Biden on path to being a ‘transformational figure’ - GulfToday

Biden on path to being a ‘transformational figure’


US President Joe Biden speaks on the production of the COVID-19 vaccine in the South Court Auditorium, next to the White House, in Washington on Wednesday. Agence France-Presse

Eli Stokols and Chris Megerian, Tribune News Service

President Joe Biden’s first big legislative victory, the $1.9 trillion package he calls the American Rescue Plan, squeaked through an evenly divided Senate by the narrowest of margins, along party lines, foreshadowing the challenges ahead for his other priorities — on infrastructure, voting rights, immigration and climate change.

But the accomplishment — and the potential economic and public health impacts of the wide-ranging relief programme — could also mark a big step toward Biden fulfilling his Rooseveltian ambitions.

“This is going to be the biggest legislation affecting social and economic justice in decades, and it’s been achieved in the early days of an administration,” said Bob Shrum, a longtime Democratic operative.

Building on this early success won’t be easy, given Democrats’ razor-thin Senate and House majorities and the nation’s deep partisan divisions. Few of the president’s other policy initiatives are likely to be as broadly popular as combating a painful, year-old pandemic. But his first 50 days have given Democrats reason to believe that the experienced, grandfatherly Biden is well-suited to capitalise on the opportunities opened up by the confluence of twin crises and a divided, distracted opposition party.

“He’s been underestimated all along ... and then he pulled off the biggest popular vote defeat of an incumbent president since Herbert Hoover lost in 1932,” said Shrum. “Nobody would have predicted this, but Biden’s not on a path to being a transitional figure. He’s on a path to being a transformational figure.”

With Republicans failing to mount a blitz against him, Biden kept his focus on his pandemic response. He amped up vaccination efforts, mourned the more than 527,000 Americans who have died and built public support for his relief bill, much of which — direct relief payments, extended unemployment benefits, a child tax credit — is targeted to the country’s neediest families.

The fact that not a single Republican voted for the package belied its broad popularity, which Biden said was critical in getting it passed. A poll released Tuesday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found 70% of Americans support the proposal, including 41% of Republicans. And Biden, set to deliver a prime-time address Thursday marking one year since the country first locked down, continues to earn high marks for his response.

“He just seems like the right person at the right time, and this is a totally unprecedented time,” said Mack McLarty, President Bill Clinton’s first chief of staff. “He’s very self aware, and after being vice president and serving in the Senate, he’s at a different place in his life and career. He’s very secure in himself, he’s experienced loss and that’s shaped him.

“He’s been decisive and bold, but in a very statesmanlike manner,” McLarty continued. “So far, it’s been effective.”

Republican strategist Mike DuHaime said Biden benefits from the low bar former President Donald Trump set by his outlandish conduct as president. “It’s a very basic level of competency and a lack of controversy,” DuHaime said of Biden. “Just by being boring, he is clearing the bar.”

Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who is Black, said Biden also benefits from “being an old white guy.” He added: “It’s hard for Republicans to scare middle-of-the-road Republicans about Joe Biden. ... But he’s also someone minorities have rallied around. And that makes for a combination we don’t see very often in our politics.”

Biden and Democrats have been guided by hindsight and an oft-avowed determination not to repeat perceived mistakes from President Barack Obama’s first year — going too small on a recovery package, waiting too long for Republican support, failing to tout its benefits.

But the example of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt has also been influential for Biden and his team. Chief of staff Ron Klain and other senior aides made a point of studying FDR’s Depression-era presidency during the transition period, and Biden hung his portrait in the the Oval Office.

But past experience is only so helpful. “It’s good to learn from the past. It’s more important to recognize changed circumstances when you’re in the moment,” said Jennifer Palmieri, a communications director to Obama. “The Biden team, as much as they’re relying on their experience, they’re seeing and appreciating that they’re in uncharted territory.”

When Biden and his aides began sketching out a relief bill before the inauguration, they didn’t start with a price tag.

“We spent weeks assessing and analyzing what more the federal government could do to meet this challenge more effectively, more aggressively and more forcefully,” said Biden counselor Steve Ricchetti. “The total number and nature of the package reflected that analysis. The president had assessed that this was what was needed to address the crisis.”

Biden never budged from the $1.9 trillion bottom line, arguing that Obama’s 2009 stimulus package suggested the greater risk was spending too little. Emboldened by Democrats’ two Senate victories Jan. 5 in Georgia, where they won after campaigning for larger relief payments, Biden also refused to reduce the $1,400 provided for most Americans in the bill.

Once the Georgia elections suddenly put Democrats in control of the Senate, they could use a procedural option for budget bills, known as reconciliation, to pass the measure with just 50 votes — without Republican support.

Biden, who spent 36 years in the Senate, leveraged his relationships with lawmakers in both parties. He was unsuccessful in cajoling moderate Republicans, but helped negotiate a last-minute compromise on unemployment benefits to secure the decisive 50th vote from Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

The victory unified a Democratic caucus that had been divided over parts of the bill, in particular a minimum wage hike that was taken out. Manchin, who represents a state Trump won by 40 percentage points, praised the bill in television interviews as “helping everybody,” while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic Socialist, celebrated it as “the most significant legislation for working people” in the modern era.

The independent Tax Policy Center said nearly 70% of the package’s tax breaks would go to households earning $91,000 a year or less; by comparison, Republicans’ big 2017 tax-cuts package delivered roughly half its reductions to the top 5% of income-earners. While some economists have warned that such a large stimulus could drive up inflation, Biden advisers contend it will reduce inequality and spark growth.

“If this accelerates the time in which we get out of the pandemic and accelerates the economy, those are two big things for him and the Democratic Party as they approach the midterms,” said former Obama adviser David Axelrod. Biden’s window for bold action could be short. Republicans have good prospects of winning back control of the House and Senate late next year; the president’s party typically loses ground in midterm elections.

“Even under the best circumstances for Biden, you have to like the Republicans’ chances,” said Alex Conant, a Republican consultant. “Politics is all about, what have you done for me lately? A year and a half from now, voters are unlikely to remember a $1,400 check.”

Yet the unprecedented circumstances of the dual health and economic crises, as well as Republicans’ infighting as Trump moves to control the party from the sidelines, makes for an unpredictable political outlook. Some operatives in both parties agree Democrats don’t necessarily have to fear the midterm jinx.

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