In the opening minutes of his remarks at the community college, which is a 90-minute drive northwest of Chicago, Biden lauded the work of the legislative group that had forged a framework for a compromise on infrastructure. But the president spent the bulk of the half-hour speech stressing that much more needs to be done.
“I’m here to make the case for the second critical part of my domestic agenda,” Biden told the crowd. “It’s a combination of parts of my American Jobs Plan that were essential and not included in the bipartisan infrastructure plan as well as my American Families Plan.”
The speech was a balancing act for Biden, who campaigned for president on a promise to unite the country following Donald Trump’s hyperpartisan tenure. But some in the Democratic Party have pushed back on Biden’s efforts to reach across the aisle, threatening to oppose the infrastructure agreement, saying it cedes too much to Republicans. Their resistance would be a significant threat in a Congress where Democrats hold a thin majority.
White House officials signaled that Biden’s trip was an effort to allay concerns that the administration was too focused on the bipartisan agreement instead of the transformational changes he and other Democrats vowed to enact if given control of the White House and Congress.
Last month, Biden and a bipartisan group of legislators announced that they had come to terms with a scaled-back framework for an infrastructure bill that includes hundreds of billions of dollars in investments for roads, bridges, broadband and transit systems. If passed, it would be a significant cross-party achievement to fulfill one of the top goals of Biden’s administration. And if the across-the-aisle support holds up, it could pass with a filibuster-proof supermajority.
Since the agreement was announced, the politicians who helped forge it have been on a bipartisan victory lap of sorts. In La Crosse, Wis., last week, Biden said the deal was an example of the unity he promised to bring and a sign that democracies can deliver for their people, despite partisan rancor.
“After months of careful negotiation, of listening, of compromising, together and in good faith moving together, with ups and downs and some blips, a bipartisan group of senators got together, and they forged an agreement to move forward on the key priorities of my American Jobs Plan,” Biden said.
In Illinois, Biden and the White House stressed that all that high-minded talk of unity did not mean they were abandoning the ambitious policy goals Biden has proposed.
During a meeting with reporters on the Air Force One ride to Illinois, press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden’s focus was on benefits that are on “generational investments in infrastructure … that aren’t included in the bipartisan framework.” And after touring the McHenry County College campus, Biden stressed that his sights are still set on the American Families Plan that his administration has proposed, which he said Wednesday would energize the economy, boost the middle class and make America more competitive on the world stage.
Biden in his speech highlighted a slate of liberal priorities: investments in child care and the workforce; universal prekindergarten and two years of free community college; investments in affordable housing and a “care economy” that would include caring for seniors; and a clean-energy standard that would require power companies to source more electricity from renewable and clean sources.
“It’s about time,” Biden said. “There’s a lot of work ahead of us to finish the job, but we’re going to get it done. We’re going to reimagine what our economy and our future could be, and show the world … that democracy can deliver for its people.”
But even as he spoke, signs of the tension within his party were apparent.
In a fundraising email sent as Biden traveled to Illinois, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) said liberals helped elect Biden on a platform of climate and racial justice, then helped Democrats get control of the Senate. Compromising with Republicans, Bowman said, wasted those efforts.
“Look. If we do not fight for our communities and put them in the center of the work we do — if we continue to prioritize the myth of 'bipartisanship’ over the people we were elected to fight for and represent in Washington — we will lose elections,” Bowman said in the email. “If we want to maintain control and the opportunity to do great work beyond 2022, Democrats need to deliver in this very moment. … My priorities are with getting communities like mine back on our feet — not with compromising with Republicans.”
While Democrats hold power in both the House and Senate, this iteration of the legislative branch has some of the thinnest voting margins Capitol Hill has ever seen. The Senate is evenly split between both parties, and Democrats have the edge because of Vice President Harris’s tiebreaking vote. In the House, Democrats effectively have a four-seat margin, which means passing anything on a party-line vote would require virtually all Democrats to agree.
But Biden stressed that in his five months in the White House, he has still been able to get things done, including making strides on the pandemic and presiding over a rebounding economy — using an across-the-aisle reference to make his point.
“The last time [the] economy grew at this rate, Ronald Reagan was telling us there was an American morning,” Biden said. “This is going to be an American century.”
Tyler Pager in Washington contributed to this report.