Joe Biden’s presidency is in trouble. This past weekend, it was abruptly torpedoed by Senator Joe Manchin – live on Fox News.
The U.S. President’s signature piece of legislation is – was – the so-called Build Back Better bill. It’s been pitched as the most ambitious overhaul of American social policy since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s, and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society of the 1960s. The New Deal’s legacy is programs such as Social Security (more generous than the Canada Pension Plan, and created decades earlier); the Great Society’s legacies include Medicare and Medicaid – health insurance for the elderly and poor.
Build Back Better included an evolving list of promises, from clean energy to subsidized child care, free prekindergarten, free community college, a poverty-reducing child credit modelled on Canada’s, and expanded health coverage.
Mr. Biden’s Democratic Party has a slim majority in the House of Representatives, but the Senate is split 50-50. To pass Build Back Better, Democrats can’t lose a single vote. For months, they’ve been fiddling with the bill, and whittling it down, in an attempt to woo Mr. Manchin, a Democrat from tiny, Republican-leaning West Virginia.
But on Sunday, the lawmaker popped up on TV to announce that, after all these months of his own party tying itself in knots trying to mollify, cajole or charm him into supporting at least some of Mr. Biden’s plan, he’s out. After months of saying he was on the fence but persuadable, he’s off the fence – with both feet on the other side.
It leaves the core of Mr. Biden’s agenda somewhere between limbo and non-existence. Which explains why, in response to being blindsided, the White House released a scathing and deeply personal statement, unprecedented in tone and directed at a fellow Democrat.
“On Tuesday,” the statement said, “Senator Manchin came to the White House and submitted – to the President, in person, directly – a written outline for a Build Back Better bill that was the same size and scope as the President’s framework, and covered many of the same priorities.”
The statement described the senator’s move as “a sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position, and a breach of his commitments to the President and the Senator’s colleagues in the House and Senate.”
There was more, and not much of it involved words used when negotiations are still ongoing. The Biden administration was left trying to save face, having been jilted at the altar by someone who’d gone on TV to tell the world he wouldn’t be showing up at the church, without so much as a call beforehand to his intended.
For Canada, the sudden transfer of Build Back Better to somewhere between the ICU and the morgue does have a small upside. The bill included big subsidies for buyers of electric cars, but only American-made vehicles. In addition to violating the spirit of every trade agreement between Canada and the U.S., such subsidies would disintegrate North America’s integrated auto manufacturing supply chains, and crush Canada’s car industry.
But most of the rest of Build Back Better is – was – about funding programs to make America a bit less unequal, poor, sick and resentful. Which, given that we’re stuck living next door, is something Canadians should get behind.
Among its peers in the developed world, the U.S. stands out for high levels of income inequality and poverty, and low levels of economic mobility.
The U.S. has comparatively low taxes and a weak social safety net, and though no country spends more per capita on health care, tens of millions of Americans have no health insurance. The average American works longer hours than a Canadian; gets less (or no) holidays, sick leave or parental leave; and dies three years earlier.
Mr. Manchin represents one of the poorest states, so one would expect he could get behind Mr. Biden’s old-fashioned, prewoke economic program. His voters would be among those who would benefit most from a stronger safety net, support for working parents, better health coverage and more educational opportunities.
However, Mr. Manchin is also a Democrat in a state whose Republican lean grows ever more pronounced. In 2020, Donald Trump won 69 per cent of the vote. The senator’s U-turn helps his own political fortunes. But he just drove right over Mr. Biden.
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