aspects of the former military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

Kast conceded within about 90 minutes of polls closing.

International Dispatch
From Islamabad

Islamic countries are pledging to launch a humanitarian trust fund for Afghanistan

Posted December 20, 2021 at 9:25 AM EST
Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi speaks at the press conference following the OIC meeting in Islamabad, Pakistan on Sunday.
Claire Harbage/NPR
Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi speaks at the press conference following the OIC meeting in Islamabad, Pakistan on Sunday.

Foreign ministers from Islamic countries met in an emergency meeting in Islamabad over the weekend and agreed to set up a humanitarian trust fund and food security program for Afghanistan. They also appointed an Organization of Islamic Cooperation special envoy for Afghanistan.

Thirty foreign ministers and deputy foreign ministers from Islamic countries, as well as special representatives from the U.S., China and Russia and the United Nations, attended the one-day conference, the largest international meeting on Afghanistan since the country fell to the Taliban in August.

Amir Khan Muttaqi, the Taliban’s interim foreign minister, attended with his own delegation. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said that Muttaqi met with Thomas West, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, among other representatives.

“Forces that had serious reservations are now engaging and talking,” Qureshi said at a press conference. As for the Taliban, he said, “I’m sure they were sensitized to the expectations of the international community.”

U.N. Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths warned during Sunday’s meeting that basic services in Afghanistan “are collapsing” and said universal poverty may affect 97% of the Afghan population by the middle of next year. “The Afghan economy is in free-fall,” he said, “and I fear this fall will pull down the entire population with it."

After the Taliban took power in August, the U.S. froze $9.5 billion in Afghan central bank assets. Pakistani leaders urged the U.S. and the U.N. Security Council on Sunday not to let sanctions impede delivery of humanitarian aid and money for Afghan schools and hospitals. The U.N. is making an appeal for $4.5 billion, Griffiths said, “but our plan is a stopgap measure … the crisis is huge.”


Dr. Anthony Fauci says COVID-19 boosters are critical to fighting the omicron variant

Posted December 20, 2021 at 9:10 AM EST
Fauci sits at a table with a surgical mask over her mouth and nose.
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Dr. Anthony Fauci and members of the White House COVID-19 Response Team meet in the State Dining Room at the White House on December 09, 2021.

The nation's top infectious disease expert says booster shots are critical to the fighting the current surge of coronavirus cases nationwide.

On Monday’s Morning Edition, A Martínez spoke with chief White House medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci about President Biden’s winter plan to fight the COVID-19 surge.

Listen here or continue below to read excerpts from their conversation.

Dr. Fauci says booster shots are critical:

Boosting individuals who have already been vaccinated is absolutely critical for the reasons that you just mentioned on the piece. Namely, we get a diminution in protection when you have omicron as opposed to delta with the vaccines that we've used. But when you boost, you bring it back up to a rather high level to the point where you can actually block what would be the ultimate effect of omicron.”

Dr. Fauci says 50 million are still unvaccinated, as people congregate indoors in the winter:

“There’s gonna be a strong urge to people who have not yet been vaccinated – and there are about 50 million of them in this country who are eligible to be vaccinated, who have not yet gotten vaccinated – to essentially plead with them to get vaccinated because there will be a big stress on the hospital and health care system, as we get further into the winter and the weather keeps people indoors and we have the congregation associated with the holiday season.”

Dr. Fauci says part of the president’s winter plan is to put out “60 surge units” in areas where the health system is stressed:

“Part of the president's winter plan is to put out about 60 surge units to be able to help regions of the country that are getting particular stress on the health system, both from the number of cases that need to be hospitalized, particularly in intensive care, as well as for the inevitable illnesses that you're going to be seeing among health care providers, which will make it an even greater stress on the system.”

