Biden’s first 100 days were a honeymoon – the way forward may not be so smooth

Biden’s legislative programme over his next 100 will turn on his ability to move beyond flexing his executive muscles, writes Andrew Feinberg

Thursday 29 April 2021 22:14
President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the administration’s coronavirus response outside the White House
President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the administration’s coronavirus response outside the White House

ne hundred days into his presidency, Joe Biden and his administration are enjoying a honeymoon his predecessor could only have dreamed of.

After winning the 2020 election by convincing voters that he, not Donald Trump, was best equipped to address the “four crises” faced by the country – the coronavirus pandemic, the resulting economic downturn, climate change and systemic racism – Mr Biden and his cabinet have filled his first 100 days with executive actions aimed at making progress on each of them: use of the Defence Production Act to jump-start vaccine production, reversal of many Trump-era immigration policies, a return to the Paris Climate Agreement, and a resumption of Justice Department investigations into out-of-control police departments.

So far, most Americans appear to be on board. Public polling taken at various points during the first months of his term shows Mr Biden garnering the approval of anywhere from half to 60 per cent of his countrymen, thanks at least in part to a vaccination programme that has cut the number of new coronavirus cases in most of the country, and the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which he signed last month, putting $1,400 stimulus checks into millions of people’s pockets.

Mr Biden has also benefited from the Republican Party’s failure to negatively define and demonise him in the eyes of voters in the way they did the first Black president, a task made yet more difficult by tensions within the GOP caused by Mr Trump’s push to remain a political kingmaker despite presiding over the loss of the House, Senate and White House.

Yet despite the new administration’s successes at rolling back the most controversial policies of the Trump era and addressing the coronavirus pandemic with vaccines and stimulus programmes over his first 100 days, the political friction built into America’s system of governance means the success or failure of Mr Biden’s legislative programme over his next 100 will turn on his ability to move beyond flexing his executive muscles.

“It is gonna be a steeper climb. If only because so much of what you can do in the first 100 days, just as in any presidency, is a lot of low hanging fruit … the things that you can do with executive orders, for example, that are reversing the previous administration’s executive orders, those kinds of things,” said Tony Fratto, a partner at Hamilton Place Strategies who served in the George W Bush administration.

Mr Fratto said the Biden administration does have some momentum heading into the next 100 days, but will face strong headwinds that could make it more difficult to take the same kind of quick action it took to muscle the American Rescue Plan through Congress.

With the American Rescue Plan Act, Democrats were able to use the budget reconciliation process to avoid the need to garner a 60-vote supermajority in the senate for legislation that involves taxes or spending. While a recent ruling by the senate’s parliamentarian gives Democrats the ability to use the normally once-a-year process on multiple occasions, Mr Fratto suggested that having that ability would subject the White House to more pressure from its leftward flank.

But at the same time, using reconciliation to pass Biden’s American Jobs Plan or American Families Plan infrastructure packages with only Democratic votes could poison the well for other non-spending priorities such as immigration, voting rights or police reform. So, too, could such moves backfire by alienating centrist Democrats – such as Arizona’s Krysten Sinema or West Virginia’s Joe Manchin – who would normally support the president’s priorities.

“Other bites of the apple on future reconciliations on some of these plans, they become more challenging, and there is a question as to whether your strategy becomes counterproductive by doing that,” he said.

Another veteran Washington hand, People for the American Way President Ben Jealous, said Mr Biden “has been accelerating” during his first 100 days by way of his own executive authority and the relatively fast pace at which the Senate has been confirming his nominees, but said the pace of progress could slow down once the Senate gets involved in legislation.

“He is going to have to maintain his momentum … in the face of great headwinds being generated by Mitch McConnell and the GOP,” he said, adding later that Mr Biden’s next 100 days will also come with “the challenge of making the case for restoring majority rule in the Senate”.

Democracy on a deadline

Perhaps no non-spending priority is as important to the Biden administration and Democrats – and reviled by Republicans – as voting rights.

