Quietly, the Biden presidency has been hugely consequential
According to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, 63 percent of Americans believe President Biden has done very little during his time as president. This negative assessment flies in the face of meaningful legislation bearing Biden’s signature, including the American Rescue Plan, the Infrastructure and Jobs Reinvestment Act, the CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act. These were hard-won presidential victories in a Congress torn apart by partisanship.
The Senate has been particularly hobbled by a crippling filibuster requiring 60 votes to approve nearly every measure. During his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt said, “I do not much admire the Senate because it is such a helpless body when efficient work is to be done.”
Biden would probably agree, having fallen short of the 60 votes needed to secure passage of important administration priorities, including the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and For the People Act — both greatly needed when Republicans are determined to make ballot access increasingly difficult.
Despite the congressional obstacles, recent presidents have affixed their signatures to life-changing laws. George H. W. Bush, for example, signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, which won Americans with disabilities access to facilities previously denied to them. Barack Obama secured passage of the Affordable Care Act, which transformed the health care system. And, yes, Donald Trump signed into law a tax reform bill that drastically reduced taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations.
Throughout history, the most enduring presidential achievements are often the hard-fought legislative ones. For nearly a decade, Republicans promised to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act and failed. Likewise, Biden’s legislative victories are, as the president has said, “locked in.” For example, the Inflation Reduction Act allows Medicare to negotiate drug prices, reduces the price of insulin to $35 per month for seniors and caps their yearly out-of-pocket drug costs at $2,000, allows hearing aids to be purchased over the counter, makes surprise billing by doctors illegal, imposes a mandatory 15 percent tax on corporations and institutes what the Wilderness Society calls “breakthrough” climate provisions.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act ensures that $17 billion will be spent refurbishing America’s ports, $25 billion to modernize airports and $550 billion to repair the nation’s roads, bridges and water pipes, provide broadband to rural communities, and will create 1.5 million jobs over the next 10 years.
These are popular measures that Republicans will be hard-pressed to reverse. In fact, they are so popular that some Republicans seeking reelection are taking credit for them, even though they voted no. The Inflation Reduction Act received zero Republican votes, while the popular infrastructure law was opposed by 206 House Republicans and 30 Republican senators. Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) recently took credit for the $70 million included in the infrastructure bill to modernize the Port of Virginia in his Norfolk district. Wittman later deleted his credit-claiming tweet, lest he be accused by his fellow Republicans of supporting Biden. Taking note of other GOP candidates claiming credit for measures they opposed, Biden says, “They ain’t got no shame.”
One reason most Americans believe Biden hasn’t done much are the delayed provisions contained in the passed legislation. For example, the cap on out-of-pocket drug costs in the Inflation Reduction Act won’t start until 2025. Likewise, Medicare’s ability to negotiate prescription drug prices commences that same year. Monies allocated for improving the nation’s infrastructure are spread out over this decade, meaning that most “Under Construction” signs won’t be visible until, in some cases, years hence.
In many ways, Joe Biden shares the same public perception that plagued Dwight Eisenhower during his time in office. Campaigning in 1960, John F. Kennedy decried Eisenhower’s “detached, limited concept” of the presidency, and attributed Ike’s landslide victories to weary voters wanting a respite from “twenty years of fast-moving, creative presidential rule.”
But Eisenhower’s “Modern Republicanism” was no respite. He created the Departments of Health, Education and Welfare (now the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services), expanded the Social Security Act, increased the federal minimum wage and secured passage of the Federal Highway Act — the largest infrastructure investment until the Biden presidency.
Eisenhower also approved a National Defense Education Act, which greatly expanded math and science programs in the nation’s public schools. Describing his philosophy, Eisenhower declared that the federal government must “take the lead in making certain that the productivity of our great economic machine is distributed so that no one will suffer disaster, privation, through no fault of his own.” Over time, historians have consistently raised Eisenhower’s standing, currently placing him at number five among all presidents — just behind Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and the two Roosevelts.
Joe Biden has repeatedly expressed his optimism about America’s future, saying, “There is simply nothing beyond our capacity to get done if we do it together.” What Biden has accomplished is substantial. The only question now is whether the country can, as Biden put it, “come together better than we have so far, because a lot of people’s lives and futures depend upon it.”
While Biden casts an eye toward the midterms and will focus on an upcoming reelection campaign, his vision is much larger: winning the 2020s for the United States. Ten years hence, much of what Biden has achieved will be readily apparent. And, like Eisenhower, with the march of time, Biden will come to be appreciated by the public and historians alike.
John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America. His latest book, co-authored with Matthew Kerbel, is titled “American Political Parties: Why They Formed, How They Function, and Where They’re Headed.”