Over the last two months, it’s become increasingly clear that President Joe Biden’s best days in office might be almost certainly behind him. Though he was never going to be an FDR-type figure, overly credulous press coverage and endorsements notwithstanding, Biden could claim significant victories in his first year in office. The American Rescue Plan Act, passed in March 2021, and the bipartisan infrastructure bill, passed that November, were massive pieces of legislation that far exceeded Obama’s response to the global financial meltdown during his first year in office.
Now, entering his second year, Biden’s agenda appears to be dead in the water. The much-touted Build Back Better Act, Biden’s signature legislation, has completely stalled out on Capitol Hill. It was initially linked with the infrastructure bill, but Democratic leadership and conservatives in the party were successful in beating down the Congressional Progressive Caucus until they ultimately relented and separated the bills. Ever since the bills were decoupled, Biden’s social spending bill has been dying a slow death at the hands of Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.
In the final days of 2021, Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, sensing impending doom, switched gears. The top priority became voting rights and election reform, although what that meant specifically was anyone’s guess. The White House and congressional leadership began pushing two bills, the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Separately, some Senate Democrats began working with Republicans on a bill to amend the Electoral Count Act, which would change the law that Donald Trump attempted to exploit to overturn the results of the 2020 election. The January 6 committee is working on their version of a similar bill.
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Schumer, for his part, has been reluctant to move forward with the much narrower Electoral College reform bills, believing that it would undercut any broader voting rights expansion. Last week, Biden gave what was touted as a major speech on voting rights, during which he finally supported a “carve out” for the Senate’s filibuster for voting rights legislation. The following day, he went to Capitol Hill to marshal support for his various efforts.
Both the speech and the trip to negotiate with lawmakers risked being too little, too late. Local Georgia voting rights groups boycotted Biden’s address because they believed voting rights had become a second-tier issue for Biden, rather than a core priority. New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote that Biden’s efforts “came in the last days of the battle.” As for his attempt to twist arms in the Senate, Politico characterized it as “doomed for failure.” Even more embarrassingly, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema apparently blindsided the administration with a Senate address reiterating her opposition to a filibuster carve-out just minutes before Biden was set to meet with Democrats to rally support for his voting bills.
Much like Biden’s and Schumer’s approach to the Omicron wave, the White House and congressional leadership appear to be several steps behind on every issue they touch. The administration is reactive, and has been on its back foot for months. Biden’s poll numbers have cratered, which is to be expected to a certain extent, but he and his advisers aren’t doing themselves any favors with their scattershot approach.
Most of the blame for this sorry situation rests squarely at the feet of Senators Manchin and Sinema. Some have said working with Manchin is “like negotiating via Etch A Sketch” due to his constantly shifting negotiating positions. He holds so much power in the closely divided Senate that liberal TV host Chris Hayes has argued the White House should wave the white flag and just ask Manchin to write a Build Back Better bill that he’d sign. “I don’t quite understand why we haven’t gotten to the point where they say, Senator Manchin, write the bill that you will vote for and we will pass it, because that’s the only way out of this,” Hayes told The New York Times’s Ezra Klein. Others have argued for a similar approach to election reform, claiming that fixing the law Trump tried to use to stay in power, the Electoral Count Act, is the best and only option on the table.
Unfortunately, even these inadequate measures may prove to be too large a lift. Manchin, for his part, has already walked away from one version of the spending bill that he had previously endorsed. There’s no reason to believe he wouldn’t do the same again. And any bipartisan election reform legislation that hampers Republican legal claims toward minority rule could stall out in a million different ways. Still, it’s understandable for those on the left to look over these meager offerings and take what few victories may be available. The time for playing hardball may have passed Biden by, and his pressure campaign is likely as much a form of virtue signaling to disaffected liberal voters as it is a real push to get passable legislation.
The broader blame for the predicament the Democrats find themselves in falls on the shoulders of the faction of the party that Biden and Schumer belong to — the same faction as Manchin and Sinema. Decades of divestment from pro-labor policies in favor of neoliberal Clintonian triangulation has resulted in a party at odds with itself. The party is uninterested in, and incapable of, pursuing long-term strategies that require building a bench of progressive candidates and elected officials. Instead, the party’s organs function as an incumbent reelection racket and a jobs guarantee program for wealthy consultants whose only function is to punch to the left.
There’s no reason that the Democrats couldn’t field, support and elect a working-class candidate in West Virginia or Arizona, if that had been a multiyear priority. Rather than spending time and money training and cultivating teachers, working-class activists and union organizers, the Democratic Party has treated those types of candidates as hostile enemies to be vanquished. Instead, they prioritize prosecutors and veterans of a particular, centrist ideological bent. As a result, there will always be a Joe Manchin or a Kyrsten Sinema — or a Joe Lieberman — willing to tank the party’s entire agenda.
The irony is that after spending his career as a conservative Democrat, Biden’s agenda is being thwarted by his own supposed allies. He ran as a creature of the Senate, who could force Republicans to support some of his most ambitious plans due to his decades in elected office. Now, he can’t even whip support from his own party. If the Democrats hadn’t spent decades doing everything possible to disempower the left and the party’s activist base, Biden might actually be able to advance his legislation. Unfortunately for the millions of people in the United States who stand to benefit from Biden’s stalled plans, that has never been a priority for the modern Democratic Party.