Dr. Fauci says there are more tests available now, but there’s also more demand, so the goal is that “anyone anywhere can have access”:

“If you compare it with what was going on last year, there's no comparison. There are so many, many more tests available. But even with that, the demand now, particularly with omicron coming in, and particularly in the context of the holiday season, there is an extraordinary demand, which is good because we want people to use the point-of-care testing to be able to guide them and what their activities can and cannot be. The government has put in a few billion dollars to bring the testing capacity up to anywhere from 200 million to 500 million tests per month [that] will be available. It is true that not every place in the country has easy accessibility. Some do, but we're trying to get it uniform so that anyone, anywhere, can have access to either free or very inexpensive tests whenever they want them.”

Dr. Fauci says “early symptomatology of COVID is very much like a common cold,” so testing is important:

“You can't tell the difference in the early symptomatology because the early symptomatology of COVID is very much like a common cold, often with sore throat, runny noses and things like that. So it is a difficult situation. That's the reason why we're trying to get as many tests possible. Many of them are going to be negative, and that's a good thing. You don't want to see a lot of positive tests, but getting people to relieve the anxiety that they have about what they think might be the early onset of COVID is going to be very important.”

Dr. Fauci says keep unvaccinated children “in an environment where the people around them are very unlikely to be infected”:

“The best way to protect them is to surround the children with people who are vaccinated and boosted. That's the best way to protect them. Keep them in an environment where the people around them are very unlikely to be infected.”


Omicron cases are raging across the country as many people pack for holiday travel

Posted December 20, 2021 at 8:52 AM EST
A pop=up COVID-19 testing tent in a crowed street in New York City. SOme people wear masks walking by while others don't.
Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images
People walk past a COVID-19 testing booth set up on a street in New York City on Friday.

The winter COVID-19 surge is rapidly accelerating and looks to only get worse as the omicron variant spreads across the country.

Cities like New York and Washington, D.C., are breaking their pandemic daily case records. New cases across the U.S. now average more than 125,000 per day with Christmas less than a week away.

NPR's Allison Aubrey joined Morning Edition with the latest, including new insight into how protective the Moderna vaccine is against omicron.

Preliminary reports from South Africa's omicron surge fueled early hopes the new variant may cause less severe illness than delta, but new evidence from the U.K. suggests otherwise.

There are other reasons as well why South Africa's situation may yield different results than a U.S. omicron surge, including the high level of immunity in South Africa's population caused by widespread prior infections.

Aubrey reports researchers from the U.K. at Imperial College London say there's currently no evidence that infections from the omicron variant in the U.K. are any less severe than infections from delta.

That means with omicron-caused COVID-19, some people may only get mild symptoms, but others can still get very sick — especially people who aren't vaccinated. Hospital admissions in London are up about 28% and the mayor points to unvaccinated patients as the cause, Aubrey reports.

Experts in this country are watching the U.K.'s hospitalization and infection numbers closely for evidence as to how omicron may affect the U.S. soon.

Despite rising case numbers, many people in America remain unvaccinated and without booster protection.

While two shots of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines don't offer as much protection against omicron as they do against the delta variant, data from the U.K. shows that when people get a third dose as a booster shot, protection jumps to about 75% effectiveness against symptomatic COVID-19, Aubrey reports.

While vaccinated and boosted people can still get sick, they are likely to get significantly less sick thanks to their shots.

Moderna reported preliminary data Monday that shows its booster shot significantly increases the antibodies needed to fight omicron — 37-fold, compared to pre-booster levels.

The data strengthens the evidence that booster shots are effective ways to protect against the virus, including the omicron variant.

Researchers are studying how much protection is offered by other vaccines such as the Johnson & Johnson shot and international vaccines.

Americans braved long lines in cold weather at testing locations and reported sold-out over-the-counter COVID-19 tests across the country ahead of the holiday weekend.

Holiday gatherings coincided with a significant surge in cases in the U.S. last winter. Health officials are urging Americans to increase COVID safety measures during the upcoming holidays.

NPR spoke to experts about safer ways to celebrate this holiday with an eye on omicron and delta. The resounding answer from experts was to mitigate risk by getting vaccinated and boosted, wearing a mask with strong protection indoors and taking other precautions experts have been advising since the pandemic began.

But many Americans are struggling to adhere to safety precautions after almost two years of the deadly pandemic.

