Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 13 October 2021

 Another incredible shrinking president?

T venice raveling overseas the last few days, I kept hearing prominent foreigners asking the same ques- tion: What’s happening to poli-

tics in the United States? And more specifically: Why isn’t President Biden a stronger leader at a time when his party controls the House and Senate?

You can explain the nuances to these foreign political observers — the narrow Democratic majorities, the unyielding obstruction of the Republicans, the frac- tured internal politics of the Democratic Party. But you get a shrug. Biden won, so why is he a prisoner of those he defeated at the polls, not to mention members of his own party?

The cartoon version of Biden’s plight is that he is becoming “the incredible shrinking president” — a label that seems to be slapped on every modern chief executive, from Bill Clinton to Donald Trump. Now, it’s Biden’s turn. If you look back to June, he seemed to be gaining stature and strength. His trip to Europe was a resounding success; “America is back” seemed more than a slogan. On domestic politics, Biden helped craft a draft bipartisan infrastructure bill in June that embodied the promise on which he had been elected — the country can still be governed through policies that unite left and right.

And then the stumbles began. Despite Biden’s pledge that the $1.2 trillion na- tional infrastructure bill wouldn’t be held hostage to a $3.5 trillion social spending bill, that’s just what happened; the ten- sions within the party that had been largely suppressed during the summer boiled over come fall. Despite Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s promise to bring the bipar- tisan bill to a House vote in September, it languished. Weirdly, it seemed as though progressive leaders such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) suddenly had more clout than Biden and Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Politics is partly about momentum — and Biden should have known that. When he was up this past summer, it was time to insist on pocketing a win, to show the country that the Biden project of national reconstruction was working, with a first installment on infrastructure. And then move on to the larger package of social reforms — important, but as initially floated, too fuzzy and too expensive.

Instead, the president got caught in the Washington political wringer. He seemed a captive of his own party, not to mention the Halloween goblins on the Republican side. This acrimonious stalemate is part of what the nation detests about Wash- ington, and it’s no wonder that Biden’s poll numbers have been in a free fall since the summer. From a supposed master of the legislative process, the country ex- pected more.

“It probably would have been more successful if they had first passed a fully paid-for bipartisan infrastructure deal, before moving onto a multitrillion-dollar agenda with very few details, and getting stuck in this quagmire,” argues Maya MacGuineas, president of the moderate Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

Biden got elected as a centrist. But he has been pulled left since Inauguration Day by the gravitational — and legislative — force of the progressives. The White House blames Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) as an obstructionist — arguing that if he had just agreed to a one-page term sheet on social spending, a signing ceremony could have been held on the infrastructure bill in September. Sorry, but I don’t buy it. Progressive leaders until very recently have resisted any sig- nificant cuts in their $3.5 trillion smor- gasbord.

The time to compromise — toward a $1.5 to $2 trillion social spending package that can be enacted into law — is now, before any more air goes out of the Biden balloon. Pelosi made that point clearly in a statement on Monday night: “It is essential that difficult decisions must be made very soon,” she said, urging pro- gressives to cut their demands and “do fewer things well.”

Biden should be a stronger voice in the center. But the reality is that nothing will pass the Senate unless both Sanders and Manchin vote for it, and similarly, noth- ing will pass the House without support from moderate Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and progressive leader Jayapal. The White House promises a vote by the end of October, and let’s hope that Biden will pull an 11th-hour compromise from his dusty legislator’s hat. He would be crippled by failure — but congressional Democrats, even more.

Bad things can happen to good coun- tries. That’s what you remember when you travel to places such as Italy, which embraced fascism in the 1930s. When strong leaders can no longer hold the center, extremists proliferate on the left and right. Progressives argue that the center is dead and the time for compro- mise is past. But that’s not the decision the Democrats — and the country — made in choosing Biden.

As it happens, Pelosi was in Italy over the weekend, too. She told her colleagues that she had met with Pope Francis and asked him “to pray for us” as the decisive votes approach. Divine intervention would be a blessing, but for now we must depend on Pelosi’s whip count.

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