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Opinion Biden may not find it so hard to turn the corner

President Biden speaks at the U.S. Conference of Mayors' annual winter meeting in Washington on Jan. 21. (Eric Lee/Bloomberg News)

For weeks, we have witnessed unremittingly negative media coverage of President Biden. He failed at Build Back Better. He failed at voting rights. He failed to make Republicans cooperate. He failed to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin from threatening to invade Ukraine. From inflation to the intransigence of Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), it was all Biden’s fault, according to the headlines and the talking heads.

But Biden has an opportunity to change the conversation. The voting rights debate in the Senate is over. Build Back Better is kaput as one giant bill. And so, beginning Friday, you could hear the tectonic plates creak. The ground was shifting. Biden was moving on.

At a speech Friday at the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ annual winter meeting, Biden spent the lion’s share of his time on an undeniable win and a solid policy achievement: his infrastructure legislation. He joked that “now, after years of dead ends and broken promises, not only has ‘Infrastructure Week’ finally arrived — [applause] — but we can literally, because of you, look forward to an ‘Infrastructure Decade.’” He detailed projects slated for Florida, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, New Hampshire and Louisiana.

He then spent more time than he has in months touting the American Rescue Plan, which Republicans opposed en masse. In Seattle, the money goes for child-care centers, in Phoenix for community colleges to train workers for the semiconductor industry; and in Milwaukee, workers are getting trained to remove lead pipes. “I urge every American to take a look at what you all are doing,” he said. He touted “the resources that were intended not just to stave off disaster but to build for a future around the people who make communities run.” Of particular concern to parents, Biden stressed the American Rescue Plan had “a lot of money in that to keep those schools open.” While he hasn’t gotten Build Back Better, the policy achievements in the ARP and the infrastructure legislation are substantial. After months of virtual silence, the president is talking about it.

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Biden also hit the economic gains in his first year — more than 6 million new jobs, wage gains for workers at the bottom of the income ladder and cutting child poverty by nearly 40 percent — and celebrated 210 million vaccinated Americans.

Now he did talk about Build Back Better, but late in the speech. He identified the bill only once as “Build Back Better.” Instead, he listed components such as child-care subsidies, universal pre-K, clean energy and the child tax credit. Biden spent nearly as much time talking up the funding mechanism, which is actually among the most popular aspects of the bill. (“We can pay for all this by just making sure that the wealthy — making sure that the wealthy and the biggest corporations pay their fair share. … You got 55 corporations last year that made $40 billion in profits and didn’t pay a single penny in taxes. That’s not right. That’s not right.”)

“Build Back Better,” I suspect, is going to disappear from Biden’s speeches, even as he pursues a few of its initiatives. It is noteworthy that he did not mention voting rights once. Perhaps, he has absorbed the advice of many Democrats: Don’t talk about failure or things you cannot achieve. You might not know it from the media coverage, but his first year still remains among the strongest of any modern president.

One could spot the administration’s pivot in the press briefing as well. White House press secretary Jen Psaki gave a long introduction on Biden’s semiconductor initiative. She got questions about Russia, Yemen, the IRS backlog, the Electoral Count Act (another instance in which something might be pulled from a legislative defeat) and crime before anyone asked about his plan to get “chunks” of the Build Back Better bill passed. Queries then followed on Medicare, clemency, federal workers’ compliance with the covid-19 mandate and the China competitiveness bill.

Lo and behold, once the endless, losing legislative fights are behind him, Biden can start talking about the successes and pushing for more manageable parts of his agenda (e.g., Electoral Count Act reform, the child-care subsidy). Had he never attempted Build Back Better or the major voting rights push, critics argue he would have been better off. That, however, was a political impossibility. Not to have tried to achieve major items on which he ran while he had (barely) Democratic majorities in Congress would have been rightly characterized as surrendering before a fight. And while the Build Back Better fight went on far too long, in a few months Biden might have new, smaller parts of that bill to tout.

The media is stuck in “Biden is a failure” mode, but Biden certainly is moving on, with successes on the economy, covid-19, infrastructure and the American Rescue Plan in hand. If inflation slows, covid recedes and he gets a few more wins on important, discrete items in his domestic agenda, Biden may look a whole lot more formidable on his second anniversary.