We’re living in a seesaw world. Biden got off to a fast start in his first six months, with coronavirus infections falling sharply and the economy rapidly gaining strength. After his June trip to Europe, Biden’s line, “America is back,” seemed plausible. But trend lines are fickle, with politics and pandemics. A bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan amplified other bad news, and Biden’s presidency suddenly seemed to be sputtering.
“This administration is about covid and competence, and we’ve got to show strength on both,” says a senior White House official. He argues that the administration overperformed on expectations in the first half of the year. “In August, maybe we underperformed,” he concedes.
Biden knows he needs to restore confidence at home and abroad this fall to revive his presidency from the August doldrums. He plans a major speech on Thursday outlining new measures to deal with the pandemic — to boost vaccination rates, safeguard workplaces and bend the curve on infections.
The larger challenge for the White House is to show that government can function effectively, despite partisan divisions. That was Biden’s signature campaign theme, and the legislative test was Biden’s two-pronged attempt to “build back better,” as his slogan put it, through a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package and a $3.5 trillion social spending plan.
“We have to prove democracy still works — that our government still works, and we can deliver for our people,” Biden told a joint session of Congress in April, in proposing his two initiatives. That remains the challenge, but Biden doesn’t have a lot of time.
The domestic budget negotiations, weirdly, seem to be the hardest part of the job. Forget about Biden’s early promises of bipartisanship; right now he just needs to lead his own party. That means threading the needle between progressives who are demanding all of the $3.5 trillion in new social spending and moderates who say they won’t support such a big package.
The Senate passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill in early August, and Biden ought to pocket that win. But moderate and progressive Democrats have been playing a game of chicken ever since over the size of the social spending package. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has promised a vote on the infrastructure package by Sept. 27, and Democrats would be very stupid if they let it slip away because of internal bickering.
Biden’s task is to break the logjam and get a social-spending bill through the budget reconciliation process that will pass both houses. This ought to be his sweet spot, as a career politician and self-proclaimed dealmaker. The White House is keeping mum, saying nice things about progressives and moderates both, but soon it will be time for knocking heads and cutting deals.
It seems obvious that a consensus budget deal will have to focus on the things Americans appear to want most — my list would include greater tax fairness, measures to reduce climate change, lower costs for prescription drugs, greater access to community colleges and education, generally — and save some other measures for later. Passing such legislation might save the House and Senate for the Democrats in 2022. Otherwise, forget it.
Competence begins at home. But the White House wants to demonstrate that despite anger overseas about the botched Afghanistan withdrawal, allies still need and want U.S. leadership. Look for a Biden push on vaccine diplomacy at the U.N. General Assembly this month, a major new initiative with "Quad" partners in Asia (India, Japan and Australia) and a new effort to galvanize the “techno-democracies” through the October meeting of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
The White House was battered last month by bad luck, bad policy and bad implementation. The surprising thing, given this gut-wrenching reversal for an administration that had been riding high, is the relative lack of internal backbiting. In other administrations, the leaks by now would have been flowing like a fire hose.
Biden’s inner team sometimes seems more like a Senate staff than a typical elbows-out administration. Congeniality has its advantages. But when mistakes happen, as they did in August, problems need to get fixed. Otherwise, the boss — and perhaps dozens of Democratic legislators — will pay the price.
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