Stop underestimating this president

Biden has proven his detractors wrong, yet again. And if Democrats can survive a brutal fall, they might be in for a brighter spring.

Let’s all be honest: We like being right.

And I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m thrilled to have been right (so far) about President Biden defying expectations and pushing through a potentially legacy-making legislative agenda.

It’s not just about bragging rights (OK, maybe a little). It’s really about how the country — and our democracy — desperately needed the bipartisan victory that Biden achieved with the Senate’s passage of his $1.2 trillion infrastructure package.

President Joe Biden arrives to deliver remarks on the bipartisan infrastructure framework on June 29 at La Crosse Municipal Transit Utility in Wisconsin. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

Yes, yes there’s the requisite caveat: Nothing is done until everything is done, and the infrastructure plan could easily collapse in the House.

But Biden has been consistently underestimated, going back to his bid for the White House. And after winning an election marred by Donald Trump’s dogged efforts to overturn it, Biden offered the country exactly what it needed: A calm, steady hand who sought to unite, not exploit, the deep fissures that Trump tore open.

Since then, he’s done what Biden does best: Tune out the daily noise, assemble a skilled team, stay focused and get down to the nitty-gritty of governing. In other words, the complete opposite of Trump’s presidency.

Biden has navigated an unprecedented pandemic with determination and caution, delivering hundreds of millions of vaccines and nearly $2 trillion in economic relief. At the same time, he’s carefully avoided talk of a nationwide vaccine mandate knowing it would spark a full-blown conservative rebellion. Instead, he’s taking incremental steps to implement mandates within the federal government in the hopes that businesses and schools would follow.

And they have, like dominos — proof that Biden’s slow-and-steady approach can go head to head with anti-science, anti-common sense profiteers like Sean Hannity and Ron DeSantis.

Biden has relied on science in fighting the pandemic. On the legislative front, he’s relied on decades of negotiating experience and a steadfast belief that there are Republicans willing to work across the aisle to help the country.

Again, he pursued the anti-Trumpian playbook. Biden didn’t lob petty insults, he didn’t negotiate in public, and he didn’t manufacture distracting controversies. Instead, he ignored the naysayers — not only the media and Republicans, but also doubters in his own party — kept his head down, compromised and eventually got a solid deal that included much of what he wanted (i.e. $550 in new infrastructure spending).

And he got it with the support of 19 Republicans — a margin unheard of in a Senate paralyzed by GOP obstructionism.

House of (Wild) Cards

Analysts are of course correct to point out that Senate passage doesn’t guarantee squat in the House, where the Congressional Progressive Caucus has been clear that it won’t take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill until Democrats pass their larger spending package, which would invest $3.5 trillion into climate change, health, education, family and other social safety net programs.

The White House will need virtually every single Democrat (each with their own competing priorities) in both the House and Senate to agree on the timing and substance of two hugely complex spending bills that could potentially remake American society for years, if not decades, to come. In other words, Biden’s got to get Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Joe Manchin on the same page.

And the committees haven’t even written the actual legislation yet.

On top of that, in September, Democrats will face off with Republicans in a fiscal-cliff showdown over government funding and lifting the debt ceiling.

We almost have to wonder if Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell supported the bipartisan infrastructure bill — stunning just about everyone — because he was confident it would blow up in the House. The failure would then fall on Democrats and not on his obstructionism.

It would be a shrewd bet because we’ve seen how major legislation that passes in one chamber can quickly die in the other — as immigration reform did in 2013 and climate change did in 2010. If that happens to infrastructure, it would be nothing short of tragedy. Just look at how the failure to address immigration and climate change years ago continues to haunt us today. Problems don’t go away. They just get bigger.

As delicate, and possibly fleeting, as this recent burst of bipartisanship was, it shouldn’t be downplayed, either.

What happened in the Senate was a very big deal: hundreds of billions of dollars of long-sought investments in the country’s aging roads, bridges, ports and pipelines, along with expanded broadband access, electric vehicle charging stations and more — not to mention all the jobs that come with it.

As a result, it’s going to be hard for Democrats in the House to kill it.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is absolutely right that progressive and moderate Democrats need each other to enact their respective agendas.

