Since taking office, Biden has outlined a sweeping agenda that has delighted members of the party’s liberal wing, who were skeptical that a former Senate institutionalist known for moderation would push through policies aimed at transforming the nation. The first big victory came this past week, when Democrats approved an expansive $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill containing numerous long-sought liberal initiatives.
“It is absolutely a bold and transformative and progressive agenda,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “Where candidate Joe Biden started is different from where President Joe Biden started.”
But Biden’s broad ambitions — especially on issues such as climate change and immigration — could also backfire, putting moderate Democrats at risk in the 2022 midterms and giving Republicans ammunition to portray the president as a left-leaning radical. Some Democrats are already raising alarms about the scale of some of Biden’s proposals on immigration and infrastructure, casting doubt on their prospects.
“We’ve been touting the socialist agenda now for more than two years, and everything we warned voters about is coming to fruition,” said Michael McAdams, the communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which works to elect Republicans to the House. “We warned voters that Biden would destroy energy jobs, and Biden did that on day one. We warned voters that Biden would destroy the border, and we’re seeing a border crisis unfold before our very eyes.”
McAdams added: “That all makes taking back the House within our reach, and we’re going to be reminding voters of Biden’s socialist agenda day in and day out.”
Doug Andres, press secretary for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said that while Democrats are still on a “sugar high” from the coronavirus relief bill, when that wears off and as the Biden administration tries to push through additional legislation, Republicans are hopeful they can exact a political price.
“At some point in time, the tide will turn against them,” Andres said. “What’s really going to hurt Democrats is wild spending and policies that are just out of step with most Americans. It’s classic Democratic overreach.”
The Democratic Party, not known for marching in lock-step, has been extraordinarily united around the relief package, which Democrats cast as a response to a national emergency requiring immediate action. The legislation is broadly popular with the majority of the country, and especially with Democrats, peppered through with many of the party’s top priorities.
The coronavirus package, for instance, not only provides $1,400 checks to many struggling Americans and money to help ensure that the nation can be fully vaccinated by the end of the year, but it also extends unemployment insurance, helps bail out roughly 185 union pension plans on the verge of collapse, provides aid and debt relief to disadvantaged Black farmers and seeks to cut U.S. childhood poverty in half through expanded tax credits.
But there are concerns about the prospects of preserving party unity — and winning over Republicans — as Biden’s agenda moves toward issues that historically have been more divisive.
“We have to have bipartisan cooperation if we’re going to tackle these items,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.). “Immigration has been lingering since I first came to Congress, and that was 16 years ago. . . . We don’t want to pass these with Democratic votes alone. And I’m not talking about one or two Republicans; I’m talking about a significant number of votes from the opposing party.”
While a major infusion of funds for infrastructure projects sits on the horizon, Butterfield and others are calling for potential tax hikes to help pay for new spending. House Democrats this coming week are planning to vote on legislation that would offer a pathway to citizenship for children brought to the United States illegally by their parents. That legislation is politically popular, but it could make a broader immigration overhaul more difficult.
The president and his top advisers are still assessing what legislation to take up next and what the scope of their next project will be. Any infrastructure package, for instance, will almost certainly help rebuild the nation’s crumbling roads and bridges, but it could also include expanding broadband access to rural parts of the country and a significant climate change and green infrastructure component.
Senior administration officials are working on recommendations to deliver to Biden on various options for sequencing what to take up next, one official said. There have also been preliminary discussions with top congressional leadership, according to a second official. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
“He didn’t run for president to set aside issues and not advance them,” said Anita Dunn, a senior Biden adviser. “These are all things he said on the campaign trail. Nobody should be surprised by what he is doing now that he’s been elected president.”
The Congressional Progressive Caucus has requested a meeting with White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain and Biden to talk about the strategy for passing a federal minimum wage increase to $15 an hour. Biden had proposed the increase as part of his coronavirus relief legislation, but he also quickly conceded that he thought the Senate parliamentarian would rule that it couldn’t be included — which was exactly what happened.
There is some amount of irony that Biden, who was among the most moderate Democrats in a sprawling field of some two dozen presidential contenders, has emerged as a liberal champion. And the next phase of Biden’s presidency will also test his ability to use a more understated demeanor to sell policies that restructure broad swaths of the U.S. economy and social policy. One of his former opponents, Andrew Yang, said last year that “the magic of Joe Biden is that everything he does becomes the new reasonable.”