Dr. Francis Collins, who retired yesterday as director of the National Institutes of Health, told NPR's Scott Detrow in an interview with Weekend Editionthat he knows some Americans have pandemic fatigue, but it isn't the time to stop.

"I know people are tired of this," he said. "I'm tired of it too, believe me. But the virus is not tired of us. It's having a great old time changing its shape every couple of months, coming up with new variants and figuring out ways to be even more contagious."

"We cannot afford to let down our guard," Collins said.


Tennis star Peng Shuai says her accusations of sexual assault have been misunderstood

Posted December 20, 2021 at 8:37 AM EST
Two side-by-side photos show a woman wearing a teal shirt and Adidas visor, and a man wearing a dark suit and glasses.
Paul Crock and Alexander Zemlianichenko/AFP via Getty Images
This combination of file photos shows tennis player Peng Shuai of China (L) during her women's singles first round match at the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 16, 2017; and Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli (R) during a visit to Russia at the Saint Petersburg International Investment Forum in Saint Petersburg on June 18, 2015.

Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis star who took to social media last month to accuse a former top Communist Party official of sexual assault insisted in an interview on Sunday that it had all been a misunderstanding.

Peng, a former No. 1-ranked player in women's doubles who won titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014, dropped out of sight for weeks after her Nov. 2 posting, which was quickly removed, describing how she says former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli forced her into sexual relations.

"First of all, I want to emphasize something that is very important. I have never said that I wrote that anyone sexually assaulted me. I need to emphasize this point very clearly," Peng told the Singapore-based Chinese language newspaper Lianhe Zaobao, according to Reuters.

She called the events a “private matter” and said without elaborating that "people have many misunderstandings" about her original post.

The statements are in stark contrast to her original accusation describing an incident a decade ago when she was in her 20s and Zhang would have been in his mid-60s. Cornered in a room with Zhang, she said she “never gave consent” to intercourse and was “crying the entire time."

She said she later willingly entered into an affair with Zhang, who is married.

The original accusation and her subsequent disappearance has raised concerns for her well-being, with the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and Amnesty International both taking up her cause. Later, in an email attributed to Peng that was published by China's state-run CGTN, she purportedly tells WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon that the allegations of sexual assault are "not true" and that she is “not missing, nor am I unsafe. I've just been resting at home and everything is fine."

The WTA, which announced earlier this month that it was suspending all tournaments in China as a result of Beijing’s attempt to censor Peng, has called for “a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegation of sexual assault.”

Referring to a video that emerged last month that appears to show Peng at a Beijing restaurant, Simon said in a statement: “While it is positive to see her, it remains unclear if she is free and able to make decisions and take actions on her own, without coercion or external interference.”

“This video alone is insufficient,” he said. “As I have stated from the beginning, I remain concerned about Peng Shuai’s health and safety and that the allegation of sexual assault is being censored and swept under the rug. I have been clear about what needs to happen and our relationship with China is at a crossroads.”

Climate change

Here's why Manchin's climate objections to Build Back Better are misleading

Posted December 20, 2021 at 7:49 AM EST
The sillhouette of a man standing on the phone in a doorway, with green grass and trees visible outside.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images
Senator Joe Manchin, D-W.V., speaks on the phone on Capitol Hill on Dec. 1 in Washington, D.C.

President Biden and congressional Democrats have spent months whittling down and rewriting his key domestic policy bill to win the support of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.

The roughly $2 trillion bill, known as Build Back Better, aims to expand the social safety net and address climate change. Democrats need unanimous support in the evenly-divided Senate to pass it — and Manchin (whose home state, as well as his family business, rely on the coal industry) has long said it's too costly.

The White House says that Manchin indicated last week that a deal was close, with press secretary Jen Psaki saying in a statement that the Democrat had delivered a written framework to the president outlining which parts of the policy he could support.

But on Sunday, he showed up on Fox News to deliver the fatal blow to the bill — and, by extension, Biden's agenda: "I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation. I just can't. I've tried everything humanly possible. I just can't get there."

