U.S. President Joe Biden has high approval ratings, high hopes, high-spending plans – and his high-risk policies are approaching a set of High Noon political confrontations.
Congress is back from its Easter break this week and confronts a passel of Biden proposals costing many trillions of dollars. But though the Democrats control both houses on Capitol Hill, the President’s eye-popping initiatives face opposition from Republicans and dangerous skepticism among some Democrats in the Senate, where Mr. Biden cannot afford to lose a single vote in a 50-50 chamber with Vice-President Kamala Harris providing the tipping point.
“There are some danger flags starting to flap,” said Susan McManus, a University of South Florida political scientist. “There seem to be a rising number of people who think their lives won’t be very different after the money gets distributed. There will be some pushback if all this money being spent doesn’t do very much.”
Clearly Mr. Biden is going all out to take advantage of his 55.2-per-cent approval ratings in the RealClear Politics average, a rating Donald Trump never equalled in his four years in the White House. But Mr. Biden’s GOP critics and some Democrats fear he is all in on the progressive agenda of left-leaning figures such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and senators and former presidential candidates Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
It is this tension – a three-way squeeze involving the President’s reflexive moderation, the Republicans’ opposition and the demands of the progressive element of the Democratic Party – that has defined Mr. Biden’s passage since he emerged as the consensus selection for the party’s presidential nomination 13 months ago. Through the remaining weeks of the 2020 primary campaign, into the party’s national convention and then in the general election, he displayed an easy equipoise, his genial manner and the Democrats’ determination to oust Mr. Trump from office sufficient to suppress the strains.
For a while it seemed as if he were channelling Lord Melbourne’s first ministry (1834), in which, as his biographer David Cecil explained, the new British prime minister’s only hope of success “lay in a balancing, trimming, procrastinating policy, yielding a little to the left here and to the right there, according to which happened at the moment to be the greatest threat to him; and also in creating a generally relaxed and reassuring personal atmosphere in which differences of opinion lost their sharpness.”
But it is not so easy now that Mr. Biden is President and must offer concrete proposals rather than soothing rhetoric.
Mr. Trump may have played a starring role at a Republican fundraising conclave in Florida last weekend – he called Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell a “dumb son of a bitch” and a “stone-cold loser” – but the urgency of displacing him from office has dissipated, and the reality of creating a post-Trump agenda is proving to be resistant to Mr. Biden’s palliative political patois.
He still has strong support among Democrats – his approval rating from party members is at 94 per cent, according to the latest Gallup survey. However, a president who promised bipartisan initiatives in a deeply divided country cannot be satisfied with an 8-per-cent approval rating among Republicans. This is essentially the reverse of his predecessor’s ratings at the same time in his term, when Republicans supported Mr. Trump with an 87-per-cent approval rating, with only 10 per cent of Democrats signalling their approval.
But the biggest obstacle to the Mr. Biden proposals, at least while his party has a tenuous hold on power on Capitol Hill, is the cost of his programs, which troubles Democrats who worry about the power of the party’s progressive wing.
“Some of this spending is misdirected,” said James Butkiewicz, an economist at the University of Delaware, in Mr. Biden’s home state. “Some people who are getting the stimulus just don’t need it. We are giving too much money to people who already are too high up on the economic ladder.”
Former Republican representative Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma argues that this is coming in an era when the purpose of out-of-power political parties is not to help shape policy but to regain power to push their own priorities. That requires delegitimizing the actions of the in-power party, with the result that Republicans have no incentive to help Mr. Biden, just as the reverse was true when Mr. Trump was president.
“Despite his desire for unity and bipartisanship, and his institutionalist preferences,” said Mr. Edwards, who has since left the GOP, “he has complicated the infrastructure legislation by adding expensive proposals that have nothing to do with infrastructure, he has created a commission to consider packing the Supreme Court and is being pressured to support ending the filibuster to make it easier to pass major legislation by a single vote, all of which have made it even harder to persuade even moderate Republicans to support his proposals.”
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