Over five decades in Washington, President Joe Biden has watched seven newly-elected presidents get started. Improbably, he has the chance for a stronger opening act than any of them.
Just 12 days into Biden’s presidency, the emerging alignment of forces holds the promise of two giant early legislative breakthroughs. The potential for rapid payoffs in public health and economic recovery exceeds anything recent predecessors managed to find.
That’s not because Biden swept into office on a landslide. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all won larger electoral majorities with wider popular vote margins.
It’s not because of superior numerical muscle in Congress. Jimmy Carter and Donald Trump, as well as Clinton and Obama, enjoyed bigger partisan majorities in the House and Senate.
And it’s not because Biden’s grandfatherly persona bests Reagan’s charisma, Clinton’s persuasiveness or Obama’s star quality. At 78, the oldest president in American history has made understated calm his early signature.
Instead, the size of Biden’s opportunity reflects the unique circumstances of early 2021: a deadly pandemic that could subside with an effective vaccination push, a battered economy poised to rebound when it does, the unfinished business of a disgraced predecessor, and the determination of fellow Democrats to overcome obstruction by increasingly-radicalized Republican adversaries.
All that raises confidence among White House officials that their bare majorities in Congress can unite to enact a Covid-19 relief package close to the $1.9 trillion version Biden has requested. Right after that, Democrats intend to do it again for an even costlier infrastructure plan.
“He’s facing the deepest problems but the biggest opportunities of any president probably since FDR,” observes Biden adviser Anita Dunn, who opened her career as an intern in the Carter White House. “Even with narrow majorities in Congress, he has the opportunity to build broad bipartisan support for his program — not necessarily in Congress but with the American people.”
Building consensus — even without congressional GOP
“Not necessarily in Congress” is the key phrase for understanding the White House approach. A veteran of 36 years in the Senate before becoming Obama’s vice president, Biden framed his inaugural speech around unifying the country.
But he explained last week that unity, as he defines it, does not require votes from the congressional Republicans who unyieldingly opposed Obama on every front.
Rather, Biden cited the need for his Covid relief plan to attract broad popular support and inspire consensus among experts that it meets the needs of the moment. He already holds supportive evidence on both counts.
The US Chamber of Commerce and former Trump economist Kevin Hassett have praised the package. Trump himself pushed loudly for $2,000 Covid assistance checks to individual Americans — the level Biden proposes to reach by adding $1,400 to the $600 checks Congress enacted late last year.
A poll by the Harvard School of Public Health for Politico last month showed at least eight in 10 rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats alike consider it “extremely important” that the new President and Congress pass a major Covid relief bill to aid individuals and businesses and expand vaccinations, testing and personal protective equipment. A Monmouth University poll last week showed that, by a 71%-25% margin, Americans want Republicans to work with Biden rather than try to constrain his agenda.
To the contrary, GOP congressional leaders have resumed reflexive opposition. Barely three weeks after a violent insurrection that trashed the Capitol, killed a police officer and threatened their own lives, most Republican lawmakers have abandoned any initial impulses to hold Trump accountable following his second impeachment by the House.
That rallies Biden’s party behind him. Armed with special budget rules that shield the Covid relief bill from Republican filibuster, Democrats won’t linger long in negotiations with the few Republicans showing even minimal willingness to cooperate.
A big asset for a new President
Light at the end of the pandemic tunnel generates additional political momentum.
So does the prospect of an economic snap-back if American life can regain a semblance of normalcy. Business economist Diane Swonk sees Biden’s proposal swelling overall 2021 growth from the 4% currently projected to 6%; Moody’s economist Mark Zandi says it would accelerate the return to full employment by a year, to the end of 2022.
On infrastructure, Biden can harness years of pent-up demand that Republicans resisted under Trump and Obama alike. He benefits from a growing economic consensus that America’s ability to borrow cheaply makes the benefit of public investment exceed the burden of increased debt.
And as with Covid relief, congressional Democrats can protect Biden’s infrastructure package from Republican filibuster.
That doesn’t mean the President isn’t seeking, and can’t gain, some Republican support for either initiative. His history, temperament and leverage make that possible.
But it means he doesn’t have to. That represents an enormous asset for a new President who has learned how quickly the window for action in Congress can close. Clinton, Obama and Trump all saw their parties lose control of the House after their first two years.
“We never talk about experience when we’re picking a president,” says Ted Kaufman, the longtime Biden friend and aide who helped lead the transition to the White House. “This is the right guy for the right time.”