Stay Updated on Developing Stories

Biden looks powerless as crises crest around him

(CNN) Joe Biden is right that presidents can't just click their fingers and fix things. But for his political prospects, he might have been best not saying so out loud.

Biden is bolstering perceptions that his crisis-submerged presidency is beleaguered and gave Republicans a vast opening Wednesday with several eye-opening statements about challenges weighing down his White House.

First, the President pointed out that there's not much he can do to bring down record gasoline prices and the soaring cost of food. Then he revealed that he didn't know until April that the shutdown of a baby formula factory in February would cause a supply crisis that has panicked parents of newborns. And despite airlifts of formula from Europe, he said that shortage will not end for two months.

These admissions followed Biden's accurate warning earlier this week that he can't simply change gun laws himself following last week's school massacre in Texas. Pressure on the administration to lead a new effort to get Congress to tighten firearm laws, despite habitual Republican opposition, grew again Wednesday after yet another gun rampage -- this time in Oklahoma, where at least four people were killed and multiple were injured in a shooting at a hospital campus in Tulsa.

Biden is not the only member of his administration showing candor. On Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen commented that she was wrong to believe last year that inflation wasn't a threat. She attributed the error to unforeseen crises like Russia's invasion of Ukraine and post-pandemic supply chain issues.

Biden might get credit for honesty. But his frankness is offering no comfort to Americans looking for answers to these problems. Instead, they are a potential albatross for Democrats running for office in one of the most testing midterm election environments in years. His words undermine the new push the White House launched only this week to show that Biden understands the pain many Americans are feeling at the pump and in checkout lines and has plans to help them. Anytime presidents offer an impression of powerlessness and fracture the mystique of their own omnipotence, they court a political blowback. Biden can't afford any idea he's not up to the job given his low approval ratings of around 40% and devastating numbers on his handling of the economy and inflation.

But most fundamentally, the President's protests that he can't quickly solve the problems facing the country conflict with his own theory of his administration, which he laid out during his first official news conference in the White House last year.

Back in March 2021, the President said: "When I took office, I decided that -- it was a fairly basic, simple proposition, and that is I got elected to solve problems."

Biden's record for competence is fraying

At the time, Biden's most urgent task was to get Covid-19 shots in arms and to revive an economy devastated by pandemic shutdowns. He was largely successful, but public satisfaction with his performance started to ebb late last summer amid a chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan and after he declared partial victory over Covid-19, only for the Delta variant to crash into the US.

All presidents face unforeseen challenges and Biden's administration has been beset by simultaneous crises that dwarf those his recent predecessors have confronted. Commanders in chief often learn, to their frustration, that their position is, by constitutional design, far from all powerful and that political conditions and opponents and even supposed friends in Congress can clip their wings.

Biden has had notable successes in office. Job creation is roaring and workers are in a position to demand good conditions from employers. The President has done an impressive job leading the Western alliance following Russia's invasion of Ukraine -- and is supporting democracy there to the tune of $40 billion. He also confounded the cynics -- and his recent predecessors -- by passing a massive infrastructure bill with bipartisan support, though his party seems oddly reticent to sell this success as the midterm elections approach.

But the President's apparently growing frustration is hardly selling the image of a dynamic White House team setting about the nation's problems and is unlikely to project confidence to the voters who have soured on him since 2020.

"If inflation is at 8% in November, we are going to lose a lot of seats," James Carville, the political strategist behind President Bill Clinton's 1992 election victory, told CNN's Erin Burnett on Wednesday about Democrats' prospects.

Congress bucks Biden's authority

The administration's troubles on Capitol Hill have also underscored the impression of a foundering presidency.

Many Democrats are dismayed at Biden's failure to pass his sweeping climate and social spending agenda, which collapsed from the opposition of moderate Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Another moderate, Sen Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona also objected to the original package but she did back the White House's budget reconciliation package last year. Biden's broader agenda remains in limbo and there are still doubts whether 50 Democratic senators -- all of whom are needed given the party's razor thin majority in the chamber -- will support it.

