The Memo: Biden gambles that he can do it all
President Biden is seeking to push forward on multiple fronts right away, even as he grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden has submitted an immigration reform plan to Congress already, and he aims to advance on other topics from climate change to racial justice.
There’s an argument for taking such a multipronged approach. Every president tends to have the greatest leverage at the start of their term, and momentum can be harder to generate as time goes on.
But there is also the question of political capital, which tends to be finite. If Biden proves to have less heft than he thinks to pass legislation, he will disappoint key constituencies.
“We’re going to need … to be able to act on multiple fronts,” Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council, said in the White House briefing room Friday.
Deese was making that point in the context of the president’s proposed $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package advancing even as the Senate conducts former President Trump’s impeachment trial next month. But the same principle applies to other issues.
Some Democrats are optimistic that across-the-board progress is possible. They suggest the pressure is on their Republican counterparts not to appear obstructionist.
“If Biden does well, then people will be very upset if it looks like the Republicans are obstructing, particularly on the economy and on health — that will be very bad for them,” said Democratic strategist Tad Devine.
“I’m not predicting that we are going to have immigration reform and all this stuff right at once,” Devine added. “But I do believe he has a very strong hand right now. There are a lot of votes out there for what Democrats want.”
The issue of political capital and how best to deploy it is always a vexing one for new presidents.
Former President Obama stuck to his commitment to enact health care reform even amid an economic catastrophe, persevering past the point when some advisers counseled him to settle for a more modest goal. He signed the Affordable Care Act into law in March 2010, only to see his party suffer crushing losses in the midterm elections later that year.
Former President Clinton fared worse. His 1993 effort at health care reform ran aground, and other controversies also slowed his progress. Clinton early on sought to end the ban on LGBT people serving in the military and then backed off to the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” compromise policy that didn’t really satisfy anyone.
Republicans suggest Biden could be vulnerable to comparable missteps.
“He has got a very slim majority in the House and no real majority in the Senate,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist and former GOP leadership aide who is also a columnist for The Hill. “I think the problem is when you throw a punch of spaghetti up on the wall and hope something sticks. You really want to be more targeted. Biden is going to be disappointing a lot of people if he is making promises he can’t keep.”
So far, Biden has utilized executive orders to advance parts of his agenda. He has announced the U.S. will rejoin the Paris climate accord, reversed Trump’s highly contentious travel ban and paused construction of the border wall, among other things.
But the rubber will really hit the road when it comes to legislation — and there is little indication so far that the GOP will be open to giving bipartisan support to anything important.
“On the Biden administration’s very first day, it took several big steps in the wrong direction,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor Thursday, adding that Biden should “remember that he does not owe his election to the far left.”
Biden’s 60-day moratorium on new drilling on U.S. federal lands and waters drew a critical press release from more than 30 House Republicans, including House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.). Scalise branded the plan as a “day-one attack on American energy jobs.”
Still, liberal activists insist Biden is doing the right thing by seeking action across the board — whatever Republicans may say.
Frank Sharry, the founder and executive director of America’s Voice, which seeks liberal immigration reform, said that everyone understood both the tight political math and the need to blunt the pandemic.
“Look, there is no question [Biden] is going to prioritize COVID and the economy — that’s reducing the number of people who die and increasing the number of people who can support themselves and others,” Sharry said.
But he added that Biden’s “broad agenda” could work and that, when it came to immigration, “it’s all to play for.”
Biden’s immigration proposal provides for an eight-year path to citizenship for most people currently in the U.S. illegally. That alone makes it an extremely heavy lift in the Senate since it would require every Democrat and 10 Republicans to back it — unless the Senate filibuster is abolished.
Sharry said he would like to see the filibuster abolished. If it is not, he suggested that some kind of piecemeal approach to the immigration issue might prove more effective than working with Republicans.
“I have no hope that Republicans are going to do anything other than obstruct and dream of getting back in power. These are the guys who supported Trump!” he said.
“The idea that John Cornyn or Marco Rubio is going to take a chance to deliver for immigrants doesn’t pass the laugh test,” Sharry added, referring to two Republican senators who represent Texas and Florida, respectively.
For now, Democrats are betting that Biden’s deal-making abilities — forged during more than 30 years in the Senate — will help him make quick progress.
But if the public turns out to have limited appetite for anything beyond dealing with the pandemic and its economic impact, he could soon find himself in choppy waters.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.