Before he even set foot in the Oval Office as President on Jan. 20, Joe Biden had his staff hang a portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt across from his desk. It’s a not-so-subtle signal of the sort of leader he intends to emulate: a man who took power at a time of crisis and marshalled all the might of government to confront it. Mr. Biden also borrowed a metric of presidential activity first established by FDR, promising an action-packed first 100 days in office.
As the President reaches that milestone this week, he’s put points on the board. Mr. Biden has pushed a US$1.9-trillion COVID-19 relief package through Congress, crafted a US$2.25-trillion infrastructure plan and tamped down the pandemic.
It’s all a stark contrast to the reputation Mr. Biden built up over the almost five decades of his political career. During his 36 years in the Senate and eight as vice-president, he was a cautious moderate, as well-known for pushing corporate-friendly bankruptcy and banking deregulation bills as for helping Barack Obama enact health care legislation.
Now, Mr. Biden is about to run into the first major obstacles to his newfound ambitions as activist politician, chief among them a deadlocked Senate.
The question is whether the President will fail amid these troubles, perhaps even returning to his middle-of-the-road incrementalism – or muster all of his legislative prowess and hunger for legacy-building to become the consequential, FDR second-coming he so badly wants to be.
Major legislation through reconciliation
The American Rescue Plan, which Mr. Biden signed into law on March 11, is a laundry list of measures meant to shore up an economy battered by more than a year of COVID-19, and blunt the pandemic’s vast inequities.
Among other things, it sent US$1,400 cheques to most Americans, extended larger unemployment insurance payments until September, temporarily expanded child tax credits and boosted Obamacare subsidies for low-income people to buy health insurance. Other provisions of the legislation offered payments to everyone from public-transit agencies to small businesses to compensate for lost revenue.
The President’s next major bill, an infrastructure package he calls the American Jobs Plan, aims to pour federal money into roads, bridges, the electrical grid, affordable housing, schools, job training, broadband internet and homecare for senior citizens and people with disabilities. Much of the spending is designed to lower carbon emissions, including by building new public transit lines and retrofitting buildings to make them more energy-efficient.
The price tags of these two acts easily eclipse the Recovery Act, Mr. Obama’s 2009 law to fight the Great Recession. Mr. Biden is passing them using the budget reconciliation process. This procedure allows one spending bill every year to avoid the Senate’s filibuster, which normally takes 60 votes to end, and speed through the chamber with a simple majority. Because Congress failed to use reconciliation in 2020, the President had two such measures to use for his first two major spending bills.
Executive decisions, a clinical precision
Mr. Biden has so far signed 50 executive orders or memorandums – far off the 99 that FDR had under his belt by day 100, but still more than Mr. Obama or Donald Trump had by this point in their presidencies (34 and 36, respectively.)
The new President’s orders include reversals of several of Mr. Trump’s most high-profile policies: Mr. Biden has brought the U.S. back into the Paris Climate Accord, rejoined the World Health Organization, cancelled the Keystone XL pipeline, ended the travel ban on people from seven majority-Muslim countries and pulled funding for the wall on the Mexican border.
Mr. Biden has also wielded his pen to get the ball rolling on actions that will be hard to get through Congress. He has expanded protections for some young people brought to the U.S. as children by undocumented parents and dialled back efforts to round up and deport undocumented migrants. After yet another string of mass shootings earlier this month, the President cracked down on “ghost guns” – firearms assembled at home from do-it-yourself kits – and stabilizing braces, and expanded funding for anti-violence programs. At a White House climate summit last week, he raised the country’s targeted emissions reductions to 50 per cent of 2005 levels by 2030; the previous targets under Mr. Obama were between 26 per cent and 28 per cent.
On the most immediate crisis hanging over the world, the President has taken wide-ranging actions meant to beat back the novel coronavirus. Through a combination of executive orders and provisions in the American Rescue Plan, he has dispatched the National Guard to help distribute COVID-19 vaccines; expanded testing, contact tracing and mask-wearing; and ramped up the production of personal protective equipment.
Arguably, his actions will matter less than the production schedules of pharmaceutical companies making the vaccines, and the ability of state and local governments managing most of the mass inoculation clinics. But Mr. Biden’s ability to beat back the pandemic is the single most important metric by which he will likely be judged in his early presidency.
So far, the President has done well, easily beating both his original vaccination target – that the U.S. will have administered a total of 100 million shots by his 100th day in office – and a revised 200-million-shot goal, which the country reached last week.
A tighter weave on the social safety net
On the campaign trail, Mr. Biden advocated the largest expansion of government services since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation of the 1960s: Mr. Biden favours enacting “public option” health care, in which people could choose to join a voluntary government health-insurance program rather than use private plans; raising the minimum wage to US$15 an hour; and creating a system of paid parental and medical leave.
The President is expected to package many of these together into a proposed American Families Plan, to be unveiled Wednesday in his first speech to a joint session of Congress.