“The moderates couldn’t pass a bipartisan bill without the more progressive wing of our caucus. And the progressives couldn’t get a big, bold bill without the moderates,” he recently told POLITICO.

I’ve made no secret of my belief that progressives shouldn’t overplay their hand and allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good. But while a lot of ink has been spilled about progressives, not as much attention has been paid to House moderates, who wield just as much, if not more, power in a chamber where Speaker Nancy Pelosi only has a three-vote cushion.

On Aug. 13, Punchbowl News reported on a letter nine House Democrats wrote to Pelosi saying: “We will not consider voting for a budget resolution until the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passes the House and is signed into law.”

Punchbowl noted that, “This is as firm a threat as this group of moderate Democrats has made. And if they hold together, they can prevent Pelosi from passing the House Democratic budget resolution the week of Aug. 23.”

Earlier, the subscription-only news service (I highly recommend subscribing) wrote that the only way for House moderates to be taken seriously is to flex their muscle and block House consideration of the $3.5 trillion resolution.

But I doubt it will come to that. Why? Because moderates are just that — moderate. They want to get things done, and they’re not about to be responsible for tanking a historic achievement for their own party (that’s also hugely popular with voters).

Regardless, their desire to pass the bipartisan bill before the $3.5 trillion Democratic plan doesn’t make sense.

Sure, some House Republicans would gladly go along with the plan, but there’s still no guarantee that Pelosi (not exactly beloved by the House GOP) could pick off enough Republican votes to offset the inevitable defections in her own party.

More importantly, progressives are right that they’d squander all their leverage to pass the $3.5 trillion package in the Senate, where moderates are already squeamish about the price tag (and they’re going to be downright nauseous when they have to raise the debt ceiling).

There’s no guarantee moderates like Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema would support the riskier $3.5 trillion package if the safer infrastructure package is a done deal. (It doesn’t help that progressives haven’t exactly built up a lot of goodwill with Manchin and Sinema by constantly slamming them in the press).

On that note, Democrats pounced on comments Manchin made after the infrastructure bill passed as proof that he has no intention of supporting the Democrats’ package.

“I have serious concerns about the grave consequences facing West Virginians and every American family if Congress decides to spend another $3.5 trillion,” the senator said, citing rising inflation and nearly $29 trillion in national debt.

Small Sacrifices for a Big Win

So what to make of Manchin’s latest musings?

On Aug. 9, POLITICO Playbook offered a great autopsy of lessons learned during the infrastructure talks. Keep this particular paragraph in your back pocket in the months ahead. Memorize it if you must:

“One of the most important lessons for the press in covering such a long and complicated negotiation is to refrain from viewing daily comments from the key players as determinative of the outcome. Most public statements are negotiating ploys meant to influence the final outcome rather than torpedoes designed to destroy the deal (at least the ones from good-faith actors who want to pass something). This is a good reminder as we move on to covering the much more sweeping and more complicated reconciliation bill. Sinema and BERNIE SANDERS and JOSH GOTTHEIMER and ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ are all already using their considerable leverage to stake out what might look like irreconcilable differences.”

Manchin’s comments are a perfect example of telegraphing that he thinks $3.5 trillion is too high — but he’s already said he’d accept $2 trillion, so clearly he’s not about to abandon talks.

Ultimately, the $3.5 trillion price tag will probably go down during negotiations — and that’s OK.

Manchin is right that at some point Democrats will have to rein in deficit spending (although Democrats are right that Republicans piled on to the country’s debt and only care about deficits when they’re not in office).

The infrastructure package will be hugely beneficial to the economy over the long term, but in the short term, the pay-fors are iffy at best and the bill will add to the deficit.

As for the $3.5 trillion package, Democrats have pledged to offset the costs by raising taxes on corporations and the mega-rich. But moderates probably won’t stomach the kind of tax hikes liberals want, so in all likelihood, a compromise would involve some combination of tax increases, deficit spending and cutting the $3.5 trillion price tag to appease fiscal centrists like Manchin.

