The Honeymoon is Over: The future of Biden agenda

ike most marriages, a presidential administration begins with a warm, fuzzy feeling of hope.  When President Joe Biden took the oath of office on January 20th, he brought a breath of fresh air after four years of poor policy decisions.  Once a president takes office, he still must govern effectively. 

The road ain’t as long as President Biden would like

The administration’s first 100 days were filled with successes and hope for the the coming year.  President Biden scored a policy victory by passing The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which authorized $1.9 trillion of spending on COVID relief and assisted in the distribution of vaccine delivery.  The administration reached its goal of vaccinating 100 million Americans within the first 100 days of the president’s term.  American citizens received a stimulus check.  The economy added jobs in recovering from the COVID shutdown.  President Biden’s approval ratings hovered in the 60-something range.  Supporters of the administration mentioned the president’s name in the same breath as Franklin Roosevelt.

The Biden administration hoped to parlay early victories into support for a broad sweeping infrastructure bill known as The American Jobs Plan.  Democrats also proposed a bold attempt at reforming the nation’s elections laws in the For The People Act, which would have likely ended partisan gerrymandering, changed campaign finance laws, and established nationalized standards for ballots and voting procedures.  Maybe he is or isn’t FDR, but you can’t say President Biden isn’t swinging for the fences.

In politics, however, even early victories in an administration sometimes can’t produce enough political capital to govern in the way he or she would like.  And unfortunately for this administration (and probably the nation as a whole), the honeymoon is over for President Biden and America. 

The problems add up

President Biden’s agenda has always hinged on the elimination of the filibuster in the Senate.  The practice of stalling a bill to death means 60 votes are required to push legislation forward.  However, changing Senate rules to end the filibuster only requires 50 votes (Vice President Kamala Harris holds the tie-breaking vote in an evenly divided Senate).  Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) has refused to vote in favor ending the filibuster, dealing a significant blow to the Biden administration. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) advanced the For The People Act though Democrats had always understood it would not pass.  A vote only served to put senators on the record about where they stood on the matter.  The measured failed on a 50-50 vote where no one crossed party lines.

With the voting rights legislation out of the picture for the foreseeable future, President Biden and his team turned their attention to the infrastructure bill.  The Senate could pass the measure using the reconciliation process (a procedure which only requires a majority of votes if the bill relates to spending / budget issues).  It’s how Democrats passed the The American Rescue Plan.  Yet, Senator Manchin threw a wrench in the works again.  West Virginia’s senior senator did not want to use the reconciliation process to pass a bill unless at least one Republican senator would vote for the bill.  Manchin has always maintained that the nation needs to work on reestablishing bipartisanship. 

In that spirit of bipartisanship, Manchin has attempted and succeeded in brokering a deal which will involve support from at least 11 Republicans, including Rob Portman (R-OH) and Mitt Romney (R-UT).  This bill would spend $579 billion immediately and add additional money over the next decade to address a number of infrastructure projects which the nation desperately needs.  

President Biden’s agenda seems to have stalled

So, isn’t this a good thing?  Not exactly for the Biden administration the context of this article.  The politics of who receives credit for this infrastructure bill matters.  The 21 Democrats and Republicans in Congress have a chance to raise their profiles and let everyone know they made it happen, and the president was along for the ride.  Moreover, the bill has crossover appeal amongst the moderates of both parties, but the more liberal wing of the Democrats has expressed frustration over it.  

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) spoke of her frustration with bipartisan deals, noting, “… when these bipartisan deals come together, they tend to underserve the communities that are already underserved …”  

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), perhaps the most liberal in Congress, also didn’t seem too keen about this bill.  Sanders and other members of the more progressive wing of the party believe the term ‘infrastructure’ should include pieces such as climate change, paid family leave, foster care, and funds dedicated to health care.

Members of Congress in the more liberal wing felt a sense of relief when the White House stated they would pursue a two-bill tandem process, which would include a reconciliation budget bill to take up the issues not included in the infrastructure compromise.   The president almost inadvertently torpedoed the entire thing by implying he would veto the infrastructure bill without support for the budget bill.  He later clarified that he would not veto the compromise bill.

