Why President Biden is all-in in infrastructure
When he took the oath of office, President Biden faced a confluence of crises as great or greater than any of his predecessors. The Coronavirus, which had already claimed 400,000 lives, was setting records for positive cases, hospitalizations, and fatalities. Millions of Americans were unemployed, many of them facing eviction from their homes. Police violence against African Americans had prompted protests for racial justice. The assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6 was, according to historian Michael Beschloss, “a near-death experience of our democracy.”
Biden began his tenure by lowering the rhetorical temperature, appealing for unity, and steering through Congress a $1.9 trillion Coronavirus Relief Bill, which provided $1,400 checks to people making $75,000 or less; boosted unemployment benefits; helped renters and landlords; expanded child tax credits; and funded vaccine distribution.
Nonetheless, the fundamental challenges remain. For the nation — and Biden’s political fortunes — the road ahead is strewn with forks, detours, and dead ends.
The Biden administration has made substantial progress containing the Coronavirus. Over 200 million vaccines have gone into arms. More than 75 million Americans, about 25 percent of the population (and 65 percent of individuals age 65 or older), are fully vaccinated. Vaccine hesitancy has declined, with the percentage of people indicating they would “wait and see” dropping from 39 percent in December to 17 percent in March.
That said, the pandemic is far from over. The British strain of the virus, which is 50 percent more transmissible, is now dominant in the United States. Positive tests remain stubbornly high — at about 70,000 a day — increasing the possibility that a new variant, resistant to existing vaccines, will appear.
Last week — after six women among the 7 million people who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine developed blood clots, and one of them died — the CDC recommended a pause. The announcement complicates the administration’s vaccination messaging. The reduction in doses available for distribution probably pushes back the date in which the nation can return to “normal.”
As Americans assign credit and blame for the administration’s handling of the pandemic, their assessments will be based on outcomes, some of them outside of Biden’s control.
In the meantime, Biden has little chance of signing legislation to promote racial justice. The Voting Rights bill passed by the House that would force states to offer at least 15 days of early voting, universal access to mail-in ballots, and would make Election Day a holiday, will almost certainly be filibustered by Republicans. The same fate awaits the Police Reform bill that would end qualified immunity for law enforcement officers from many lawsuits and would establish a national data base to track misconduct. Ditto legislation that would offer an eight-year path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants.
The president cannot do all that much to address these issues with executive orders. And Republicans are already blasting Biden because immigrants are “invading” the southern border and Black Lives Matter and Antifa have taken to the streets.
These realities help explain the political imperative pushing Biden, a moderate Democrat, to go all-in on a big, bold infrastructure bill. It may be his only chance before 2022 to get significant legislation through Congress.
Popular with voters (if not politicians) across the ideological spectrum, the infrastructure bill would provide billions of dollars to upgrade and modernize roads, mass transit, bridges, airports, schools, hospitals, reservoirs and water pipes, federal buildings, manufacturing plants, the electric grid, and broadband access; facilitates a shift from fossil fuels to greener sources of energy; and expands funding on research and development.
Nonetheless, passage is by no means certain. Opposed to any tax increases and departures from a narrow definition of infrastructure, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has promised that he and his Republican colleagues will fight the bill “every step of the way.”
Although the Senate parliamentarian has kept the legislation alive by ruling that it fits the criteria for “budget reconciliation,” which excludes filibusters, not all Democrats are on board. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and several other Senate Democrats oppose raising the tax on corporations to 28 percent. Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.) demand repeal of the cap placed in 2017 on State and Local Income Tax deductions. Progressives are concerned that dividing the bill into two pieces makes it all but certain that part 2 (which would allocate funds for education, childcare, health care, and family leave) will not pass.
If Biden manages to get every Congressional Democrat to “yes,” he can claim, legitimately, to have produced one of the most comprehensive and far-reaching initiatives in generations. He can contrast Republicans’ zeal to cut billionaires’ taxes with the fulfillment of his pledge to “build back better,” while creating millions of good-paying jobs.
And if the pandemic dissipates and the economy is booming — two big “ifs” — the president has a good shot at defying the odds in the 2022 midterms and increasing Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”
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