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Biden's New Deal, Congress and the Bumpy Road to the Midterms

Biden's New Deal, Congress and the Bumpy Road to the Midterms
 Maya Kandel
Historian, Associate Researcher at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3 (CREW)

Biden's most important diplomatic mission: dealing with Democrats

This self-inflicted crisis of political polarization appears to have become an end-of-the-year tradition for the United States. The threat of government shutdown due to a lack of budget consensus, along with the threat of default if the debt ceiling is not raised, and a temporary settlement which takes up precious Congressional time (and only postpones the crisis) all recurrently undermine the United States’ ability to govern competently.

It is therefore useful to explain why President Biden's most intense diplomatic efforts in recent weeks have not been directed at France following the submarine deal, nor at the UN despite Biden’s insistence on diplomacy and multilateralism. Rather, the American President has had to focus on his Democrat colleagues - a clear sign of the priorities, but also of the stakes of his presidency.

The fate of the Biden presidency hangs in balance in Congress

The fate of Biden's "New Deal" will be decided in the coming weeks. Given the Democrats’ narrow margins in Congress (3 votes in the House, 0 in the Senate), the plan is divided into two bills. One is on infrastructure and it has the backing of several Republican senators. The other is a budget bill, which actually includes the most ambitious social transformation in decades, whether on climate, education, health, early childhood, or social welfare. It has been included in a budget bill known as "reconciliation", to get around the filibuster hurdle in the Senate requiring a 60-vote rule to bring a bill to a vote.

American history has shown that the legacy of a presidency is played out in its first year. This has become all the more true in recent decades.

But much more is at stake in the fall of 2021: the unity of the Democratic Party, American credibility on climate and the ability to deal with China. There is also the issue of maintaining control of Congress in 2022, with 2024 already in sight (the midterms are a year away, the primaries have begun, and so has the election of two-thirds of the governors). This also puts the future of American democracy at stake, given Republican efforts to restrict voting and challenge the results, as well as the American and global financial stability, in the event of a US debt default.

This dynamic between the President and Congress is typical of American political history, linked to the Constitution’s "separation and balance of powers."

Biden himself explained on several occasions that his ambition is to win "the defining challenge of the 21st century, the battle between democracies and autocracies," by demonstrating that "democracy works" and that democratic governments do deliver results to their citizens. It is clear that this challenge concerns the United States in particular. It is being played out in Congress, and a crucial battle takes place within the Democratic Party. This dynamic between the President and Congress is typical of American political history, linked to the Constitution’s "separation and balance of powers."

It has become increasingly dramatic with the worsening of political polarization. One figure repeatedly stands at the center of this recurrent psychodrama: Republican Senate leader, Mitch McConnell. What sets this case apart from past occurrences (in 2011, in 2013) is the absence of any concrete political demand other than the pure and simple abandonment of the Democratic program. The only goal is to sow chaos by maintaining gridlock, a logic that is also found in the obstructionism of senators like Ted Cruz, or Josh Hawley on foreign policy.

Whatever the context, the best asset for a president in Congress is his level of popularity. Biden's began to decline this summer, even if several key aspects of his project remain popular with American voters, overwhelmingly among Democrats (93%) and independent voters (61%), and at 39% among Republicans.

Partisan dynamics and the weight of the primaries

But the current face-offs and negotiations must also be understood in light of the electoral deadlines to come, and therefore already underway, given the rhythm of the US electoral calendar. Elections take place every two years for the House of Representatives (the Senate being renewed by thirds every six years), which in practice means that the representatives are constantly on the campaign trail. The primaries are thus already underway for the deadline of November 2022, whether for the House, a third of the Senate or two-thirds of the governors.

On the Democratic side, the last few weeks have confirmed how two Senate "centrists", Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, have the power to block Biden’s agenda. This is explained, above all, by the fact that they are elected from states where Republican voters outnumber Democrats (West Virginia and Arizona). The dynamic is the opposite in the House, where it was the 100-member Progressive Caucus that prevented a vote on the infrastructure bill. Last week, Biden sided with his progressive wing, after pandering to House moderates over the summer: it was like a father cuddling his two children, each jealous of the other, wanting to win over their parents’ hearts.

Paradoxically, both won. Manchin-Sinema won in the Senate, but so did Pramila Jayapal, leader of the Progressive Caucus in the House, a point that sheds light on the other major division between the two chambers of Congress (and each chamber must vote on the exact same bill for it to reach the President's desk for signature).

Bernie Sanders, who heads the Senate Budget Committee and who has not conceded anything on the budget, carries weight in these decisions, as does Manchin, who chairs the Energy and Public Works Committee. This is what the Democrats' extremely small majorities mean: everyone counts. Another consequence of these narrow margins is that Biden's ambition will have to be scaled back.

This is what the Democrats' extremely small majorities mean: everyone counts.

That process is already underway, and not without pain, since the divisions are only a symptom of the country's deep polarization.

It is important to understand that each vote and each position taken by every elected official is calculated according to the upcoming primaries and campaign clips, regardless of the side. For instance, Manchin may say he obtained a decrease in budgetary ambition, but will be more uncompromising on climate, because of how his campaign is financed and the place that fossil fuels hold in his state. Against the backdrop of these negotiations, powerful lobbyists are weighing in on the choices of elected officials, threatening some of the most popular elements of the plan i.e. the cost of drugs, or the increase in tax rate for the highest incomes. For Biden, the challenge is to get his program passed, even if it is partly watered down. The worst scenario would be to have nothing to show for it, which also sheds light on McConnell's strategy of preventing congressional work by blocking Congress with the threat of a shutdown or default on the debt.

The road to midterms and the 2024 deadline

The congressional elections are not the only ones in sight. In November 2022, 36 states will also elect their governors, who play essential roles (particularly in the organization and control of the presidential election), the importance of which we saw in the last election cycle, up to the January 6, 2021 assault of the Capitol. At the heart of this battle are the same key states, in particular Wisconsin and Michigan, where the presidential election is now being played out. They will be a test to Biden's gamble to win back the vote of Whites without college degrees, which enabled Trump's victory.

All these calculations in domestic politics have produced an increasingly dysfunctional government and Congress, where polarization and partisan gerrymandering not only work to fuel the extremes, but have made the search for compromise with the other side useless (or even counterproductive). This phenomenon, accelerated by Obama’s election in 2008, has a growing impact not only on the rest of the world and on foreign policy choices, especially trade policy (given the weight of the House), but also on domestic choices with global consequences, such as industrial policy, or the ability to govern effectively in the long run. A foreign policy priority for the partners of the United States must be to build their own strategies around this fact, to guard against the consequences of American polarization on their relationship with Washington.

This post is the first of a series of articles that will be tracking the 2022 primaries and midterms. While political science and History would say that the President's party should lose seats - which would translate into a Republican Congress given the narrow of Democratic margin - we should also be wary of theories and precedents. These same ones indicated in 2016 that Trump would not even be the Republican nominee. But the Party is in fighting order, with its base still over-mobilized around Trump who seems increasingly determined to run again in 2024. Over 60% of Republicans believe that the 2020 election was rigged and that Biden is an illegitimate president. A majority also say they are willing to use political violence to "defend the American way of life". For their part, Republican elected officials and leaders, including Mike Pence (whom the Capitol Hill rioters wanted to hang) are participating in the ongoing rewriting of the account of the Capitol Hill assault and the 2020 election. It is thus legitimate to question the future of democracy in America.



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