The bill isn’t a done deal, and a revolt from his own party isn’t out of the question, and this might be more damaging to his administration than if Republicans kept stonewalling in the Senate.

President Biden also must contend with a growing number of mass shootings across the country.  At the halfway point of this year, more than 270 mass shootings have occurred.  The president’s ability to respond to gun violence is limited to executive orders and these cannot supersede law.  Making any meaningful change to gun policy would require new legislation and Republicans will not yield on this issue.

The president’s accomplishments with regard to vaccine distribution and economic relief seem like a distant memory for most Americans.  Most of the Americans who wanted a COVID vaccine have probably already received one, and stimulus money is long gone.  Throw in a heat wave that is crushing the Northwest and other ‘normal’ problems and no one cares about the fact that unemployment numbers were down in May.

Earlier this year, President Biden tasked Vice President Harris with focusing on the crisis on the southern border and that situation has not improved.  The number of illegal crossings hit a record high in March, and initially, analysts believed those numbers might decrease.  However, the numbers for April and May have eclipsed the record set in March.  Each of the last three months has seen more than 170,000 illegal crossings.  

Vice President Harris complicated matters when dropped the ball in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt.  When confronted with a question about why she had not been to the border to personally visit, Vice President Harris responded in a flummoxed manner, “And I haven’t been to Europe … And, I mean, I don’t understand the point that you’re making. I’m not discounting the importance of the border.”  It didn’t go over well with anyone.  

What’s holding back the Biden agenda?

1.  A divided Senate — When President Biden took office this year, he did so with a slight majority in the House of Representatives and an evenly divided 50-50 Senate.  This limits his ability to persuade Congress to act.  When Franklin Roosevelt took office, Democrats held 58 of the 96 Senate seats and 311 of the 435 House seats.  In the advent of Lyndon Johnson’s administration, his party controlled 65 Senate seats and 268 House seats.  Barack Obama’s initial numbers were 60 and 256, respectively.  Modern presidents who were known for substantially advancing legislation had an easier path to establishing meaningful policies because they had Congress’ backing.  Without a unified government, any president will struggle. 

2.  Heightened partisanship — The degree to which members of both major parties stick to their tribe affects the Biden agenda, or any president’s agenda.  Members of Congress are too scared to deviate from the official party line.  Democratic and Republican leaders have made it clear they are willing to punish members who go too far off the reservation.  You can believe that Republican leadership made this principle quite clear when they removed Liz Cheney (R-WY) from leadership after her criticism of former President Donald Trump.  Party officials also hold sway over committee assignments, campaign finances, and potential primary challenges.  Only a few members, such as Joe Manchin, have any immunity to this.  If Democrats, for instance, wanted to fund a primary challenger against Manchin, he would only benefit from this.  West Virginia’s generally conservative nature would view a primary challenge against Manchin as a sign that he’s doing the right things.  Also, Manchin’s age must be factored in.  He isn’t facing re-election until 2024 and at that point, he might retire.  He’s one of the rare members of Congress who is as close to bulletproof as you can be.  However, Manchin is the exception and not the rule.

With the 2022 mid-term elections right around the corner, both parties understand what’s at stake.  Democrats need more legislative victories to cement their hold on both houses of Congress (and free them from the tyranny of Joe Manchin).  Republicans hope to stall out the rest of this front half of Biden’s term, with the premise of telling voters that the president did not deliver.  The 2022 mid-terms mean both parties have incentives not to stray from the party line.

3.  Joe Manchin — On one hand, I really like Manchin because, in many ways, he represents a number of political ideas I like.  He’s an old-school Democrat and that’s where I fit in, but he’s also (unintentionally) obstructing policies which an administration has a right to implement when they occupy the White House.  The tactics of the minority party’s ‘run out the clock’ mantra have to change, and Joe Manchin isn’t helping that.  The divided Senate wouldn’t be an issue if Manchin would vote to eliminate the filibuster.  It would be less of an issue if he would be willing to vote for the reconciliation process.  

