By Susan Milligan
For a president written off as politically dead, his approval ratings in the cellar, Joe Biden is poised to have a remarkably good legislative track record ahead of the daunting midterm elections.
The announcement Wednesday that Sen. Joe Manchin, long a thorn in fellow Democrats’ sides, had agreed to a compromise version of Biden’s original “Build Back Better” deal was a massive win for the president, who called it “far from perfect” but a big step in lowering health care costs for consumers while investing in climate change reduction and further lowering the deficit through higher taxes on billionaires.
That was followed Thursday when Biden, while in a meeting with CEOs on the economy, got word the House had passed the “CHIPS” bill, a $54 billion measure to boost semiconductor manufacturing in the United States. The package will create jobs while increasing production of pandemic-scarce devices used in myriad consumer products. The bill now goes to the president’s desk.
Should the budget measure win full congressional approval, it means Biden will have passed all three of the legislative priorities he offered at the start of his presidency: a covid relief package, a bipartisan infrastructure bill, and the scaled-down domestic spending package that came from talks between West Virginia’s Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, New York Democrat.
And it follows another Democratic agenda item: a gun safety bill that has been criticized as weak, but nonetheless is the first piece of gun control legislation to pass Congress in 28 years.
“Biden’s presidency seems to be reliving Biden’s campaign,” says Bob Shrum, a former Democratic strategist who is now director of the Center for the Political Future at the University of Southern California.
“He gets written off; people say there have got to be other alternatives; he’s not getting any traction. And suddenly – he’s already gotten a lot, and maybe will get a lot more,” says Shrum. “All the people writing Biden off over the last couple of months may prove to be very, very wrong.”
Biden is nonetheless very unpopular at the moment, with his average approval rating under 40%. A CNN poll this week found that 3 out of 4 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents want someone else to represent the party on the presidential ticket in 2024.
High inflation – and a second straight quarter of a contraction in the gross domestic product – have Americans worrying about a recession. Gas prices are down dramatically from six weeks ago, job creation is at record levels for a president at this stage of his first term, and unemployment remains at a low 3.6%. But nearly two-thirds of Americans believe the country is already in a recession, a public sentiment no White House mention of job growth or lowering gas prices appears to mitigate.
All of that offers no shortage of openings for Republicans to label the downdraft in the economy as the “Biden recession,” much as they have with inflation that last month came in at a 9.1% annual rate. But many of the challenges Biden faces on the economy are global in nature–stemming from the original declaration of a health pandemic in 2020 and up until February’s invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin.
The president Thursday reiterated his reassuring words about the economy in two White House events, acknowledging in a roundtable with CEOs that there is “no doubt” that the economy will not have the same growth this year as last year.
But there are some hopeful signs, Biden and business executives said in the roundtable. The elimination of COVID testing requirements, combined with pent-up travel demand, means that there will be about 5 million more travelers to the United States in the balance of this year, spending more than $9 billion, Marriott International CEO Anthony Capuano told the president.
Capuano also said that business group travel was picking up, a sign that things are getting back to normal after two years in which companies have kept workers at home and out of the skies.
Biden said that the strong jobs market, businesses investing “at record rates” and aggressive reduction of the federal deficit gave the country a good base to weather the slowdown in growth. “That doesn’t sound like a recession to me,” he said after ticking off the investment and jobs numbers.
Republicans , who already have structural advantages going into the midterms, have hammered away at the 40-year-high inflation numbers. They have also benefited from infighting among Democrats – whether it’s Manchin putting the brakes on big spending and climate change bills, or progressives balking at legislation because it does not go far enough.
But the deal announced this week rejuvenated Democrats and so far is not running into pushback from the left wing of the party. The Congressional Progressive Caucus balked at an infrastructure deal earlier this year, wanting assurances that the more generous Build Back Better package would get a vote in the Senate.
That standoff delayed the infrastructure bill, slowed the White House’s legislative momentum and did not lead to a big domestic spending package at all. For many months, Manchin indicated he was willing to negotiate, then pulled back, and it appeared the package was dead.
Thursday, the Congressional Progressive Caucus indicated it would back the Manchin-Schumer deal.
“For months, progressives have advocated for a reconciliation bill on policies with consensus across the Democratic Caucus: climate, health care, and tax fairness,” the caucus tweeted. “We’ll need to evaluate the details, but it’s promising a deal to deliver on those issues might finally be in reach.”
Democrats are also buoyed by what they see as successful hoodwinking of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Senate Republicans went along with the CHIPS act Wednesday in the belief that the bigger domestic package was going nowhere.
When the Manchin-Schumer deal was announced, Senate Republicans tried to convince House GOP members to stop the CHIPS bill. They did not succeed, and two dozen Republicans joined Democrats to pass what turned out to be another bipartisan success for the president, who announced the win during his business roundtable.
Simon Rosenberg, founder of the centrist Democratic group NDN, said Democrats are more united now that they see signs the anticipated “red wave” of the fall may be weaker – or may not even happen.
“I think when we look back at the Biden presidency in the future, or at least the Biden first term, people will be amazed at how much actually got done, given COVID, the rancor in our politics and the small (Democratic) margins in the House and the Senate,” Rosenberg says. “This has actually been a productive time in the country.”
Democrats still face strong headwinds this November as they struggle to hang onto control of Congress. But Biden’s big legislative week gave them some reason to be encouraged.