Psaki called Manchin's unexpected announcement a "sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position and a breach of his commitments to the president and to the senator's colleagues." Here's how some of those colleagues are reacting.

NPR's senior political editor/correspondent Domenico Montanaro told Morning Edition that getting Manchin on board was always going to be a challenge, given Biden's numbers in West Virginia (where former President Donald Trump won by almost 40%).

Montanaro points to a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll showing Biden's approval rating at a historic low of 41%, and just 29% among independents. And now Biden's agenda is even more tenuous. Listen here.

"It really feels like he's going backwards in some respects," Montanaro said. "A main piece of his agenda has now been derailed by Manchin, and we're talking about COVID again as a main issue in the country."

What this means for the fight against climate change

As NPR Congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell put it over the weekend, "This was Democrats' big chance to get a climate bill passed."

The legislation earmarked $555 billion for renewable energy and clean transportation incentives over a decade — the country's largest climate change investment ever, and a crucial move towards Biden's goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 50-52% by 2030, compared to 2005 levels.

Manchin singled out the bill's climate change provisions as one of his objections, saying in a statement that "the energy transition my colleagues seek is already well underway in the United States of America."

But, as NPR's environment editor Jennifer Ludden explains, his objections are misleading.

For instance, she writes, the free market is not moving fast enough to avert climate catastrophe. The biggest threat to the electric grid is not clean energy, as Manchin said, but climate change. And while Manchin claimed that the bill would threaten national security by increasing the nation's debt, Ludden points out that the Pentagon has already deemed climate change an existential security threat. Read more here.

Here's why scientists say the world can't afford to wait on climate change, and what other regulations may be on the table in the place of Build Back Better.


Biden heads into the New Year at a low point

Posted December 20, 2021 at 7:43 AM EST
President Biden boards Air Force One on his way to Wilmington, Del., last weekend.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images
President Biden boards Air Force One on his way to Wilmington, Del., last weekend.

It’s a lump of coal in President Biden’s Christmas stocking this year

Heading into the end of his first year in office, with rising prices, the continuing coronavirus pandemic and his signature Build Back Better social safety net and climate legislation shelved because of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s opposition, Biden is at his worst mark in the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.

Biden’s approval rating stands at just 41%, and 55% of Americans disapprove of the job he’s doing.

What’s more, with the ever-important self-declared independent voters, Biden has just a 29% approval rating in the poll. That has to be a major warning sign for the White House, considering Biden won 54% of independents in the 2020 presidential election, and they appear to have soured on him.

“There’s lots of uncertainty out there — inflation, the latest pandemic addition [with the omicron variant rising], Congress is still crawling along on his [Biden’s] main agenda,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. “So he’s being hit for a lack of leadership, hit for the fatigue over the pandemic and the concern over inflation.”


Digging deeper into the survey, while 42% of Democrats strongly approve of the job Biden is doing, 86% of Republicans strongly disapprove. That means the negative intensity toward Biden is now more than double the positive support for him.

A couple of notable points on that:

  • Biden ran to “unite” the country and went to great lengths not to be openly hostile toward Republicans.
  • In 2020, Republicans and Trump campaign officials privately conceded that it was more difficult to drum up anger toward Biden than toward Hillary Clinton, for example, the 2016 Democratic nominee.

But conservatives have found their outrage footing toward this president. That’s been highlighted by the mask mandate fights and vocalized through the “Let’s go Brandon” chants. (If you want to know what that is, read this explainer.)

Still, looking toward the New Year, things in politics rarely remain static. Past presidents have seen their fortunes turn around.

But for that to happen for Biden, it will likely have to start with the two things that could define his presidency and are currently pulling him down — the pandemic and the economy, specifically inflation, which Americans appear to be feeling far more than the soaring stock market and low unemployment.

“We don’t have a clue what September, October [of next year] will look like in terms of health care, the economy, military action somewhere in the world,” Miringoff stressed. “You don’t know what's going to be around the corner. … This sets the context, but this is not necessarily where he [Biden] might be.”