These measures may seem modest by international standards. Every other developed country, for instance, already has some form of universal health care – and paid parental leave isn’t exactly a new or radical idea. But such policies would represent a vast improvement over the U.S.’s currently threadbare social safety net. And they represent something of a middle position between the Democrats’ left flank, which favours single-payer health care modelled on Canada’s and Britain’s, and party moderates, who want only some improvements to Obamacare.
The hot-buttons: immigration, guns and voting rights
On his first day in office, the President sent Congress the U.S. Citizenship Act, which would make it possible for currently undocumented migrants to eventually become American citizens. He has also urged Congress to institute background checks for people buying guns at gun shows, ban military-style rifles and high-capacity magazines, and repeal a law that prevents gun makers from getting sued when their guns are used to shoot people. And he supports a wide-ranging voting-reform bill that would crack down on big money in politics, and make it easier to vote.
The first two of these legislative drives fire back at the Republican culture war, taking aim at the anti-immigration and pro-gun policies that defined the party during the Trump era. The last is meant to reverse efforts by Republican state governments to make voting harder, policies that suppress the votes of Black, Latino and younger voters who tend to favour the Democrats.
The otherwise fractious Grand Old Party is united by one thing: abject opposition to Mr. Biden. In the Senate, all 49 Republicans present voted against the American Rescue Plan. (The lone exception, Alaska’s Dan Sullivan, was absent, attending his father-in-law’s funeral, but said he would have voted against the legislation, too.) Among the factors at play: a base of hardcore partisans who tend to favour ideological purists over pragmatic centrists in the primaries that select the party’s nominees, and the looming presence of Mr. Trump, who has repeatedly threatened with electoral defeat any Republican who favours co-operation with the Democrats.
Both Mr. Biden and some Republican legislators have said they are willing to work together, and have met at the White House to discuss legislation. But the President appears wary of repeating Mr. Obama’s experience in 2009: Amid the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the White House engaged in protracted negotiations with the Republicans, using up precious time and political capital in a bid to make the legislation bipartisan. But in the end, not a single GOP legislator voted for the law.
So Mr. Biden has instead plowed ahead with bills designed more to appeal to voters – including moderate Republicans – and his own caucus than to the opposition party in Congress.
The U.S. Senate’s rules allow senators to indefinitely prolong debate on legislation, a process called filibustering, which prevents a bill being brought to a vote. With only a few exceptions, the Senate requires a supermajority of 60 votes to end a filibuster. This effectively means that, for many bills, it is impossible to get anything passed with fewer than 60 senators on board.
Because the Senate is divided evenly between the parties – 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, with Vice-President Kamala Harris voting to break ties – this means that the Democrats typically have to convince 10 Republicans to help them get most legislation through.
The Senate used the budget reconciliation process, which allows senators to end a filibuster by a simple majority vote, to push through the American Rescue Plan, and looks to do the same with the American Jobs Plan. This process, however, can only be used once per year and only for spending bills – the Senate parliamentarian, for instance, ruled that the US$15 minimum wage couldn’t be inserted into the American Rescue Plan. This means that most of Mr. Biden’s other big-ticket items, from health care reform to immigration to gun control, could be permanently blocked in the Senate by the Republicans.
Mr. Biden doesn’t have much in common with Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the socialist firebrands who have pulled the Democratic Party to the left in recent years.
During the presidential primaries, a 2005 video of Mr. Biden arguing with Elizabeth Warren that bankrupt Americans should have fewer protections against their creditors went viral. On the campaign trail, Mr. Biden frequently touted his desire to make deals across the aisle in Congress and explicitly asked for the votes of Republicans disaffected by Mr. Trump.
But since taking charge at the White House, Mr. Biden’s governance style has been closer to the sort of presidency Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren envisioned for themselves than it has to Mr. Obama’s. He has backed expansive pieces of legislation, churned out executive orders and tried to act as quickly as possible. While he may not have gone as far left on policy as the party’s AOC’s would like, Mr. Biden has moved faster and more aggressively than he had signalled he would.
Now, the President is angering the other end of his caucus. Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator from West Virginia, fought to shrink the American Rescue Plan, pushing for smaller unemployment benefits, and he has called on Mr. Biden to eliminate spending on social programs from the American Jobs Plan. Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, another Democratic moderate, has publicly opposed the US$15 minimum wage. Both senators have said they would not support eliminating the filibuster; the left of the caucus is clamouring for such a move, pointing out that the procedure was once used by segregationist senators in the 1960s in their bids to derail civil-rights legislation.
Representing Republican-run states, both Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema have every incentive to position themselves to Mr. Biden’s right. And in a Senate where the Democrats need every single vote to pass legislation, it has given each of these moderates veto power over swaths of the President’s agenda. The dynamic has shades of the Obamacare debates, when a lone Democratic senator – Joe Lieberman – blocked public option health care to protect his state’s private insurance industry.
Now, Mr. Biden must find ways to either bring Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema onside or watch much of his agenda sink as the pair teams up with Republicans and the filibuster to thwart the White House.
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