Despite Biden's strong start, Democrats are worried

Despite Biden's strong start, Democrats are worried
© Getty Images

Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump endorses Ken Paxton over George P. Bush in Texas attorney general race GOP lawmakers request Cuba meeting with Biden For families, sending money home to Cuba shouldn't be a political football MORE is off to a better first four months than most of his predecessors, winning a huge legislative measure, presiding over an administration of competence that has avoided any embarrassments and an economy about to take off.

Yet Democrats privately are worried, on a range from nervous to pessimistic. The legislative landscape is not promising; their House majority, they fear, is in peril next year, and they are frustrated that the Trump-dominated Republican party isn't suffering from his dwindling popularity.

The victory on the COVID relief/stimulus bill may be the congressional high-water mark for Biden.

ADVERTISEMENT

The even bigger American jobs/infrastructure packages are hitting rough patches on Capitol Hill. The White House hoped to get a bipartisan, if scaled back, infrastructure deal with Republicans. That looks unlikely.

If possible, however, some Democrats say ‘Take it: Put another win on the scoreboard.’ Others worry it will make it harder to pass Biden's American Jobs Plan of ambitious domestic spending, even under a reconciliation process, which could be done with just Democrats and go for it all then, even if that's a while off.

Former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidWarner backing 'small carve-out' on filibuster for voting rights Senate hopefuls embrace nuking filibuster Biden fails to break GOP 'fever' MORE agrees, charging Republicans have no intention to compromise and saying Democrats should put everything — "the kitchen sink" — on a reconciliation measure.

With Republicans fiercely opposing any substantive tax increases on the rich or on corporations, Biden will be lucky to get a fraction of what he wants on the revenue side, making those other spending initiatives/investments more difficult. Making the dubious claim that the 2017 Trump tax cuts created an "an incredible economy," leading Republicans like Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanSenators scramble to save infrastructure deal On The Money: Senate infrastructure talks on shaky grounds | Trump tells Republicans to walk away | GOP sees debt ceiling as its leverage against Biden Schumer urges GOP to ignore Trump: He's 'rooting for failure' MORE of Ohio and Rep. Kevin BradyKevin Patrick BradyRepublicans focus tax hike opposition on capital gains change GOP, business groups snipe at Biden restaurant remarks Top Democrat offers bill to overhaul tax break for business owners MORE of Texas say this the worst time to undo those tax cuts, which largely went to the rich. They haven't said when it would be a good time.

Under reconciliation, Biden might be able to get an increase in the corporate top rate to 25 percent (He proposed taking it from 21 percent to 28 percent, seven points below where it was four years ago). An increase in the top rate for individuals may be possible. But his proposals to tax capital gains at death and close some big loopholes are going nowhere. It might even be difficult to end the indefensible carried interest that enables private equity and hedge fund executives to pay a lower tax rate.

ADVERTISEMENT

An ideal job for an aggressive young reporter is covering K Street, where lobbyists — including some close to the White House — will move into a higher tax bracket by helping special interests fend off tax changes.

I'm not sure how much Biden really believed he could work with Republicans as he did when he was a senator; after all, he experienced the gridlock as vice president. But whatever hope he may have had that the party would shed its Trump brand has vanished.

Frustrating to Democrats is that while some of their mainstream politicians have been hurt when falsely accused of embracing fringe views like defunding the police, Republicans have paid little price for extremist views.

The biggest political worry is growing pessimism that Senate will pass SB1, the voting rights bill that would negate many of the voter suppression laws that Republican state legislatures have passed.

If it doesn’t pass, Democrats’ electoral woes mount, when they are already facing partisan gerrymandering and the usual losses for the party in power in the first midterm of a new president. House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse rejects GOP effort to seat McCarthy's picks for Jan. 6 panel GOP brawls over Trump on eve of first Jan. 6 hearing Five things to watch as Jan. 6 panel begins its work MORE only has a four-seat margin in the House, and Republicans already are eyeing the 2023 majority chairs. The odds on the Senate, currently 50-50, are even.

Democratic pollster Fred Yang told me he worries that Democratic voters may “be burned out after four years of Trump, and probably logically feeling less intense or oppositional since we have a Democratic president and Democratic Congress. But Republicans are very angry and more engaged because a majority of them believe the election was stolen.” That last, of course, is a lie. 

There may be offsets.

When Presidents Clinton and Obama suffered huge off-year losses in the first term, it wasn't clear that the economy was recovering from the doldrums. Both had approval ratings in the mid 40s. And both were hurt by health care — Clinton's inability to get anything done, Obama by the unpopular Affordable Health Care Act. Obamacare now is a plus for Democrats.

The consensus expectation today is the economy will be booming, with unemployment down to 4 percent by year end. Biden's approval ratings, now in the mid 50s, may well be better than either of his Democratic predecessors at the same juncture.

“Republicans have three things going for them: history, redistricting and voting restrictions," notes Rahm Emanuel, who directed the Democrats' recapture of the House in 2006, was White House chief of staff and Mayor of Chicago. “Democrats also will have three things going for us: a strong economy, a popular president and popular policies.”

Joe Biden, after a good winter and spring, faces a rough summer. The climate then may get better.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.