Over the previous six days, Biden’s push for a brand-defining bipartisan infrastructure deal, worth roughly $1 trillion, has careened back and forth between grand success and epic failure. Voting rights legislation, designated the top issue by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), remains deadlocked in the Senate. Talks on reshaping laws governing police violence have faded from the front burner, along with discussions on the legal status of a program that protects millions of undocumented immigrants brought here as children.
Perhaps most ominously, the coronavirus continued its rampant reemergence, growing the weekly average of new cases by 50 percent from Sunday through Friday.
Yet a cross section of Biden’s allies in Congress remain upbeat overall about where things stand in the second 100 days of his administration. There is not much “bed-wetting,” as senior aides to President Barack Obama used to complain about the tendency toward panic among Democrats.
“It’s been six months and we’ve gotten a heck of a lot done in the middle of a pandemic that’s killed over 600,000 people,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said Thursday. “And there’s incredible, pent-up demands. Because even though the former president talked about infrastructure every week for months, we didn’t actually build more roads and bridges and fix things.”
There is, so far at least, little fear that Democrats are spreading themselves too thin by eschewing the traditional practice of focusing on a handful of domestic policy issues in the first two years of an administration.
“Political momentum and political capital is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the more of it you have. It is not like a finite resource that you can run out of if you spend too much of it. What happens is that if we do a lot of positive things, then we’ve got more political clout to do even more positive things,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said.
But there is an undercurrent of fear that Democrats lost focus on battling the pandemic and that those gains might be forgotten if current trend lines prompt new shutdowns.
“We’ve done a good job over the last several months. But we’re going to have to continue to do it with aggressiveness and precision because the other side has no interest in governing and is going to spend all their time trying to mischaracterize public policy wins,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who is in charge of messaging in Pelosi’s leadership team, said.
Some worry that the Biden administration needs to stay focused on promoting the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, fearful of mistakes similar to 12 years ago, when the Obama administration neglected to promote its roughly $800 billion economic recovery bill after it passed a month into office.
“I don’t think they’ve gotten enough credit for the extraordinary logistical and managerial effort to manage the rollout of the vaccine. That was a big task. And I think it was managed effectively. And I think that’s maybe the most important thing and the least discussed,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said.
In late 2010, while he was still a college professor, King wrote an essay, “The Democrats Beat Themselves,” citing how poorly the Obama administration sold the economic recovery. “Basically, the President was subjected to a two-year, nonstop ‘Swift Boating’ and never really fought back,” King wrote after the 2010 political bloodbath for Democrats.
So, yes, on Tuesday, federal health officials reported more than 62,000 new cases of the deadly virus as 314 Americans died of the virus. A day earlier, the stock market tumbled more than 700 points amid fears of the health crisis causing another economic shock.
But exactly six months earlier — Jan. 20, the day Biden was sworn in under strict social distancing and masking guidelines outside the Capitol — there were more than 185,000 new virus cases and a rolling weekly average of almost 200,000, with 4,440 deaths caused by covid-19 that day.
On Jan. 20, the Dow Jones industrial average stood at 31,188, far below the closing of 34,512 six months later. Labor Department reports this month showed strong wage growth amid steady job growth that suggests sometime next year, the economy will recover all the lost jobs from the pandemic.
In June and most of July, Biden tried to move past the pandemic and focused his attention on the bipartisan infrastructure plan and the proposed $3.5 trillion budget plan that is favored by liberals.
Those two packages are filled with campaign pledges to remake government support for the middle class, the most ambitious budgets since the Great Society proposals of the 1960s.
Democrats defend these proposals as worthy of the big moment the nation faces. “We are confronting a multitude of crises, including a once-in-a-century covid-19 pandemic, a democracy crisis, a racial justice crisis and a climate crisis all at the same time,” Jeffries said.
Schatz views the old presidential model of focusing on a couple big things as outdated. “The model from the ’80s was if you do too many things, people are going to get freaked out. And I think the danger here is not doing enough rather than doing too much,” he said.
King acknowledged that with their majorities so narrow in the House and Senate, Democrats might only have a “two-year window” to move initiatives “that have been sitting around for years.”
“When you go into a job like this, there’s an acute sense of the clock ticking and you don’t want to spend the rest of your life regretting what you didn’t do. And I think he’s decided that he’s going to make the most of this opportunity,” he said.
Still, most Democrats are trying to focus on that six-month window to remain calm, rather than every six-day moment of chaos, particularly when they think of the first six months of Donald Trump’s presidency.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t thank God he’s there and the other guy is in his Mar-a-Lago retirement home,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said. “I don’t wake up in the middle of night wondering whether the president United States has been co-opted by Vladimir Putin. I mean, maybe Trump lowered the bar so much that our expectations are such that things seem semi-calm right now.”