The mouth of the Elwha River, master stream of the Olympic Peninsula, is an inspiring spot to watch the reassertion of nature. Here is a river once again flowing free after removal of the 210-foot-high Glines Canyon Dam that blocked salmon migration. As river-mouth sand bars form and disappear, I was reminded that Barack Obama played a role, shaping these treacherous political sands by reopening 70 miles of river system to spawning salmon. Can Joe Biden?
The Elwha restoration was a “shovel ready” project when Congress passed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, a stimulus package designed to lift us out of the Great Recession. It moved salmon upstream, but didn’t restore America’s economy. ”While the [2009 stimulus bill] helped stanch the bleeding, the resistance we faced from deficit fear-mongers seeking to water it down ate up valuable time and diluted the amount of aid that reached struggling families and small businesses,” 200-plus former Obama administration officials, including Cabinet secretaries, said in a letter Friday.
Larry Summers, who headed the National Economic Council under Obama – and is critical of the Biden plan – told National Public Radio on Saturday: “I urged in 2009 the dangers were much more of doing too little than too much . . . We would have done much more. The restraints were political.”
Then-Vice President Joe Biden was put in charge of running the stimulus plan. The program found itself under attack by Republicans from the get-go. Its achievement, such as money that went into restoring the Elwha and Hanford cleanup, went largely unnoticed. Recovery from the Great Recession was uneven and took several more years.
The Democrats, in the meantime, took a “shellacking” (Obama’s word) in the 2010 mid-term election, lost control of the U.S. House of Representatives, and faced an infusion of Tea Party militants in Congress’ lower chamber. The administration’s ability to think big, or even to move modest initiatives, was snatched away.
It’s a familiar pattern in recent Democratic presidencies. The Carter administration suffered setbacks in 1978, and “malaise” followed. Elected in 1992, the Clinton administration lost control of both Houses of Congress – and its ability to enact health care reform – in 1994. In that same election a strident and polarizing politician, Newt Gingrich, supplanted Washington’s Tom Foley as Speaker of the House.
Joe Biden has a lot on his plate at the moment. Hopefully, he has found time to read Obama’s memoirs, A Promised Land, in which the 44th president eloquently describes being repeatedly stymied and snookered when he sought bipartisan compromise. Months were wasted as an inept Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, sought bipartisan support for health care reform. Ultimately, Democrats had to go it alone. Likewise with energy legislation, which passed in the House on a party line vote, but needed 60 votes to pass the Senate. Then-Sen. John Kerry tried to work with a slippery Lindsay Graham.
“Unless Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt come walking through that door, buddy,” chief of staff Rahm Emanuel told Obama, “he’s all we’ve got.” In turn, evoking spy thrillers, Obama gave his sour opinion of the South Carolina senator: “Lindsay’s the guy who double crosses everyone to save his own skin.”
Obama next discusses the Washington, D.C., press corps’ infatuation with the theory of bipartisanship. It once worked to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and with President Dwight Eisenhower and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson collaborating to raise the minimum wage. Not so on the 2009 recovery act. Obama evokes Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”: ”My supporters lacked all conviction, while my opponents were full of passionate intensity.” By resisting the stimulus, writes Obama, Republican leaders (principally Mitch McConnell) “had a chance to energize their base and slow me and the Democrats down at a time when the country was sure to be impatient.”
The shellacking came a year later. It produced a Republican opposition with fewer moderates and some old school conservatives jockeying for influence with (in Obama’s words) “the newly emboldened breed of Newt Gingrich disciples, Rush Limbaugh bomb throwers, Sarah Palin wannabes, and Ayn Rand acolytes – all of whom brooked no compromise.”
Biden appears to have learned a painful lesson from three previous Democratic administrations. On Friday, faced with a gloomy jobs report – America is down 10 million jobs from pre-pandemic levels – the new president give Republicans an ultimatum: Move, or we will move all over you. He told them to make constructive changes, or Democrats will use the process of reconciliation to bypass the filibuster and pass the full package. In Biden’s blunt words: “I have to choose between getting help now to Americans who are hurting so badly, and getting bogged down in a lengthy negotiation or compromising on a bill that’s up to the crisis. That’s an easy choice. I’m going to help the American people who are hurting now. What Republicans have proposed is either to do nothing or not enough.”
Back to the Elwha River. High up at the boundary of the watershed is a route known as the Catwalk that traverses the Bailey Range. It requires balance in negotiating a knife-edge ridge where a misstep invites permanent injury. The Biden presidency faces a similar test of balance. Democrats’ majorities in Congress are much narrower than enjoyed by Carter in 1977-78, Clinton in 1993-94, and Obama in 2009-10. Passage will take a balancing act requiring support from socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and centrist Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. The Democrats have 50 Senate votes, plus Vice President Kamala Harris to break a tie. They cannot afford a defection, or in the House a half-a-dozen House D’s leaving the fold.
The Biden administration will be defined out of the gate. Words of Adlai Stevens come to mind: “The ultimate test of politics is the ability to govern, the acid final test.” Biden knows this. As a Veep nominee in 2008, Biden famously warned a Seattle fundraiser, “It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy.” Obama hit the roof and conveyed the message: “Tell Joe I love him. I love him. But he can’t be doing this.” Twelve years later, Biden is being tested in his first month.