Rhetorically and politically, the Biden administration has begun brilliantly, and if it continues on its present path, it would avoid the mid-term election losses that normally plague a newly-installed administration. Rhetorically, Biden has been all about empathy and compassion for the millions who’ve suffered from the COVID epidemic. Politically, he’s moved swiftly to counter the effects, notably by getting his $1.9 trillion COVID relief package passed and moving fast to get the aid it promises to the people it’s intended for.
And Congressional Republicans have done him the favor of unanimously opposing the wildly popular measure, supported by a majority of GOP voters and many GOP mayors and governors. Biden’s overall approval rating stands at nearly 53 percent—higher than Donald Trump ever scored even when he had a booming economy going for him. And on COVID, Biden’s approval is above 60 percent. COVID battered the Trump economy and arguably was the key to his election defeat.
All that said, Biden and Congressional Democrats are facing challenges that could put Republicans back in power after the 2022 midterms—scotching chances for progress on the ambitious Biden agenda. The administration is outpacing its schedule for getting Americans vaccinated, but there’s a danger that virus variants may develop that current vaccines can’t prevent, especially in parts of the world where vaccines are scarce, endangering Biden’s COVID program.
A second major challenge is immigration. Arguably—and it’s argued by reasonable commentators like Fareed Zakaria and Henry Olsen as well as Trumpified Republicans—Biden’s relaxation of harsh Trump restrictions has encouraged beleaguered Central Americans to think the United States has opened its borders to all. Republicans are trying to make political hay out of the current flood of unaccompanied minors to the US border, which the administration is struggling to accommodate.
Of course Trumpified House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy and his colleagues never uttered a peep when Trump tore children from their mothers’ arms and locked them in cages. But now they’re shedding crocodile tears at the “human heartbreak” of children being housed in badly-prepared circumstances largely the result of Trump administration cutbacks in immigration resources.
Key tests of how much trouble the immigration issue will cause commence this week with House votes on two no-brainer reforms—the “Promise Act” and the Farm Work Force Modernization Act. The first at last would grant at path to citizenship to so called “Dreamers”—young people brought to the US as children by parents entering the country illegally. The Ag bill would give temporary legal status to regularly-employed immigrant workers with options to eventually become permanent legal residents.
Both bills passed the House in 2019 and are popular with the public and farm groups which have seen Trump-induced labor shortages inhibit their ability to harvest crops. The bills should have little difficulty passing the House in votes scheduled for Thursday. On the merits, they should be able to attract enough Senate Republicans to become law.
Trump himself said he favored legalizing DACA registrants—though conditioned on stiffer border security—and Republicans from farm states should favor the Ag bill. How House Republicans vote Thursday should be a harbinger of GOP sentiment on the issues.
Even though polls and economics suggest Republicans ought favor both bills, Trumpism, the current border situation and the urge to block any Biden success may yet again torpedo reform. And even though there’s wide agreement that the US immigration system is “broken,” Biden’s larger immigration proposal, which includes a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, hasn’t a prayer of getting 60 votes in the Senate.
Another hurdle upcoming is the Democratic drive to secure voting rights by passing the sweeping “For the People Act” even as Republicans in 43 state legislatures move to make voting more difficult. The GOP clearly believes—despite its 2020 down-ballot successes in states that liberalized voting rules—that expanding voter participation hurts their election chances.
Many of the GOP bills are aimed specifically at Democratic-leaning minority voters, in keeping with Trump’s unfounded allegations that urban “vote fraud” caused him to lose the 2020 election. Sixty-five percent of US voters—but only 32 percent of Republicans—think that the 2020 election was “free and fair.”
The “For the People” bill passed the House without a single GOP vote and it’s likely the same would happen with the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would restore federal supervision over election law changes in Southern states struck down by the US Supreme Court in 2013. To pass either in the Senate would require amendment or elimination of the Senate filibuster rule. Elimination seems impossible because at least one Democratic Senator, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, opposes it.
But Manchin may be open to amending it to handle voting rights bills or to require those conducting a filibuster to actually occupy the Senate floor and speak instead of merely threatening to do so. Failure to pass federal election reforms—plus passage of voter suppression laws by the states—probably would assure that Republicans would take back control of the House and Senate in 2020. So it’s likely Democrats will take some action, but they have not settled on which.
Yet another hurdle Biden needs to overcome is passing the next big item on his agenda—a possible $2 trillion infrastructure bill. The $1.9 trillion COVID measure, providing $1,400 checks to most Americans, extending unemployment benefits, financing vaccinations, preparing schools to re-open and cutting child poverty in half was largely a short-term measure to ease pain and get the economy growing again. The infrastructure bill would be a long-term investment to improve the nation’s productivity and competitiveness—and possibly take concrete action to counter climate change.
But the sheer size of the COVID package—plus raw partisanship—may prevent the infrastructure bill from attracting the bipartisan support that Biden is hoping for and Manchin is insisting upon. If Biden succeeds in controlling the pandemic, he will have gained political capital going into 2022, but cementing his and his party’s strength depends on defeating GOP voter suppression efforts and stimulating long-lasting economic growth.
Solving the immigration jam-up at the Southern border also will deprive Trumpist Republicans of one of their favorite cudgels. Mobilizing FEMA to build adequate shelter for arrivals will be another humane achievement, but Biden needs to figure out how to prevent hoards of immigrants from thinking they are welcome, setting off a political backlash. So, Biden may be off to a good start, but achievements will now become harder to come by.