As crises recede, Biden’s agenda faces uphill climb

27 Linda Feldmann Staff writer

One day, he’s Franklin Roosevelt, seizing the reins of government amid raging crises and wielding big initiatives in his first 100 days in office. The next, he’s Jimmy Carter, up against inflation, gas lines, and stubbornly high unemployment.

Or so it may have seemed for Joe Biden in the early days of his presidency. Indeed, it has been a historic time, an abrupt turn from four unorthodox years of Donald Trump and the shock of Jan. 6.

Under President Biden, the twists and turns have continued – most sharply, perhaps, when a top health official warned of “impending doom” amid COVID-19 spikes, only to suddenly announce weeks later that fully vaccinated people could go maskless in most settings.

Why We Wrote This

The sense of urgency behind the president’s big infrastructure bill is waning, while other legislative priorities have stalled. With a thin margin in the Senate, Democrats may have to lower their ambitions.

Around the country, the lifting of restrictions has almost led to peals of “Happy Days Are Here Again.” But the subsiding of the pandemic, while welcome, may also have dampened the sense of urgency around Mr. Biden’s agenda, especially the now-reduced $1.7 trillion American Jobs Plan – an infrastructure bill loaded with liberal Democratic priorities. Republicans are reportedly set to make a counteroffer worth nearly $1 trillion, a sign of life in negotiations that earlier this week seemed near collapse.

Another headwind comes from the news of budget surpluses in some states, a result of federal pandemic relief, and the decision by 23 GOP-led states to end enhanced federal unemployment benefits, to entice workers to fill jobs.

But the real grit in the gears is the long-building polarization of Washington politics. And it’s not just the inability of Republicans and Democrats to strike a major deal that’s weighing things down. Intraparty differences – at times seemingly as big as those between the two parties – are also hindering the parties’ ability to meet in the middle.

Internal “bipartisanship” needed

With Democrats holding the slimmest of majorities in both houses of Congress, the party’s progressive wing is using its leverage to hold firm on its priorities and push for another bite at “reconciliation” – a legislative tool that allows certain measures to pass the Senate by simple majority and avoid a filibuster.

If that’s the ultimate endgame, which is the consensus view in Washington, then Democrats will need to work out some internal “bipartisanship” and bridge the divide between the left and the party’s moderates, led by Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. In the 50-50 Senate, with Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris as tiebreaker, the party can’t afford to lose even one vote.

“It comes down to whether Manchin ultimately votes to go along,” writes David Barker, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, in an email. “All of the bipartisan negotiations are window-dressing to appease him.”

On Tuesday, Senator Manchin told reporters he wasn’t ready to give up on bipartisanship, brushing off the unofficial deadline of May 31. “There’s no magic date and there’s no magic time, there’s no magic number,” he said, noting the Senate’s deliberative nature.

The West Virginian also repeated his rejection of Mr. Biden’s funding for the bill – a corporate tax hike from 21% to 28%, which he says would hurt U.S. competitiveness. It’s worth noting that the Republicans’ lead negotiator is West Virginia’s other senator, Shelley Moore Capito. Their state, one of the poorest in the country, needs infrastructure – a point that grounds the bipartisan duo’s commitment to keep negotiating.

For now, disagreements over the size of the bill, its funding mechanism, and even the definition of “infrastructure” have kept the two parties at loggerheads. But in the end, Mr. Biden and the Democrats are unlikely to accept a bill that doesn’t include any of the Democrats’ green energy initiatives. Nor are Democrats willing to give up the “pay-for” – the corporate tax hike, which is a deal breaker for the Republicans.

For the Democrats, the use of reconciliation to enact the Biden agenda can only go so far. Under Senate rules, it can be used just three times a year, and only on legislation involving spending or revenue. The increase in the federal minimum wage was disallowed under reconciliation in March, when the Senate passed a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill – the first piece of Mr. Biden’s $7 trillion Build Back Better Plan.

The third tranche of Build Back Better – the American Families Plan, which invests heavily in child care and education – is likely to wait until next year. But by then, the midterm elections will be in full swing, likely further hindering any hope of bipartisanship.

There are exceptions: Over the weekend, a bipartisan group of senators reached agreement on a $300 billion surface transportation funding plan that’s separate from the big infrastructure bill.

But other Democratic agenda items are stuck. Legislation to create a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 uprising at the U.S. Capitol, which passed the House last week with 35 Republican votes, appears doomed in the Senate. Policing reform is also stalled, as the unofficial deadline for passage – Tuesday’s anniversary of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police – has come and gone.

A presidential pattern

Still, even if the Biden agenda appears stalled, there’s another way to look at it, political analysts say. As unusual as the times are, the early Biden presidency is, in key ways, following a trajectory similar to most others.

“This is the moment in almost every presidency when they transition from the honeymoon to reality,” says Jeremy Mayer, a political scientist at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia.

Mr. Biden, in fact, has had a “fairly typical” presidency so far, he says. “His honeymoon was not FDR’s 100 days, but his approval was higher than it probably will be for much of the rest of his term.”

The Biden administration has gotten high marks for its handling of the pandemic, the recent messaging snafu notwithstanding. And the passage of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill gave him an early win. The term’s start, in fact, is similar to that of President Barack Obama, under whom Mr. Biden served as vice president and who took office amid economic peril. A big stimulus package passed within weeks. Twelve years later, amid a new crisis, Mr. Biden opted for a much bigger package. Democrats say the “go big” philosophy of today is a result of lessons learned from the Obama years.

Little room for error

But political polarization has also grown wider since the Obama era, and today’s narrow Democratic control of Congress means there’s little room for error. The November 2022 midterm elections already loom large, and Democrats could well lose one or both houses. They could also lose their Senate majority at any moment, if a Democrat from a red state were to depart the scene or change parties.

That makes for a “go for broke” attitude at the White House toward racking up legislative successes – now. It also gives Republicans an incentive to deprive Mr. Biden and the Democrats of wins.

A recent survey of battleground states and congressional districts by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg laid out the challenge in stark terms: Only 57% of Democrats showed the highest levels of political engagement, compared with 68% of Republicans.

“In this polarized moment, there’s more negative partisanship than partisanship,” Professor Mayer says, referring to anti-Biden fervor. “Very few Democrats have passion for Joe Biden.”

That helps the party out of power, the Republicans.

Can Democrats help their chances in 2022 by passing more legislation, and showing they can govern? Professor Barker thinks not. “Their midterm odds are what they are, and have virtually nothing to do with what they actually do,” he writes.



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