Solutionism Explains: Why Can’t Joe Biden Do Anything?

*Solutionism Explains is a new series that delves into and breaks down current affairs, which encompasses a mixture of opinions and analysis illuminating issues for our readers.

Written by Matt Ellison.

In 2020, much like 2016, America’s Democrats came to the election field riven by internal strife. A wide policy gulf festered between the Democrats’ progressive, left wing led by Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (and to a lesser extent Democratic Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren) and the Democratic old guard typified by household names like Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and the man who eventually went on to win the 2020 election, Joe Biden.

In 2020, unlike 2016, the progressive wing had expanded its influence into the House of Representatives, with the so-called “Squad” of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) adding two new cast members to their left-wing ensemble in Corey Bush (D-MO) and Jamaal Bowman (D-NY).

More firepower in Congress’ progressive wing eased the burn – pun not intended – of Bernie Sanders’ decision to drop out of the Democratic primary when it became clear that Joe Biden was all but a shoo-in for the presidential nod. Progressives hoped to use their numbers and their grassroots activist bona fides to push the Congressional Democratic Party to the left, and intended to lean on Joe Biden to do it.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Progressive Firebrand

Indeed, hoping to maintain the progressive coalition that had swept Barack Obama into the White House in 2008, Biden’s campaign team offered overtures to the progressive camp, tapping Ocasio-Cortez as co-chair of his campaign’s climate task force. In a further boon to progressive voters, Biden’s general election campaign championed popular policy proposals such as a $15 federal minimum wage, a five-figure write-down of all student loan debt and, still in the maelstrom of the COVID-19 pandemic, $2,000 “survival checks” to every American household.

Since moving his own office supplies onto the Resolute Desk, however, the reality of the Joe Biden presidency has been markedly different from the one promised while Donald Trump still sat in the Oval Office. In a disheartening sweep of disappointments for American progressives, Biden quickly and awkwardly walked back most of his more radical election pledges upon taking office. The $15 federal minimum wage transformed overnight into a $15 minimum wage for federal workers; he flatly refused to broach the issue of student loan debt at all and, perhaps most ham-fistedly of all, transformed the $2,000 survival checks into $1,400 checks, citing Trump’s initial wave of $600 checks in March 2020 as the down payment on the $2,000 Democrats had campaigned (and very likely won Georgia’s two Senate seats) on.

Grassroot progressive commentators were quick with the I-Told-You-Sos; Joe Biden had campaigned on the most left-wing manifesto since the New Deal as a honeytrap for left-wing voters, only to return to the staid centrism of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton once the ballots had been counted. The American left had been had.

But is that really what happened? Has Joe Biden – a man whose eye-watering spending ambitions Bloomberg has called “Keynesian” – really pulled a fast one in order to restore America’s establishment (what Trump supporters might call the “Deep State”) after a tumultuous four years of Republican rule? It turns out, the evidence isn’t quite there to condemn Joe Biden just yet, early into his presidency though it is. Other considerations in America’s fractured political landscape have been responsible for Biden having to walk back his comparatively radical campaign promises, and now threaten to blunt Biden’s effectiveness as a president overall…while having chilling implications for American democracy heading into the 20s.

While Democratic voters hailed the end of the Trump era as a historic victory that restored a sense of normalcy to American politics, the facts on the ground tell a decidedly more modest story about Democratic prospects – and those of their Republican rivals across the aisle. In the House of Representatives Democrats boast a slim majority of just eight seats. The tightrope act Democrats must walk to ensure legislation makes it through the House has seemingly cooled the Squad’s appetite for an ideological ground war, with their numbers comprising six of those eight that keep the Republicans at bay. While disappointing for progressive voters, this nonetheless translates into an uneasy but dependable control of the lower chamber for Democrats. The view from the Senate, Congress’ upper chamber, is decidedly less comfortable.

With the White House in Democratic hands and 48 Senate seats held by Congresspeople with Ds next to their names, the Democrats eagerly declared the Senate officially flipped. 48 Democrats with two Independents who traditionally toe the Democratic line, and Vice President Kamala Harris as President Pro-Tempore of the Senate to cast the deciding vote in the resulting 50/50 down-the-middle divide between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate. The Democrats felt that they had the pieces in place to be able to nudge through any bill they like, provided they could get their ducks in line and ensure their camp votes along strict party lines.

…And this is where it’s gone horribly wrong for Joe Biden, just six months into a four year presidential term.

For a decade prior to the 2020 election, Mitch McConnell (R-KY) enjoyed the status as perhaps the most powerful man in American politics, neutering the Obama administration for six of its eight years in office and shepherding Donald Trump’s historic tax agenda through Congress as Senate Majority Leader for the Republican Party. His methods in deciding America’s legislative destiny have ranged from the obstructionist (in Obama’s second term, McConnell’s Senate passed less bills than at any other point since at least 1947) to the arguably unconstitutional.

When Obama put forwards Merrick Garland to succeed the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court in 2016, McConnell arbitrarily ruled that the Senate would not vote to confirm a Supreme Court justice during an election year. He was gambling against the odds that Donald Trump would win the presidency over Hillary Clinton, thus ensuring a conservative justice took up Scalia’s seat. His gambit paid off – conservative Neil Gorsuch was nominated by President Trump and confirmed by the Senate in February the following year. In the final year of Trump’s presidency, after the sudden death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, McConnell backtracked on his election year confirmation ban to hurriedly rush Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative Christian, through the Senate confirmation process and onto the Supreme Court.

