The Memo: DC honeymoon period for Biden comes to a quick end
It’s been a very short honeymoon period for President Biden.
Three of Biden’s nominees are facing stiff resistance. Legislative efforts to address immigration and climate change face an uphill climb. And even the chances of getting Republican support in the Senate for a popular COVID-19 relief bill look to be ebbing away, with Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) saying on Tuesday she did not believe any of her fellow Republican senators would back it.
It’s a stiff slap of reality for Biden, after he got his presidency started with a flurry of executive orders that rolled back some of former President Trump’s most controversial policies.
But it’s not so much of a surprise. Biden’s pledge to build bipartisan support has always been optimistic given the nation’s polarization.
Many Republicans are also eager to find a point of party unity after internal discord over Trump and the Capitol insurrection of Jan. 6 almost tore them apart. Opposition to Biden and the Democratic agenda is the obvious rallying point for the GOP.
Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, proclaimed “The Republican Civil War is now cancelled” in a memo sent Tuesday.
Scott sketched out what he sees as a far-left Democratic agenda. “The hour is late, the Democrats are planning to destroy our freedoms, and the threat in front of us is very real,” he wrote.
It was far from a call to find common ground.
But the predictable party-line divisions underscore how the whole concept of a honeymoon period — in which a new president might expect some degree of leeway and comity from the opposing party — has become anachronistic.
“The concept of a honeymoon period has long since passed away,” said American University history professor Allan Lichtman. “The parties are much too polarized for there to be a honeymoon period anyway — and, particularly for a Democratic president, we now have a Trump-inspired Republican Party that looks at Democrats not just as wrong on the issues, but as immoral and un-American.”
Lichtman also cautioned against the tendency to look at the past through rose-tinted glasses. Two of the most significant 20th century presidencies in terms of domestic policy were those of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson — both of whom were aided by Democratic majorities in Congress.
Even former President Obama only just squeezed the Affordable Care Act into law, without a single Republican vote in either chamber. Obama had the benefit of 60 Democratic senators.
The math is far less favorable for Biden. The Senate is split 50-50 and, while Vice President Harris can break a tie, just getting to that point requires not losing a single Democrat — or winning over a Republican.
Right now, this dynamic is weighing especially heavily on Neera Tanden, Biden’s nominee to lead the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has said that he will not back Tanden because of her penchant for combative tweets.
There is little evidence the White House can get the requisite Republican support to make up for the loss of Manchin, with Collins and fellow GOP Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio) and Mitt Romney (Utah) all saying they will oppose Tanden.
There is, perhaps, a chink of daylight in Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) remaining undecided. But complicating the picture further, Tanden has a history of Twitter disputes with the left of her own party, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has yet to commit to backing her.
The White House is, so far, standing behind Tanden. At Tuesday’s media briefing, press secretary Jen Psaki denied the focus had already begun to shift to alternative candidates.
“There’s one candidate to lead the budget department, and her name is Neera Tanden,” Psaki said.
Two other Biden nominees — Deb Haaland for secretary of the Interior and Xavier Becerra for secretary of Health and Human Services — are also facing a wall of criticism from the GOP.
The chances of a failed nomination seem more acute in Haaland’s case, with Manchin not saying how he will vote. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) rebuked Manchin for his stance on Twitter, displaying the tensions within the Democratic coalition.
Those same frictions between progressives and centrists will become more pronounced as Biden moves to other parts of his agenda. Immigration reform and climate change are two obvious flashpoints between the left, which wants sweeping action, and centrists, who recoil at anything that could be labeled as radical.
Assuming the GOP wall of opposition remains solid, some parts of Biden’s immigration and climate change agenda could be passed using the process known as reconciliation.
This reduces the number of votes needed in the Senate to 50, rather than a filibuster-proof supermajority of 60. But it can only be used on legislation that materially affects the budget, and the process itself could lead to the kind of horse-trading that leaves every faction with something to complain about.
It’s not all bleak for Biden by any means. His coronavirus relief package is very popular. Sixty-six percent of all adults favor it, according to a new Economist/YouGov poll released Tuesday.
Biden is also personally popular. The same Economist poll showed 51 percent of Americans approving of his job performance so far and only 36 percent disapproving.
Within his own party, the relief that Trump is gone is palpable, which helps to at least contain internal divisions for the moment.
But the fact remains, the new president’s path gets more difficult from here.
“He has no margin for error within his own party,” said Texas-based Democratic strategist Keir Murray, “and we are not in an era when bipartisan cooperation is the norm. It’s the exception.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.