If ever a President needed a break, it was Biden, after brutal months battered by the pandemic, a consequent economic storm and his own mismanaged withdrawal from Afghanistan. In recent months, Biden has often looked outpaced by multiple challenges, raising questions about his authority and capacity to restore competent, calm leadership that voters craved when they chose him in 2020. Even more moderate members of his own party have wondered whether the President’s decision to adopt a transformative agenda despite minuscule majorities in Congress backfired. And deeper problems afflicting his presidency, doubts over whether Democrats’ message is a fit with the country’s mood and historic factors weighing against first-term presidents in midterm elections mean one big legislative win may not launch a comeback.
But if the 2022 campaign effectively started after last week’s gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, which further tarnished the Democratic brand, it could hardly have begun better for Biden.
On Friday morning, a surge of optimism greeted new official data showing the economy churned out 531,000 jobs in October after several shockingly poor months. News that Pfizer is seeking regulatory approval for a highly effective pill to treat Covid-19, new authorization for vaccines for kids ages 5-11 and figures showing that 70% of US adults are now fully vaccinated offered the promise of escape from the pandemic after many false dawns. Then, on Friday evening, Biden got his biggest win on Capitol Hill yet, with House passage of the infrastructure measure that had been held up by progressives seeking guarantees on a large social spending bill that Biden hopes to pass next.
A historic federal effort will soon flow to repair the country’s potholed roads, aging airports, crumbling bridges and antiquated railroads, with more funds targeting rural broadband and earmarked to catalyze a fast evolution of electric vehicles.
Several Democrats, including Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, argued that had the bill — which passed the Senate in August — become law earlier, Democrat Terry McAuliffe might have been elected governor of the commonwealth instead of Republican Glenn Youngkin last week. But Warner also highlighted Friday night’s victory in a bid to turn the page for Democrats, who must now show they can sell the benefits of the bill more effectively than they have so far in marketing Biden’s agenda.
“What a difference a week makes,” Warner told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” on Sunday. Speaking on the same show, Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan admitted that the bill’s passage was a big win but argued that the tortuous political process that was required to pass it would limit its political potency. “It should have been an overwhelming win back in August, and I think (Biden) should not have let it get sidetracked by the progressives in the House,” Hogan told Bash.
A bill that will live in history
Still, presidencies unfold in several parallel realities. If the bill is a success, no one, in 30 years, will remember the excruciating political drama surrounding its passage and it will be a significant legacy achievement for Biden.
The measure also represents significant political vindication for the President. He anchored his campaign in 2020 on a case that he could use government to tilt the economy toward working Americans. He says the infrastructure plan will create the kind of secure, blue-collar jobs the US has been shedding for years.
Over the last decade, the idea of an infrastructure reform bill had become a Washington punchline. But Biden achieved something that former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump both failed to do despite their own hopes of splashy infrastructure bills.
Almost alone in Washington, Biden also believed he could draw Republican support for an infrastructure plan that would show that the polarized and traumatized Washington system could still function as it was supposed to. In the event, he got 19 GOP senators and 13 House Republicans to vote in favor — a relatively small group but still rare bipartisanship in modern Washington.
“All along, you told me I can’t do any of it anyway,” Biden told reporters on Saturday. “From the very beginning … You didn’t believe we could do any of it. And I don’t blame you. Because you look at the facts, you wonder, ‘How is this going to get done?'”
The President had a point in his rare White House victory lap. And after weeks failing to quell showdowns raging within his own Democratic Party, his reputation as a consummate congressional dealmaker may be partially restored.
Yet bolstering his legacy with a historic legislative achievement may do little to ease the Democrats’ problems in the short-term. Most immediately, there is the question of the companion social spending legislation meant to transform early childhood education, home care for the sick and the elderly and meet the challenge of saving a planet afflicted by global warming. The infrastructure bill passed under a compromise between House progressives and moderates under which the latter agreed to vote on the bigger plan — worth roughly $2 trillion — when assessments come back from the Congressional Budget Office on its impact on the deficit.
But a perilous path still looms in the 50-50 Senate with moderates, including West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, still not definitely on board despite Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s plan to pass it by Thanksgiving to give the President another big victory. Driving the bill into law could be crucial to getting progressive base voters out next November. But like the infrastructure plan, there is no guarantee that Americans will begin to experience widespread results by then.
Still, White House senior adviser Cedric Richmond said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday he was “almost certain” some shovel ready infrastructure projects could begin unfolding by the spring. But given the size of the bill, and the complicated planning and design process involved in major infrastructure overhauls, it could months or even years before much of the money shows tangible benefits.
Most Washington Republicans, hoping to deny Biden the benefits of a political win, are billing the newly passed legislation as an example of Democratic overspending they plan to put at the center of their midterm campaign — despite showing little concern for fiscal discipline when Trump was in office. The ex-President, meanwhile, blasted Republicans who voted for the plan in a statement and slammed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky for not stopping it — perhaps smarting from his own widely mocked failure to pass an infrastructure bill.
Energy secretary warns of rising heating costs
Despite the passage of the bill, the Biden administration will now face nettlesome challenges that have helped drive down the President’s approval ratings just as the midterm campaign begins to fire up.
The administration is plunging into court battles to uphold the President’s vaccine mandates covering federal employees and large company offices. The aim is to end the pandemic more quickly. But the issue fires up conservative sentiment that is already being used by the GOP to power the midterm campaign.
Many of the issues relating to Covid-19’s deadly impact would have tested any administration. And most world leaders have struggled to cope with a once-in-a-century health crisis that has demoralized entire populations. But that doesn’t mean those in charge at national and state levels won’t pay a political price.
A supply chain crisis linked to the lingering effects worldwide from the pandemic, consequently rising inflation, and the high price of gas and home energy have also helped to portray Biden as hostage to events. He has also sometimes come across as following rather than leading his party as progressives assert their own power. And his tetchy and sometimes misleading and blame-shifting response to the bloody US exit from Afghanistan cemented an impression of a presidency running off the rails, which Republicans have exploited and which hurt Democrats in Virginia and New Jersey. While there is reason for the White House to feel more optimistic that the national mood could improve early next year — barring another worsening of the morale-sapping pandemic — the next few months could be rough. This is a particular issue for a President who back in March defined the purpose of his term as fixing problems Americans wanted to be addressed.
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, for example, offered little hope Sunday that gasoline prices — amid a refusal by oil-producing nations to pump more crude — would dip any time soon. Asked whether gas could hit an average price of $4 a gallon, 60 cents higher than the current price, she told Bash, “Well, we certainly hope not.” Granholm also warned of rising heating costs this winter. “Yes, this is going to happen. It will be more expensive this year than last year,” she said.
Energy prices are a classic example of problems that are hard for presidents to instantly fix but that expose them to significant political risk. So while he made real strides in history late Friday night with the passage of his infrastructure bill, the fortunes of Biden and Democrats are unlikely to suddenly soar.