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 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.
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.