In Mr Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, two of the only bills he mentioned by name apart from his American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan were Democrats’s “For The People Act”, also known as H.R. 1, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The former is a large ethics and election reform package that would ban partisan gerrymandering and codify many of the pandemic-era voting changes that led to record turnout in 2020, while the latter – named for the late Georgia congressman and civil rights icon – would require states to obtain permission from the Justice Department before making changes to election laws that could hamper Americans’ right to vote.

Such legislation is at least in part a response to the push by Republican-controlled state legislatures to sharply curtail access to the ballot in the wake of victories by Mr Biden and Democratic senatorial candidates in former GOP strongholds such as Arizona and Georgia.

Mr Biden explicitly called on Congress to pass both bills “right away”, but both are almost certain to be blocked by Republicans by way of the upper chamber’s filibuster rule, which would mean Democrats would need 10 GOP votes to move either of them.

Although Democrats could conceivably make use of their 51-vote majority (with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking ties in the evenly split body) to do away with the 60-vote threshold – the so-called nuclear option – Mr Manchin and Ms Sinema have so far declared their opposition to doing anything of the sort.

For his part, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is making it known that his patience for his colleagues’ insistence on bipartisanship in the face of GOP obstruction has limits.

“There are a number of members of my caucus who say let’s try things in a bipartisan way – let’s see if we can get Republicans to join us in dealing with this sacred issue of voting rights – and they’re going to try. And, hey, God bless them. If they can get Republicans to join us in big, bold reform, not dilute half-baked reform, that would be the best way to go,” Mr Schumer said on Wednesday while speaking on MSNBC. “But if they can’t ... put our heads together and figure out a way to get it done. As I’ve said before and I’ve said this to all of my colleagues, failure is not an option. Voting is too sacred. Everything will be on the table to get it done.”

The New York Democrat added that he would begin exercising other options in August, a self-imposed deadline he says is made necessary by the glut of GOP voter suppression and partisan gerrymandering that could be in effect by then.

Mr Jealous, a former president and CEO of the NAACP, also warned of trouble ahead for Democrats – and democracy itself – unless Mr Biden can find a way to move the two voting rights bills.

“He has to make that case over the next 100 days, because when it happens, whether it’s 50 days from now, or 150 days from now, it is our only hope to safeguard our democracy,” he said. “We are facing direct, massive threats to our democracy from within, in the form of GOP elected officials in 47 states proposing more than 300 bills to suppress their neighbours voting rights. and the only institution that can stop such an internal threat to our democracy is the federal government.”

Mr Manchin, one of a small number of Democratic senators to win reelection in a state carried by Mr Trump, has grown more and more strident in his defence of the senate’s 60-vote threshold. When pressed on the matter by reporters last month, he replied: “Jesus Christ, what don’t you understand about ‘never’?”

The White House did not respond to queries from The Independent on the subject of what, if any, outreach had been made to senators in hopes of moving the needle on potentially reforming the filibuster.

But a source familiar with discussions of the Biden administration’s legislative strategy told The Independent that the White House is hoping to entice the former West Virginia governor into relaxing his position with good old-fashioned horse-trading.

“Folks are figuring out what Joe Manchin wants and what Joe Manchin needs – what does Joe Manchin want for West Virginia to give him courage and the confidence that he can get reelected, and what does he need that can provide him cover – not just politically, but comfort in his own mind with being courageous and changing the senate rules,” they said. “That is ‘job one’ – if you get Manchin, you’ll get Sinema”.

The source added that in the end, Mr Manchin is playing a long game of his own, but it’s a game that the Mr Biden and the White House can play.

“The thought is that there’s faith that Manchin is playing out his own narrative arc with his constituents, that he’s taking postures and … meeting people where they are so that he can lead them, ultimately, to where we all need them to be if he’s going to both retain his seat and help deliver the legislation that can save our democracy”.

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