President Biden’s public pronouncements have, up to this point, been defined by repeated exaltations of America writ large. “We have never, ever, ever, ever failed in America when we have acted together,” he intoned with Churchill-esque insistence at his inauguration. “Everybody has been so down the last number of years about what America…What can we do? […] We can do anything!”, he preached to an audience at a FEMA vaccination facility in February.
Perhaps, as we continue to deal with COVID and its knock-on effects, Biden’s overt zeal is reassuring to some; or maybe it’s the contrast with our previous President’s divisiveness that attracts others. But now, with almost 6 months under his belt and ample opportunity to “do anything,” it must be said that Biden seems to be long on talk and short on action.
Last week, the Biden administration revealed their budget proposal, giving the American public a clear look at where their priorities lie, and whether they line up with his campaign promises. There are many unflattering discrepancies. On the healthcare front: the public option, lowering the age for Medicare eligibility, and negotiating for lower drug prices are all out, despite assurances from candidate Biden. On the economic front, they’ve axed student loan debt relief and the estate tax which, again, were part of Biden’s platform as a candidate last year. Beyond this most recent spate of let-downs, there’s also the lingering bitterness over the smaller-than-promised stimulus checks and inactivity on raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
The about-face from Biden on these last two policies famously left canvassers in Georgia, who promoted them to elect senators Ossoff and Warnock, feeling like they lied to constituents’ faces.
Of course, with every goal left unpursued comes an explanation from the White House as to why that’s the case. The American public was told that the parliamentarian killed the minimum wage hike; that Republicans wouldn’t allow the big spending needed for the public option; that bipartisanship is an important priority. There’s already a lot to be skeptical about from these explanations, but beyond that, Biden’s approval ratings are impressively high, giving him an opportunity to whip votes for his policies from intransigent fence-sitters like Senators Manchin and Sinema. So, what is stopping Biden (or Vice President Harris) from going to their states and campaigning against them as enemies of his popular platform? Or conversely, to offer them ringing endorsements in exchange for their support? This is basic carrots-and-sticks politics.
If Congress is really the issue, progressive journalists with serious commitments to the policies that Biden claims to support have repeatedly pointed out the myriad ways that he could enact them. Chief among them is veteran political reporter David Dayen of The American Prospect, who laid out in detail a potential “Day 1 Agenda” for the President, consisting of substantive actions (executive orders, for example) he could take without Congress on these and other issues. So far, Biden has demurred on nearly all of it.
There are immediate costs to all of this. Right now, Democrats control both houses of Congress by the skin of their teeth, and the Biden administration’s sluggishness is not giving the American electorate a good reason to keep the Democratic party in charge past the 2022 elections. Biden may believe that America is capable of great things, but as the leader of all Americans, a good deal of that capability clearly lies with him. By not backing up his soaring rhetoric with action, he risks having a decisive portion of the electorate eventually view him with well-deserved cynicism, ceding ground unnecessarily to a dangerously radical Republican party.
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