By the end of the week — if the House and Senate can get the infrastructure and reconciliation packages across the finish line — the Biden White House will have pushed through more than $4 trillion in pandemic stimulus and social, climate and infrastructure spending in less than 10 months.
This will represent the country’s most serious investment in green energy to date, establish universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, and extend child tax credits and expanded Affordable Care Act subsidies, among other consequential things. In real dollars, it will be more than four times larger than the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. As a percentage of the gross national product, it will be about half the size of the New Deal.
Yet progressives are demoralized, President Biden is underwater, and in NBC News polling released this weekend, only 22% of the country believes the country is on the right track. No less alarmingly, respondents rated Republicans 13 points better at getting things done.
Political memories are short, but this is the same Republican Party that, in two years of controlling Washington, passed a tax cut for rich people and virtually nothing else.
Though congressional Democrats helped pass the CARES Act and other pandemic-relief measures last year — without which Donald Trump would own a Second Great Depression as well as the worst jobs record since Herbert Hoover — respondents also said by 18 points that Republicans were better for the economy, as if George W. Bush never existed. (It’s difficult to imagine Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy extending Joe Biden the same courtesy were the roles reversed.)
There are a few things to keep in mind when reading polls like this. First, Democrats are still winning the generic congressional ballot, which indicates that some of the dissatisfaction comes from Democrats who, in a general election, will almost certainly come home. But that doesn’t mean their disillusionment should be taken lightly. Just because they get worked up over Donald Trump doesn’t mean they’ll vote in the midterms (see 2010).
Second, though Biden’s popularity tailspin began in earnest with the Afghanistan withdrawal, his biggest problem is anemic economic growth — a result of the Delta outbreak that tore through the unvaccinated. This, of course, wasn’t helped by Republican leaders who proudly resisted the “tyranny” of masks and vaccine mandates. In other words, Biden is paying for his adversaries’ weaponized stupidity. The more optimistic take: Should the latest COVID wave continue to wane, experts expect the economy to recover over the remainder of the year. Biden’s numbers should rise with it, though probably not by much.
That’s because — third — this is a polarized country, and somewhere around 45% of Americans would disapprove of Biden even if he personally cured cancer. Most Republicans think he’s an illegitimate president, and nearly 75% of Trump voters are convinced that American democracy is under a “major threat” from election-stealing Democrats. (It is under threat, but that’s not why.)
The bottom line is that if and when Democrats pass their agenda, the baked-in perception of ineptitude and cravenness developed by months spent in a circular firing squad — or, put nicely, negotiations — might cancel many of the political gains. There’s something instructive about that.
Donald Trump, a consummate bullshit artist, understood that winning in politics is more about projection than accomplishment. He did little more than inherit a growing economy and maintain its growth until everything fell apart, while claiming to have created the greatest economy in American history — an obvious lie repeated until it became an article of faith among his cult and its cable news propagandists.
But when Democrats craft sweeping legislation — the ACA in 2010, Build Back Better now — over unrelenting Republican obstruction, the process inevitably bogs down into a wheel-spinning, soul-sucking mess, and the public has no idea what happened except that Republicans say we’re communists now.
Sure, the Beltway media hasn’t acquitted itself particularly well, nor done the country any favors, by obsessing over optics and horse race politics, reporting on spending through reductive Republican framing — not addressing climate change and the prohibitive expense of child care has financial implications, too — and chasing after Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema like horny teenagers. And yes, the roadblocks erected by Manchin and Sinema have been infuriating and self-defeating.
Manchin killed paid family leave and scaled back the child tax credit extension to one year — eliminating and minimizing two of the package’s most popular components — while making sure to look out for his family’s coal interests in West Virginia. Sinema did her pharma overlords’ bidding, blocking a change that would have allowed Medicare to negotiate drug prices and objecting to the repeal of tax cuts she voted against three years ago, costing Democrats precious revenue options.
And so, when all is said and done — if it gets done — the U.S. will still be the only developed nation without paid family leave, and it will still be light-years behind its climate goals. Progressives will fume — rightly so — about missed opportunities. Manchinema will feel like they’ve contributed enough, so don’t expect anything more from them. Conservatives will hyperventilate about socialism and debt, conveniently forgetting the trillions of dollars Trump’s tax cuts added to the national ledger.
The left will emerge dejected and Republicans energized, setting up a repeat of 2010 next year. In the wake of Democrats’ losses a decade ago, pundits blamed health care reform and “overreach.” They’ll probably do something similar next year. But, as ever, that will be a facile interpretation. The problem isn’t how much the legislation costs (over a decade, about a quarter of what we give the Pentagon each year) or how much it will add to the deficit (nothing). It’s that Democrats’ lack of cohesion projected weakness. With a sputtering economic recovery and a stubborn pandemic, that weakness became salient.
In a political system that, through intention and accident, frustrates majority rule, privileges special interests, and defaults to the status quo, passing major legislation is messy. If Democrats learned to take the easy Ws, they’d be better off politically. Then again, easy wins are seldom meaningful.
Get more Informed Dissent at billman.substack.com.
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