With his plan for massive investment to create “millions of jobs” coming on the heels of an equally titanic economic stimulus program, President Joe Biden is thinking big in his first weeks in office. He has to — he knows that his narrow window for action may close as soon as 2022.
“I think he knows that his legacy is going to be written in the next two years — his legacy as president — and he is going big. He is going big,” former Barack Obama advisor David Axelrod said Tuesday.
The 2020 presidential election brought victory for the Democrat, along with a wild card — majority control of Congress, but only by the slenderest of margins.
And both in the White House and the halls of Congress, memories are only too clear of past presidents who, only two years after inauguration, lost legislative majorities in midterm elections: Donald Trump in 2018, Barack Obama in 2010, George W. Bush in 2006 and Bill Clinton in 1994.
In the face of that risk, presidents have essentially two options: to govern more from the center, seeking consensus while protecting their majority; or to bet everything on an ambitious attempt to push major reforms through early, even at the risk of losing control of Congress.
With the 2022 midterm elections just 19 months away, Biden has made his choice clear: he wants to move quickly with ambitious plans to fundamentally transform the United States.
Time is short. While Biden — already the oldest US president ever at 78 — says he plans to run again in 2024, Axelrod believes the chances of that are “pretty remote,” as he said on the Hacks on Tap podcast he co-hosts with Republican Mike Murphy.
– Fierce opposition –
“It’s big, yes. It’s bold, yes. And we can get it done.”
With those determined words, Biden on Wednesday presented his plan to invest $2 trillion in American infrastructure over the next eight years with the goals of creating “millions of jobs,” fighting climate change and standing up to a rising China.
And that came barely three weeks after he had signed into law his gigantic plan to stimulate the world’s largest economy as it recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic. The price tag: $1.9 trillion.
The potential total cost of the two plans could exceed the GDP of Germany.
Biden, no stranger to the ways of Congress — where he spent more than 35 years as a senator — often portrays himself as a fan of bipartisanship, with a hand always held out to the other side.
But the White House has made it clear that it will not hesitate to move ahead without Republicans, if necessary.
And to judge by Republicans’ early reactions, the opposition will be fierce.
Mitch McConnell, the influential Senate Republican leader, vowed Thursday to fight the infrastructure plan “every step of the way,” saying Biden lacked a public mandate for so vast a package.
– ‘The art of the possible’ –
So, how does Biden hope to move the plan to passage?
“Successful electoral politics is the art of the possible,” Biden told reporters during his first news conference, on March 25.
It will not be easy.
Democrats, with a narrow majority in the House of Representatives, can afford only a handful of defections there. But speaker Nancy Pelosi, a seasoned tactician, has expressed confidence that she can push the plan through by early summer.
Senate passage, however, poses a greater challenge. With a razor-thin majority there, Democrats can afford zero defections. But given the vast sweep and complexity of the plan, tensions have already emerged between the party’s centrists and progressives.
– The midterm ‘curse’ –
Democratic deal-making and internal negotiations will occupy much of the coming months — all under the cloud of possible losses in the 2022 elections.
The Democrats’ hope, for now, is that a booming economic recovery and the possible end of the pandemic will let them escape the traditional “curse” of midterm losses.
“The biggest exception to that trend was the 2002 midterm. That was right after the 9/11 attacks, a national tragedy that unified that country” and allowed Bush’s Republicans to actually gain seats, said Miles Coleman, a University of Virginia political scientist.
“Could Biden and the Democrats avoid the usual midterm penalty? Yes,” he said.
But Coleman quickly added, “Should they count on it? Maybe not, especially considering how thin the current Democratic majorities are.”