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer (D), president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, ticked off a list of Democratic priorities that were largely in line with Biden’s agenda: infrastructure, immigration, reducing gun violence and increasing the minimum wage.
“I don’t think it’s radical,” Fischer said. “I just think we’ve become so paralyzed over the last decade.”
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) said she believed that Biden’s more populist agenda had appeal in her state — which was key to Biden winning the presidency — as long as it focused on the needs of average Americans.
“I think it’s important to be bold but stay focused on fundamentals,” she said. “The infrastructure package that should be teed up next is so crucial.”
Biden has broadly focused the opening of his presidency first on the relief package meant to stem the immediate challenges from the coronavirus and next on a yet-to-be-unveiled recovery proposal that would fix what he views as more structural problems that have previously existed but that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
He is also under pressure to keep pledges he made earlier in his campaign, before the pandemic upended the country and its politics. He said he would pursue an assault weapons ban and enhanced background checks — as called for under legislation passed by the House on Thursday — to make it harder to buy guns.
Biden has moved more aggressively on climate change than almost any other front, using his executive authority to curb fossil fuel development starting on his first day in office. These policies have thrilled liberals, but could put centrist Democrats in a difficult position if the administration cannot deliver on its promise to generate new jobs for Americans dependent on oil, gas and coal, along with other industries, such as logging.
Within hours of his inauguration, Biden vetoed the Keystone XL pipeline project and recommitted the United States to the global climate accord forged in Paris in 2015. Days later, he halted all new oil and gas leasing on federal land. Those measures, along with a raft of other policies that will place a priority on curbing greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change, have already prompted pushback from business groups and many Republicans, as well as some Democrats in oil- and gas-producing states.
On immigration, Biden immediately reversed some of Trump’s policies. He ended the ban on travel from Muslim-majority countries, and he rescinded the emergency order that was used to fund the wall along the Mexican border. But he also wants to provide a pathway to citizenship for nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants, expand the number of visas and green cards, and make it easier for asylum seekers to enter the United States.
“The biggest issue right now where I think Democrats are way over their skis is immigration,” said Chris Hartline, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Democrats saw the 2020 election as a repudiation of all of Trump’s policies and all of the Republicans’ policies, when, in fact, the things we’ve proposed on immigration are very popular, in a way that not just unifies our base, but also helps us bring back a lot of the moderates and independents and Hispanic voters.”
Democrats say they have learned lessons from the years of deep partisanship and vitriol that have cleaved apart the nation, and now feel increasingly emboldened to pursue what they believe is the best policy.
“I’ve long come to terms with the fact that Republicans will attack Democrats on what they consider controversial issues no matter what steps we take, and that our job is not to fear what the attacks are, but to lean in to what we believe and explain it to the American people,” said Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC. “Even if Joe Biden funded the [Trump border] wall, Republicans would be complaining about the color of the wall, the material used.”
Drew Hammill, deputy chief of staff to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), also said that Democrats can’t live in fear of political attacks.
“Part of this is the Republican Party has moved to a crazy place,” Hammill said. “If they’re now the party of conspiracy theories and right-wing ideology, are we just supposed to give up because they won’t vote for anything?”
Biden advisers — many of whom also worked in the Obama administration — say their experience with former president Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus package has informed their current road map. No one remembers, they say, the three moderate Republican senators who voted for the bill, and for voters, all that matters will be the final results. Klain, for instance, has repeatedly reassured colleagues that the country will be unified when every American gets their vaccine doses and their coronavirus relief checks, these people said.
Last month, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was in the Oval Office for a meeting with Biden. He glanced up and considered the large portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt hanging over the fireplace.
“Like Roosevelt understood during the Great Depression, Joe Biden understands this country today faces a series of unprecedented crises,” Sanders, who ran against Biden in the 2020 primary, said in an interview.
“What Joe Biden concluded is that if his administration is going to mean anything, it has got to think big, not small, and it has got to address these unprecedented crises in an unprecedented way. In that regard, he is off to a very, very good start.”
Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.