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Slow But Sure Progress on Biden’s Domestic Priorities

Slow But Sure Progress on Biden’s Domestic Priorities
 Maya Kandel
Historian, Associate Researcher at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3 (CREW)

One year after the 2020 election, the infrastructure bill is the first solid step in Biden’s political agenda.

As the yearly tradition goes, the first Tuesday following the first Monday of November was an election day in the United States. Voters cast their ballots in various federal and municipal elections, electing two governors. The electoral results came as a shock to Democrats. But, Biden's political agenda has significantly advanced in recent weeks. 

During summits in Europe, Biden has been implementing a "foreign policy for the middle class". Among other things, this includes the floor rate of taxation of 15% for multinationals, endorsed at the G20. He also reached a new type of agreement with the European Union, settling the ongoing trade dispute on steel and aluminium tariffs, which also included environmental concerns. Having approved the infrastructure bill, Congress finally gave Biden his first real political victory. The vote came as Beijing announced the renewed cooperation on climate change between the world's two largest emitters. A critical virtual summit between Biden and Xi was held on Monday, November 15, 2021. The following is a look into the lessons learned over these past weeks. A second part will focus on Biden’s achievements on the international front. 

Looking back on Election Day, November 2, 2021

Most public analysis has focused on Virginia and New Jersey, and the coming 2022 midterms. Some nuances are necessary to understand the situation:

  • In Virginia, the electoral results are in line with the state’s political tradition. Gubernatorial elections are always held the year after the president is elected. Biden is the 8th sitting president to see the gubernatorial election won by the opposite party (this tradition has been consistent since Jimmy Carter). 
  • The result was extremely close, consistent with the political outlook in Virginia, where Biden had won by 16 points over Trump, but where the number of new registered Republican voters this year exceeded that of Democratic ones.

Traditional elements further inform the results:

  • The score of the ruling party follows the low popularity of its leader. Biden’s approval rate is down to 42%: a record low at this stage of a presidency. His unpopularity is only surpassed by Trump’s, who was at 37% at the same point of his term. 
  • Economic woes, especially inflation and supply chain disruptions, have weighed heavily in the election. A majority of Americans, including Democrats, consider that "the country is going in the wrong direction".

Republicans won the gubernatorial elections and most of the state assembly seats on November 2, 2021. This increases their advantage in the ongoing redistricting that is underway. Changes to district maps will alter the balance of power in the House, in favor of Republicans. They will also affect the Electoral College for the 2024 presidential election. 

The polarization of electoral geography is confirmed by the Democratic victories in municipal elections.

In turn, the polarization of electoral geography is confirmed by the Democratic victories in municipal elections, as seen, for instance, with the mayoral election of Eric Adams in New York or that of Michelle Wu in Boston. Other examples include Pittsburgh, Cincinnati or Dearborn, where minority Democratic candidates were elected for the first time in American history. 

Observations from the Democratic front:

  • Virginia and New Jersey were the only elections at state level. In both cases, it was clear that energy and enthusiasm had shifted back to the Republicans. Democrats seemed relatively demobilized. This is a striking contrast when compared to last year.
  • Recent polls show that the lack of motivation from the Democratic Party is primarily due to poor results from the Biden administration since the approval of the January 2021 stimulus package. Biden and the Democratic party based their campaign on their ability to implement reforms.
  • Debates within the Democratic party appeared to focus only on numbers and the "cost" of the infrastructure plan, rather than highlighting concrete proposals. This has contributed to the disastrous image of internal divisions and political calculations.

Lessons from the Republican front: 

Republican candidates demonstrated an ability to mobilize base voters despite the absence of Donald Trump on the ballot. They achieved a record turnout in Virginia and New Jersey, as demonstrated by the election of Virginia Republican Glenn Youngkinas governor. 

Exit polls indicate that education has become a wedge issue for the Republican Party. Discussions prior to the election have focused on the fears of "critical race theory" allegedly used in Virginia’s education system, as reported by Republican media. These fears, however, seem unbased. This illustrates the degradation of public debate and the mobilizing power of the "culture war", which is still massively used by Republicans. 

  • Another piece of good news for the Republicans is that independent voters, women and the suburbs, have not been won over by the Democrats, contrary to what some had concluded from the 2020 elections.
  • The results also seem to indicate the broadening of the GOP's "multiracial working-class party" base. Though it remains to be confirmed, the trend was already evident in Trump’s 2020 results. At the time, Trump broadened his base between 10 and 26 points among Hispanic voters, depending on the state. To a lesser extent, he also succeeded in further attracting Black American voters.

Electoral results were enough of a shock to accelerate the vote of the Democratic infrastructure bill. Will the same hold true for Biden’s Build Back Better plan? The stakes are high for the midterms, and the window of opportunity continues to shrink. This may be enough to silence the fratricidal bickering within what remains the same party - the party of the President. The very quick vote on the infrastructure bill (just three days after the November 2 elections) echoes the Democrats’ anxiety about the results.

Electoral results were enough of a shock to accelerate the vote of the Democratic infrastructure bill. Will the same hold true for Biden’s Build Back Better plan?

It also shows the marginalization of progressive voices. Even though the Progressive caucus has 102 members, only six of them ultimately voted against the plan in the House. All six opposers come from "safe" urban seats, which are almost guaranteed for Democrats. Prior to the November elections, many more had vowed to vote against the infrastructure bill if it was not paired with the vote on the Build Back Better plan - the budget bill that includes the social and climate components. This illustrates that the upcoming midterms are already entering into political calculations. 

The Democrats are badly positioned in the House - a trend accentuated by the current redrawing of district maps. Their chances for the Senate are much better. Of the 33 seats at stake, two-thirds are currently held by Republicans. None of these seats concern a state where Trump won by a wide margin over Biden. Another possible advantage is that some of the candidates that Donald Trump endorsed could turn off voters. The same happened in 2010, when overly extreme Republican candidates lost states that had been "won" by the Republican Party.

Polls indicate the mobilization capacity of the Trumpist Republican Party, while highlighting the potential harm of some progressive slogans, such as "Defund the Police". At the same time, there is high public approval of the social and budgetary proposals of the Biden plan. How will the Democratic strategy adapt to this dilemma? 

Beyond all quarrels, the program of the Democratic party is taking shape, one stone at a time. 


Copyright: Drew Angerer / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

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