The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden is failing politically, and not just because of Republican obstruction

President Biden speaks to reporters Jan. 13. (Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post)
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President Biden hit a political wall this week in his push for voting rights legislation, just as he did last year in trying to pass his Build Back Better spending package. It’s time for Biden to ask himself why he’s in this morass.

It sticks in my craw to quote Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has often been a wrecker in our national politics. But he had it right when he said Wednesday that Biden was elected with a mandate to “bridge a divided country, lower the temperature, dial down the perpetual air of crisis in our politics.”

Biden is failing in that mission. Republican obstructionism is a big reason, but it’s not the only explanation. Biden has been losing his way politically. As he chases support from progressives in his own party, he has failed to craft versions of his social spending package and voting rights legislation that he could pass with fragile majorities. He’s been spinning his wheels.

A prime (but rarely discussed) example of Biden’s loss of momentum is the failure to enact legislation to improve American competitiveness in chipmaking and other technologies. This bill, known as the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (or USICA), passed the Senate back in June with a big majority, 68 to 32. Passage illustrated the strong bipartisan consensus that America must respond to China’s technology challenge.

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But USICA stalled in the House. Democrats there were miffed at what they saw as Senate attempts to dictate science policy. Some progressives didn’t want chipmaking to get in the way of battles for child-care credits and other Build Back Better programs. And House Republicans wanted to sabotage any potential success for Biden.

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So, the bill languished. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced a House-Senate conference in November, but it never happened because the House hadn’t passed a bill. Rep. Bill Foster (Ill.), a leading Democrat on tech issues, told me the House should have gone to conference and approved the chipmaking portion of the bill, at least. But that didn’t occur, even though Biden’s national security team takes the China threat as seriously as Republicans do.

Moderate Democrats are baffled. “It’s nuts that the House has been sitting on this good, important bill for months,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), one of its authors, told me in an email. A similar concern came from Thomas E. Donilon, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser. “It’s inexcusable that Congress hasn’t moved forward on this,” he told me.

Pelosi’s aides say she wants to get a House version of the bill moving again soon. And one Senate staffer hoped a House bill could pass in a few weeks — clearing the way for a real conference to resolve differences. “We are working hard on trying to get USICA done in the House,” a White House official told me Thursday. But the official said it’s not clear if House Republicans will help. “To be blunt, it takes two to tango.”

The larger question for Biden is whether there’s any space left for bipartisanship and conciliation. Political divisions have worsened over the past year, and Republicans, led by McConnell, have rebuffed nearly all of his overtures. He had bigger ambitions, on social and political revitalization. But with such fragile Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, Biden will struggle now to pass meaningful legislation. USICA would be a good test. So would a scaled-back version of Build Back Better that could win support from Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.).

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Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) thinks there’s more room left for bipartisanship than many observers believe. His staff gave me a list of bills that Coons and other Democrats have co-sponsored with Republicans to, among other things, provide better background checks for gun purchasers, expand civics education, spend more on conservation and expand criminal justice reform. These are small items, compared with the larger impasse. But they’re a start.

Biden’s frustration is understandable, to put it mildly. The White House proposed an initiative to fight cancer, for example, surely a bipartisan concern. But the administration says it can’t get a single congressional Republican to back legislation. Some in the GOP attack it as the “Fauci Fund,” because it’s partly based at the National Institutes of Health, where Anthony S. Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, is a leader. That’s sick.

The Biden administration has been a good steward. As White House officials argue, they have lowered unemployment, vaccinated 200 million people and cut child poverty. Biden hasn’t delivered on uniting the country, but he has succeeded on many other things.

But successful presidencies carry a sense of political momentum, going from success to success. Sadly, President Biden has lost much of that forward drive. It’s time for a restart, with less shouting and more of Biden’s trademark common sense.

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