The economic recovery, bumps and all, is set to break records, and President Biden enjoys sturdy job approval ratings that have outlasted the traditional “honeymoon” period, succeeding a president who never reached the 50% mark in all four years. Biden stands, four months into his presidency, on as solid a political footing as can exist in a distrustful nation with a fiercely divided electorate.
Yet the 46th president is at his high water mark, unlikely to return to it. Next year Democrats are expected to lose their majority in the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate as well. Not only is there a good chance that the 78-year-old, eldest president in U.S. history will decide not to seek a second term in 2024, but a loss of power in Congress next year means this summer offers the last chance to put points on the board. After spending bills get passed, perhaps with delays and continuing resolutions into October, primary campaigns will be underway and a new election year traditionally kills prospects for legislating.
The start of Biden’s term has been buoyed by a successful vaccination program that is improving the lives of millions, a once-in-a-century pandemic being brought to heel, and soaring economic growth. Even his COVID-relief package, passed only by Democrats, is so popular that a healthy chunk of Republican voters support it.
But the next few months may be all the time Biden has left to make his mark as president. There is fading hope for a bipartisan infrastructure bill and to say there is guarded optimism for a police reform bill is … optimistic. A bipartisan infrastructure package, however unlikely, would be a significant accomplishment. Biden is hungry to execute on badly needed upgrades his predecessor and former boss failed to deliver on. Yet any compromise on physical infrastructure projects that would win 10 GOP votes in the Senate would be so scaled back as to infuriate progressives, increasing pressure on Biden to go bigger on the social welfare programs Democrats are calling “human infrastructure.” Republicans will unanimously oppose that bill, which can only be passed using the controversial budget reconciliation procedure, and costs roughly $2 trillion. Progressives are also expected to oppose any police reform compromise that doesn’t eliminate qualified immunity for police officers, a provision that would never make it into a bipartisan bill because no Republicans will support it.
That the two parties remain at the table negotiating on police reform and transportation projects is, in and of itself, a feat in this political environment. Should both bills pass both chambers and be signed into law, Biden would have triumphed, indeed -- but he has likely seen the last of bipartisan consensus before the coming fiscal cliff this fall. Despite his grand promises and the fervent demands of his party’s base -- to act boldly on climate change, immigration and health care -- the president is trapped by too few votes and too little time. The expansion of voting rights, a top Democratic priority, is all but dead. Sen. Joe Manchin, penning a Sunday op-ed stating he would oppose the For the People Act, also confirmed he would oppose abolishing the legislative filibuster, a step Democrats need in order to pass it without Republican support.
Infrastructure talks with Republicans will soon end, as Biden heads to Europe next week to address a majority priority: repairing alliances abroad that were strained by the Trump presidency. In these next weeks, Democrats in Congress are still aiming to pass the physical infrastructure bill by July 4th, with or without Republicans. The debt ceiling will be breached in late July without “extraordinary measures” the government can employ to buy a few weeks’ or months’ time. Meanwhile, both chambers will be trying to draft and pass FY 2022 budgets in order to approve government funding by the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year and avert a shutdown. Throughout, though Manchin has blocked out the sun, Democrats will be scrambling to resuscitate their voting rights legislation.
Meanwhile, as with the White House, the future leadership in the House is in question. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 81, said she could be serving her last term in this Congress, but has not announced her intentions to retire or reconsider. Behind-the-scenes machinations about who will step up suggest the generational divide within the party may continue, much to the frustration of younger Democrats. While they have waited for years to succeed their elders in leadership, with some departing the House because the wait was too long, there is now a possibility that even a departure by Pelosi could keep Assistant Majority Leader Jim Clyburn, 80, and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (about to turn 82) in charge. Democratic sources said that while discussions are in the embryonic stages with Pelosi still mum, Clyburn could step up as a temporary leader with Hoyer remaining his number two. There are other scenarios in which younger members such as Hakeem Jeffries, David Cicilline, Sean Patrick Maloney and Pete Aguilar could rise in leadership, but a Clyburn promotion would reveal a party not comfortable turning the page and ushering in future leaders at this politically precarious time.
Having Clyburn, largely credited with helping Biden become the Democratic nominee, at the helm in 2023 could be helpful for Biden, either to steer the party through another fragile majority, or through the minority. After the midterms, much will depend on whether Biden is running again -- because if he is not, pressure from progressives to push Vice President Kamala Harris to the left as the 2024 nominee will leave Biden playing small ball.
Pelosi, Clyburn, Hoyer, Biden -- all of them -- are well aware the party is likely to lose next year. There are three reasons: Republicans only need a net gain of five seats to win; through redistricting alone the GOP is expected to gain up to eight seats; and historically a president's party loses an average of 30 seats in the midterm election of his first term.
But another factor is that progressive voters expecting big change, and disappointed by inadequate results, will sit out the midterm elections in large numbers. Biden remembers all too well that President Obama wasn’t able to galvanize his coalition, which included young voters and non-white voters, to turn out in his midterms in 2010 and 2014. In both cycles his party lost a total of nearly 1,000 congressional, Senate and state legislature seats nationwide.
Republicans are licking their chops. Some are teasing the prospect of Trump being named House speaker should the party win back the chamber in 2022, since the speaker doesn't have to be a member of Congress. In a GOP majority, MAGA World will demand the party impeach Biden for any stated reason in retaliation for Trump’s two impeachments, essentially rendering him a lame duck whether he has announced a reelection campaign or not.
President Biden will miss these days.