That’s sure to anger progressives, but they’d be foolish to let it derail the entire deal because Biden would still get most of his $4 trillion Build Back Better agenda (on top of $1.9 trillion in COVID relief).

We’re talking historic investments to help working-class Americans and combat climate change, from clean energy and child tax credits to universal pre-K and expanded Medicare coverage.

Odds are that Democrats will need to pare back the duration of these programs to keep the overall costs down. That, too, is OK, because popular programs, once instituted, take on a life of their own.

Republicans know this. It’s why they’ll fight tooth and nail to keep programs from being enacted — because once people start seeing the benefits of free community college and paid family leave, Republicans will be hard pressed to take that away from voters.

Sometimes, this dynamic is exactly what’s wrong with government: Once a program becomes law, it’s almost impossible to change it (see: entitlement reform, Pentagon waste).

Other times, that’s a good thing — the prime example being Obamacare. Despite the years-long GOP war against it, the Affordable Care Act has survived because it’s proven its worth to the American people. Just imagine where we’d be today if tens of millions of Americans lacked health insurance during a pandemic.

And if the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion bill comes to fruition, the federal government may finally be able to lower drug prices by negotiating directly with pharmaceutical companies (nine in 10 Americans support the move, according to a June poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation). This would be yet another Democratic dent in the armor of America’s for-profit (and very profitable but very inefficient) health care system.

So brace yourself for the barrage of attack ads claiming Democrats are turning America into a socialist state that will take people’s health insurance away (paid for by health insurance companies who’ll take on some generic-sounding name to dupe gullible voters).

Republicans will undoubtedly jump on the socialist bandwagon, but this is where they might overplay their own hand — because Biden’s spending agenda enjoys widespread popularity.

Biden and the Bigger Picture

All too often, we’re consumed by the minute-by-minute news cycle and fail to see the long-term picture.

And that picture looks potentially bright for Democrats.

Unemployment benefits end in September, so Republicans can no longer claim those benefits are keeping people from working. In fact, studies have shown that hiring didn’t improve in red states that got rid of the benefits early. Regardless, those benefits accomplished something Republicans have failed to do for years: They boosted wages. The fact that Walmart and McDonald’s finally have to offer somewhat decent wages to compete for workers is pretty damn amazing.

And let’s assume the $3.5 trillion social spending package is passed. Americans would begin to see the benefits early next year, including programs like child care assistance, which would allow more mothers to re-enter the workforce after being sidelined by the pandemic — further boosting the economy.

And if, as experts suggest, inflation is tamed, it’s Democrats who will have the advantage in the messaging war ahead of the 2022 midterms.

It all, of course, hinges on the biggest wild card: the pandemic. We all thought we had turned the corner, but no one could’ve predicted there would be such a hard-core contingency of Americans willing to risk their health and the health of others by refusing the vaccine.

There’s an infuriating irony in Republicans railing against the return of masks, considering that their conspiracy theories about vaccines are why masks are back in the first place. It’s also pretty rich of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to invoke government overreach as his reason for opposing mask mandates — only to then threaten to use his government powers to punish local school districts that want to institute mask mandates.

And when schools do resume in-person learning this fall, let’s not mince words: It’s going to be a cluster F. Yes, kids need to be back in school for their overall well being. But infections will soar and quarantines will become the norm as the delta variant surges.

Sadly, it may take seeing ICU beds filled with children to finally scare some vaccine holdouts straight.

At the start of the pandemic, a top health official told me that if the coronavirus had been hospitalizing children, we wouldn’t even be having any debate over vaccines, let alone masks. And as I’ve said before, these are just masks. Anti-vax parents across the country are literally having public meltdowns over occasionally putting a piece of cloth on part of your face.

I hope we can stop quibbling about masks. I hope it doesn’t take a bunch of children getting sick to convince people to get a vaccine that the rest of the world would kill for. And I hope Congress is able to pass legislation that finally addresses some of the country’s most pervasive problems, from inequality to climate change.

It’s a lot to hope for during what’s sure to be a tumultuous fall and dark winter. But if things do go right, we could be in for a brighter 2022 — and that could cement Biden’s legacy for years to come.