4. The short memory of voters — American voters only see what’s right in front of them, and the present situation shows us problems and inefficiency. Republicans have more than a decent chance to reclaim both houses of Congress in 2022 and a plausible reason is that the American public won’t remember the positive changes that arrived with the Biden administration. You can see this in a slow decline of President Biden’s approval ratings. The president’s political capital is drying up and there is little room for significant legislation to move forward until after the Election of 2022.

The Biden Agenda and Infrastructure

We know politics is returning to normal.  How do we know this?  Shootings, scandals, and actual policy fights in government.  It’s not as if these are necessarily the ordeals are entirely desirable, but they do signal that life in the post-COVID era is not only happening, but eerily reminiscent of life before the pandemic.

The policy battles of Washington, D.C. are a welcomed sight.  After four years of an administration with no actual domestic agenda (other than potentially subverting democracy), it’s  encouraging to see real debate and legislation taking shape at the federal level.  

President Joe Biden’s first policy win stemmed from the passage of The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, more colloquially known as the third stimulus bill.  This piece of legislation authorized $1.9 trillion of spending for relief due to the COVID pandemic.  

President Biden signs the American Rescue Plan into law, but hopes for more legislation soon

The key pieces of the legislation include direct payments of $1,400 to most Americans, extending unemployment benefits (including an additional $300 supplement per payment), expanded tax credits, grants to small businesses, funds to fight COVID-19, and increased educational program spending.

The bill passed both houses of Congress by narrow margins with few members crossing party lines.  Republican opposition protested not the intent of the bill, but the amount spent on relief and recovery in a year in which the federal government has already spent an unprecedented amount of money.  

Most Americans support the passage of the relief bill, and now the Biden team must build on this success, but they face a difficult path.  The administration has two other bills forthcoming, but their agenda may be unavoidably sidetracked.

The next big thing for Team Biden

Repairing a weakened infrastructure has long been a mentioned priority for both major parties in the United States and the Biden administration looks to deliver.  The skeletal system our nation needs to operate as a modern society has steadily deteriorated.  America’s roads, bridges, electric grids, waterways, and internet delivery currently rank 13th in the world.  This is inexcusable and leadership in both parties seems to actually agree on this point.  Just remember the crisis in Flint, Michigan over the course of the last decade and you can see why infrastructure matters.  

In West Virginia, we understand the dire need for solid infrastructure because it seems we always have terrible problems.  Weather related issues cause damage to power lines, overburden storm drains, and deteriorate the existing structures.  Of our 7,000+ bridges, 21% are structurally deficient, while 31% of the roads are rated in poor condition.   West Virginia needs the investment.

The White House recently released a fact sheet about the uses of the $2 trillion planned investment (over a period of several years) in what is being labeled The American Jobs Plan.  Aside from the typical infrastructure, the Biden team wants to add other projects, including a commitment to more electric automobiles and charging stations, broadband internet access in rural areas and low-income urban locations, make existing homes more energy efficient, and investing more of the nation’s finances into research and development of solving these problems for a more sustainable infrastructure system.  It has a number of great ideas.  The real sticking point is how we pay for these projects.

President Biden has proposed changing the corporate tax rates from a flat 21% to 28%.  This is likely to draw the ire of many Republicans, who will claim this would stifle economic growth, particularly in small businesses.  This change in corporate tax rate would also serve as a strong rebuke of President Donald Trump, whose signature policy achievement was an overall tax reduction.  

The White House has been quick to point out that while corporate taxes would increase, they would still remain below their pre-2017 levels and would be lower than corporate rates in the 1980s, a decade dominated by Republican leadership, including the GOP standard bearer in tax policy, President Ronald Reagan.  

Changes to corporate tax policy would also close various loopholes many companies utilize to avoid paying federal taxes, including allowing their headquarters being located in a tax haven.  

One aspect of the proposed legislation which is a shining light is that the bill, in its current format, would not increase income taxes on any tax bracket.

A large scale investment into development of infrastructure will add jobs to the American economy in a time where they are sorely needed.  An analysis of the economic impact from Moody’s estimates that The American Jobs Plan would yield millions of jobs and produce a ripple effect that would benefit businesses and communities well into the future.  

