Joe Biden started the summer with his presidency seeming doomed: he was unpopular, his legislative record derided as unaccomplished.
Now he’s suddenly on a winning streak.
An example came Tuesday at two separate events where, in one day, he signed two significant bills into enactment: an expansion of NATO, and funding for high-tech manufacturing. That’s in addition to the most notable gun legislation in decades, infrastructure funding, a veterans’ bill, and, perhaps, within days, the most consequential of all:
American lawmakers are close to adopting key planks of Biden’s agenda with an omnibus budget bill that includes drug-price controls and the largest federal climate plan in U.S. history.
The bad news for Biden: he’s still historically unpopular, his support drained by high inflation and disillusionment over heretofore unfulfilled promises. The good news: scholars who study presidents’ legislative records now place his success rate in decent historical company.
“What he’s gotten is, in my opinion, significant,” said James Thurber, author and founder of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.
He describes Biden’s first two years as more fertile legislatively than those of Donald Trump’s, who got tax reforms but neither the health or infrastructure bills he wanted. He also sees it as more productive than George W. Bush’s, whose most significant early bill was the anti-terrorist Patriot Act.
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A colleague shares Thurber’s assessment that Biden’s list of early legislative wins could soon be closer to those of Ronald Reagan and his massive tax cuts; Bill Clinton and his NAFTA and crime bill; and Barack Obama’s stimulus bill and his health reform.
“This would be on the relative high end [among recent presidents],” said John Dearborn, author and scholar of the American presidency and Congress at Vanderbilt University.
Notable successes in a tough context
Those analysts view Biden’s successes as notable in a tough congressional context. Getting bills passed means pushing them through two evenly divided chambers, holding together every Democrat, from the socialists to the conservatives.
After a year of fits and starts, the Senate finally passed sprawling legislation in a complex process that allows a budget vote by simple majority, bypassing the higher 60-per-cent filibuster rule.
It’s not everything Biden promised, and in fact, his presidency has been a reminder of how frequently campaign promises are detached from the reality of U.S. governing. Presidents don’t really control Congress. What presidents can do is push ideas, convene meetings, and, importantly, get out of the way when necessary.
That’s what happened in recent budget negotiations: amid near-secret talks in the Senate, Biden maintained a low profile.
The key holdout vote hailed from a conservative state where associating with Biden could spell political death. Biden let his Senate colleagues quietly work on Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Suddenly, late last month, Manchin shocked American politics by announcing he’d signed onto a broader-than-expected agenda bill.
Thurber gives Biden credit for butting out.
“He really understood the nature of the Senate,” Thurber said.
So what does his legislative scorecard now look like?
Biden’s wins: climate, roads, tech
Atop the list of legislative achievements is climate change. That’s assuming the House of Representatives, over the coming days, passes, as expected, that Senate budget bill.
The so-called Inflation Reduction Act includes nearly $400 billion in tax credits and subsidies for a myriad of clean energy programs — from home retrofits, to electric vehicles, to clean utilities.
That’s aside from non-legislative acts like Biden rejoining the Paris accord, buying zero-emission vehicles for the federal government, and an Arctic oil-drilling moratorium.
The plan could have global ramifications: Princeton University’s Zero Lab estimates the bill would remove one billion tons of greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere by 2030. This amounts to cutting roughly two per cent of all current worldwide emissions of 50 billion tons, the lab leader and assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering Jesse Jenkins told CBC News.
Such a cut would carry Earth some of the way, but not nearly all the way, to emissions decreases scientists say would prevent a catastrophic two degrees of warming.
Infrastructure is another issue where Biden made headway. He took office planning to spend $2 trillion on infrastructure, for roads, bridges, public transit, rail, electric vehicles, electric car chargers, grid electrification, and rural broadband internet.
Bipartisan votes also helped pass a bill designed to give the U.S. a boost in its technological race with China, with $79 billion for research, advanced manufacturing, and semiconductor production. As he signed the bill Tuesday, Biden referred to a conversation he once had with the president of China, and vowed to protect U.S. manufacturing capability.
He said he once told Xi Jinping on the Tibetan plateau: “In America, everything is possible.”
Setbacks: Families, immigration, election reform
Some possibilities, however, remain unrealized.
Biden campaigned on more generous family policy — paid parental leave, which, unlike other industrialized countries, the U.S. lacks; universal pre-kindergarten; and a child-tax credit similar to Canada’s.
Manchin had it chopped from the budget bill. He initially supported more spending but balked at the cost as negotiations wore on. It was a dispiriting development to people working with low-income families.
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Allison Bovell-Ammon said her colleagues witnessed the effect of a child-tax credit in the brief months it existed, part of a temporary pandemic-relief bill. She said it alleviated patient malnutrition rates at the Boston Medical Center, affiliated with her research group Children’s HealthWatch.
“We had the moment, and the opportunity, to make real change [for struggling families],” Bovell-Ammon said in an interview.
“We’re deeply disappointed in these missed opportunities.”
She said federal data shows that food insufficiency dropped 26 per cent in the months the child tax credit existed then rose 12 per cent after it expired in December — just as families were being pounded by inflation.
Marina Mahmud said she had high hopes when Biden took office. She’s been living precariously in the U.S. since she was three and her family took her there without papers. She’s been living in limbo as one of more than 600,000 young people on a temporary status created by Obama, cancelled by Trump, reinstated by Biden, now being contested in court by critics who call the program unconstitutional.
Mahmud said she doesn’t really hold Biden responsible for the gridlock in Congress, though she wishes this issue were more of a priority.
“It’s just been my reality for so long. Nothing’s really changed, beside my hopes,” the Michigan business student said Tuesday.
“I was very hopeful. … Now it’s just kind of like, ‘Well, that’s gone out the window.'”
Reforms to the U.S. political system appear stalled too.
Biden campaigned on new political financing rules to require more transparency in donations; a new Voting Rights Act to fend off state measures complicating voting; and he was favourable to statehood for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.
All that’s stalled in the Senate. Some Democrats, including Manchin, have refused to change that 60-vote rule for most types of legislation. That effectively kills these ideas.
The current Senate rule requires 10 Republican votes and there’s no sign of Republican support.
Mixed results: Guns, health care
Biden wanted to ban so-called assault rifles and raise the minimum purchase age to 21. That’s not happening.
Congress did, however, pass its most significant gun-safety bill in decades after the Uvalde, Texas, school massacre, increasing background checks and offering cash to states for red-flag laws.
Biden scored another partial win on health care — a very partial win. He’d promised to expand public health care by lowering the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 60; the idea fell flat in Congress.
The current budget bill would, however, extend subsidies to make insurance cheaper under the so-called Obamacare system; the rate of uninsured Americans is currently at an all-time low of eight per cent. The bill would also use federal buying power to reduce the cost of some drugs a few years from now.
Biden’s former presidential primary opponent fumed on the Senate floor about the bill. This, said Bernie Sanders, is not what the American people expected.
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Sanders voted for the bill but not before excoriating the American political system as corrupt in a scorching speech. Americans, he said, are losing faith in democratic politics and it’s getting scary.
“[It’s] a very, very dangerous moment for American democracy,” Sanders said. “The people of this country believe — and in my view correctly — that we have a corrupt political system.”
But in a way, Sanders’ speech underscored one central premise of Biden’s campaign: that the reforms Sanders promised were unattainable, standing no chance of getting through Congress.
Biden’s primary message, however, is that in the land where anything’s supposedly possible, politics is the art of the possible.