The Biden agenda is, unofficially, dead.
Officially, the Build Back Better (BBB) bill, once the centerpiece of Joe Biden and the Democrats’ ambitions, has merely been “shelved.” But with West Virginia senator Joe Manchin now nickel-and-diming Biden on even extending the Child Tax Credit — meant to be the most popular and uncontroversial part of the party’s agenda, and to date the only major new policy introduced by Biden — it’s hard to see how it could make a comeback between now and the midterms.
There’s a lot you could say about this. But as someone who’s spent more than the average person delving into the long history of Biden’s political career, what comes to mind is how depressingly predictable all this has been.
Of the many themes that thread their way through Biden’s history, two stick out. One is the vocal hostility to (nonmilitary) deficit spending and obsession with government debt that he was known for during his long career in the Senate. The other is his almost total inability to stand up to the Right, usually by being steamrolled by Republican negotiators (a failure he’s then tended to cast as the noble art of compromise), or in the form of a hokey belief in bipartisanship for its own sake.
It’s that second one that led Biden to chide people for blaming Watergate on the Republican Party, to facilitate the right-wing takeover of the Supreme Court, and to serve as Mitch McConnell’s go-to doormat whenever the Senate Republican needed to extract concessions from the Obama administration. And it’s what led to this failure now, which could well prove the undoing of his entire presidency.
BBB’s failure can be directly traced to Biden’s decision in April to drop everything and try to get Republican sign-on for something — anything — following the successful March party line vote that passed the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill. At the time, Biden was riding high: the pandemic was trending down, the economy was rebounding as vaccines were rolled out, Biden had just signed a major and popular piece of legislation within less than two months, and the subdued, normal nature of his White House was a welcome respite from the wall-to-wall craziness of four years of Trump. All of it, as well as a full-on love affair with the political press, combined with the customary new-president polling bump to give Biden an approval rating of 54 percent by the end of March.
It’s the kind of position most presidents nowadays can only dream of being in, and the leading lights of Biden’s party signaled that they’d learned from their mistakes under Obama, whose fruitless, months-long quest for bipartisan buy-in on his major policy items had nearly derailed his presidency. The merits of this outlook were made very real when Democrats simply cast aside unanimous GOP opposition to their pandemic relief bill, writing it with no Republican input and passing it with only Democrat votes — and proceeded to be rewarded for it in polling. No wonder: after the dysfunction of the Trump years and an even longer period of gridlock-driven government failure, Biden had proven the US system of government could still work, and in the middle a world-historical crisis no less.
And that’s why everything that followed was so inexplicable. Rather than tackle the next, most pivotal part of his agenda with this approach — an approach that had proved both practically and politically advantageous — Biden decided he would do the exact thing that had nearly sunk the administration he’d last served in and try to pass something with Republican votes.
“This agreement … signals to the world that we can function, deliver, and do significant things,” Biden told the press upon reaching a deal two months later. “There’s not a single thing beyond our capacity that we aren’t able to do when we do it together.”
This was what necessitated the splitting of Biden’s infrastructure plan into two, since no Republican would actually back the social and climate policies in his overall agenda, and the creation of the “two-track” strategy shepherding the bills through Congress in tandem, so that if one failed, the other would, too. It was also the seed for the shrinking of Biden’s provisions, as a “no double dipping” rule Biden agreed to in talks with Republicans meant major cuts to overall spending on critical physical infrastructure.
Meanwhile, the dragged-out negotiations to make this bipartisan bill stick killed all legislative momentum for Biden’s agenda, and facilitated the downward spiral of his approval rating. While the relief bill’s passage had been quick and dynamic, giving the media a dramatic political story to focus on and a tangible win for the administration to tout, now months passed by with nothing coming out of Washington, letting a host of other things capture media and public attention: immigration, the resurgence of the pandemic, inflation, and a host of culture war issues.
The longer all this went on, the lower Biden’s approval fell, and the more it emboldened right-wing Democrat holdouts like Joe Manchin to demand further cuts to BBB, only dragging things out longer. Rinse, repeat. In the end, eight whole months passed between the March signing of the relief bill — now looking like it could well be the high-water mark of Biden’s entire term — and the signing of the bipartisan infrastructure package, a bill that, as a product of bipartisan negotiation in a money-soaked Washington, is not only far too small to fix the country’s dire infrastructure woes, but features a privatization giveaway for Wall Street.
Now we are where we are. The deteriorating political conditions created by this foot-dragging culminated in the November shellacking for the party in Virginia and elsewhere, leading Biden and the Democrats to completely abandon their “two-track” strategy and rush to sign the bipartisan bill into law. In the process, any leverage over Manchin was signed away, too, giving him free rein to continue cutting and stonewalling the passage of the rest of Biden’s agenda — which is exactly what he’s done. Not that it mattered to Biden.
“The bill I’m about to sign into law is proof that despite the cynics, Democrats and Republicans can come together and deliver results,” Biden gushed. “We can deliver real results for real people.”
Biden’s pursuit of a bipartisan win at all costs saw infrastructure spending slashed and the death of the party’s entire legislative agenda, including the almost wholesale elimination of all climate measures in arguably the last chance Democrats had to meet the deadline urged by horrified scientists. By any measure, these results are an indictment of both “bipartisanship” as a goal in itself, and the US government. Yet Biden viewed it as a triumph.
Of course, these developments aren’t actually inexplicable. They are entirely consistent with Biden’s political history, and his tendency to put dealmaking with fellow political elites before the urgent needs of ordinary Americans. For a brief moment, it seemed like he’d adjusted the core of his political outlook to fit what the times required. Unfortunately, for both the country and his own presidency, it’s still the same old Biden.