The development of infrastructure would also provide blue-collar work (electricians, pipe fitters, construction workers, etc.) with a significant portion of the jobs associated with this legislation.  The services and output of these workers means white-collar work benefits also.  After all, offices need electricity, water, internet, and reliable transportation routes.

Can this bill pass?

Short answer — maybe.  The President must find a way to focus the American public and Congress on the need for this bill rather than other issues.  What other issues exist?  Well, the return to ‘normalcy’ in America has meant the return to mass shootings (any act of gun violence with four or more victims).   

In the last two weeks, several mass shootings have occurred in the United States.  Four people died in Orange, California (including a nine year old boy) on March 31st.  Just nine days earlier, a man killed 10 people at a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado.  On March 16th, a gunman shot and killed 8 at massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia.    In fact, Americans witnessed 20 serious acts of gun violence in the last two weeks where multiple people were killed or wounded.  

The recent acts of gun violence have many Americans asking for something to change.  President Biden cannot ignore the requests from citizens and members of Congress for him to lead the charge at changing something.  Biden has publicly commented that he would like to see a return to the 1994 ban on semiautomatic assault weapons, gun buyback programs, and universal background checks.  

Right now, Biden has some political capital to work with.  He could strong arm some individuals (particularly within the Senate) to go along with some of these policy recommendations, but that would mean Biden would miss out on making any other serious policy changes until at least after the 2022 Elections.

Additionally, the president must contend with the immigration crisis happening at the southern border.  Migrants from Mexico, and Central America have been crossing the US border for a long time.  This is nothing new.  However, the current surge of undocumented or illegal immigrants (choose your own term, I don’t object to either) is the largest of the last two decades, according to the U.S. News & World Report

Border agents reported more than 100,000 apprehensions or expulsions in the month of February.  That is an absurd total, and the crisis becomes more critical when we consider the record number of unaccompanied children coming to the United States.  A recent report estimated that in March alone, more than 18,500 unaccompanied children entered the nation, creating a massive humanitarian problem which the federal government is currently not equipped to handle. 

The Biden administration did not create the problem, but it is now their issue to solve.  Though critics point to Biden’s policies at the border as a reason for the surge, it’s more likely the pandemic’s effects on poorer nations in Central America are the culprit in sending record numbers of people to the United States.  Biden hasn’t been in office long enough for his policies to have caused such an effect, but it’s clear that he must own it now.  

Immigration policy seems more focused right now on stopping the influx and providing basic services for the people detained, especially the children.  This issue cannot be ignored and, like the infrastructure problem, Americans want a solution to a longstanding problem.  It reminds the Biden team that you can plan and script anything, but the reality never lets you govern like you would want.

President Biden’s infrastructure bill will hinge on how he handles gun violence and immigration issues.  He needs friends on the other side of the aisle and I can’t see him sacrificing the infrastructure plans over these two issues.  

The problem is that he doesn’t have many friends on the other side of the aisle.  The American Rescue Plan passed through the House by a 219-212 margin while the Senate was evenly divided 50-50.  Vice President Kamala Harris, per the Constitution, cast the tie-breaking vote.  If Democrats struggled to pass a piece of legislation most Americans believed necessary, then it’s highly unlikely they will receive any assistance for infrastructure, gun policy, or anything else, for that matter.  

Would implementing the ban on assault weapons, buyback programs, and background checks be helpful?  I believe it could move the needle in preventing dangerous people from acquiring weapons.  However, the amount of political capital it would take to change gun policy would not be worth the limited effect those measures would have.  The same could be said about changes to immigration policy.

What’s next for President Biden and Democrats?

This administration will focus on the infrastructure bill and shepherding it through Congress.  Other issues of immigration reform and gun policy will rely on President Biden utilizing executive orders and the help of cabinet departments and other agencies within the executive branch.  This allows President Biden to make some changes within already existing law, but these issues must wait.

Moreover, another important piece of legislation looms large for the administration and Democrats in Congress.  A large progressive contingent is determined to pass the For The People Act, which would radically change elections and voting in the United States.  It’s an important policy piece that the House has already passed (220-210), but Democrats face a more difficult challenge in the Senate.  I’ll tackle that piece of legislation next week.