Suggestions that Biden is a spectator as his own presidency loses momentum plays into GOP claims that he is out of his depth and has lost a step ahead of November's elections, which could cost Democrats control of the Senate and the House.

One rapid response email from the Republican National Committee portrayed Biden as "bored and bungling" -- previewing likely attacks on the President by the GOP's candidates as campaign season heats up.

Inflation haunts the White House

The President undercut the image of an engaged White House focused on inflation when he admitted on Wednesday there wasn't much he could do.

"There's a lot going on right now but the idea we're going to be able to click a switch, bring down the cost of gasoline, is not likely in the near term. Nor is it with regard to food," Biden said at the White House.

"We can't take immediate action that I'm aware of yet to figure out how we're bringing down the prices of gasoline back to $3 a gallon. And we can't do that immediately with regard to food prices either," the President added.

The administration has repeatedly pointed out that inflation has been spiked by supply chain bottlenecks resulting in high demand and a shortage of goods after the pandemic. Other outside factors include new lockdowns in Chinese manufacturing bases because of the country's failure to stem Covid-19. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has sent already high energy prices even higher. The President's release of millions of barrels of oil from strategic reserves hasn't brought gas prices down.

Biden on Wednesday warned of another crisis on the horizon over Russia's blockading of Ukrainian ports, which is stopping the export of wheat and other crops that he said would make bread more expensive and cause shortages globally. A ruined harvest in a country known as a breadbasket of Europe could raise prices again -- even with inflation close to its highest levels since the early 1980s -- and could cause even more trouble for Democrats ahead of November's elections.

Biden challenged Donald Trump's presidency of lies and chaos by telling Americans he would always be straight with them. But his current candor is unlikely to ease his perilous political plight. The White House's reputation for competence hasn't been helped by its insistence last year that inflation was likely to be "transitory." Biden's plans to address inflation include getting out of the way of the Federal Reserve as it raises interest rates and passing clean energy tax credits -- a plan that could help ease financial pressures for some families but that also requires the President to unblock the obstacles in Congress that have stalled his domestic spending plans.

In the meantime, an economy that is generally doing well, with unemployment near 50-year lows, is being overshadowed by high prices for basic goods and at gas -- a potential disaster for Democrats.

In a new Gallup poll issued this week, only 1% of US adults thought current economic conditions were excellent; 13% said they were good; 39% said conditions were only fair; and 46% judged the situation as poor. And 77% said the country's economic outlook is getting worse. This was before JPMorgan Chase CEO warned the US may face an "economic hurricane."

New questions over handling of baby formula crisis

The White House's reputation for competence and problem solving is also taking a hit over the spectacle of empty baby formula shelves. The administration has said that it has been actively working on the situation -- caused by the shutdown of an Abbott factory over contaminated formula -- since February.

Yet Biden insisted on Wednesday that he didn't learn about it until much later. "Here's the deal, I became aware of this problem sometime in early April, about how intense it was. And so we did everything in our power from that point on," Biden said during a meeting with formula manufacturers.

His comment not only raised questions about the earlier stages of the administration response, which has now escalated to such an extent that the President has used wartime powers to try to end the shortage and emergency flights to bring supplies from abroad. It also unleashed a flurry of questions as to why the President was not informed about the situation if his team had been working on it -- an issue that gets to the core of perceptions of an administrative failure.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre struggled to square Biden's comments with earlier White House statements and insisted that agencies like the US Food and Drug Administration and the US Department of Agriculture had been hard at work on the issue for months. At one point, Jean-Pierre seemed to suggest that the crush of challenges facing Biden might have been to blame for him not hearing about the baby formula issue until April.

"I mean, the President has multiple issues crises at the moment," Jean-Pierre said. "When he walked into the administration, he talked about the multiple crises that we needed to deal with as a country."

This story has been updated with additional information.