Continuing this belligerently partisan tack, in May this year McConnell pledged that “100 percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration”. His Republican Senators have done their duty; through the use of the filibuster they have curtailed, blocked or watered down into insignificance most hallmark bills Biden has put before them since taking office in January.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Minority Leader since January

McConnell knows, as do exasperated commentators on the left, that all the Republicans have to do is strangle the administration’s ability to pass its legislation until the mid-terms next year, whereupon Republicans can lambast the Democrats for failing to achieve anything and ride a wave of voter apathy back into power, wresting back control of the Senate and eating into the Democrats’ thin margin in the House.

But the Democrats nominally control both houses of Congress. By sheer arithmetic, Mitch McConnell should theoretically be powerless to block Biden’s pollical agenda. But where McConnell has his troops neatly lined up and following orders, Joe Biden and his newly minted Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) do not. And this poses an existential challenge to the Biden presidency.

Two Senators, Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), have infuriated Democrats both in and out of Congress by insisting on bipartisanship as the watchword for Congress’ legislative priorities. Manchin has controversially outlined his refusal to support any Democratic bill that does not also have the support of at least ten Senators from across the floor, in practice sinking any hope Biden may have of passing legislation. All McConnell has to do is keep his people in line, and Manchin will do the rest to kill Democratic legislation in the cradle, waving the flag of bipartisanship.

The result is that instead of governing as a ruling party usually does after winning an election, Biden finds himself negotiating his own policy platform with the very party he defeated to be elected – the federal minimum wage, the survival checks and, most recently, an originally $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan that was partially paid for through a reversal of Trump-era corporate tax cuts. Needing Republicans on side to win his own two Democratic holdouts in the Senate, the negotiations around his hallmark spending proposals have seen the infrastructure bill slashed from $2.3 trillion to $1.7 trillion, with the corporate tax reversals effectively taken off the table entirely. Still, no Republican will budge, knowing full well that they are simply running down the clock before the mid-terms offer them a window to seize back the Senate and consign Biden’s power to legislate at all to the scrapheap. That means it’s on Senators Manchin and Sinema to recognise the Republican strategy for what it is and play for their own team again.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV)

Only, they show no sign of doing so. Moreover, their refusal to come on-side means that loftier ideas floated during the election for how Democrats might re-balance the American political system post-Trump – statehood for DC and Puerto Rico; an expansion of the Supreme Court and long-awaited Senate filibuster reform – can’t even be tabled for discussion, knowing ahead of time they will simply be blocked by Manchin and Sinema. Where Mitch McConnell once claimed the crown of the most powerful man in American politics, today the title is arguably shared by two conservative Democratic Senators consistently voting against their own party.

So where does this leave a snookered Biden? Progressive Democrats in Congress, who showed a willingness in 2020 to put aside ideological differences to fight for the home side, will likely do so again in the mid-terms and in 2024 when Biden is up for re-election. They will have a simple message for voters: Don’t blame Biden, blame the conservative fifth columnists within his own party. Vote for Democrats, but primary Manchin and Sinema to unclog the legislative drainpipe and get the Biden presidency started, for real this time. Whatever the reality of Biden’s election pledges and his real intentions upon taking office (it was Hillary Clinton who confessed to donors that politicians have both a public stance and a private stance on political issues), we may never know the truth so long as Biden has to negotiate endlessly with a political party that shows no interest in legislating during his tenure at all.

But the real danger posed by Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema at a singularly tender time for the American Republic is not in what damage they might do to Joe Biden’s legacy, but in the damage, their recalcitrance might have to American democracy.

Democrats were quick to point out the seeming folly in Joe Manchin’s insistence on bipartisanship with a Republican Party that voted down the formation of an independent commission into the events on Capitol Hill on January 6th, when a mob of Trump supporters descended on the Capitol and faced off with Secret Service agents in the corridors and halls of Congress. The ongoing refusal of some Republicans to even acknowledge that Joe Biden legitimately and fairly won the 2020 election also points to the party’s unwillingness to operate under democratic norms, even above and beyond the constitutional rule-bending of McConnell’s time as Senate Majority Leader.

More alarmingly, Republicans have since responded to their election defeat in 2020 with a raft of voting law bills aimed at restricting voting rights in red states, making it more difficult for poorer demographics and people of colour to vote come to the 2022 midterms and beyond. Infuriatingly for Democrats, a Democratic proposal to codify voting rights in defiance of this push for reform by Republicans has been opposed yet again in the Senate, by Manchin. His insistence on bipartisanship even in the face of the fundamental altering of how American democracy functions may mean that come the next election, many Americans turn up to the voting booth only to find that they no longer have the right to cast a ballot at all.

The implications for the future of American democracy – and how this normalises such behaviour amongst America’s global allies, such as the United Kingdom whose Conservative government is currently proposing similar voter ID laws and constituency redistricting to impose a tighter control on who may vote, and where – are dire.

Capitol Hill, Washington D.C.

It is unclear what, if any, options Democrats have to rectify what could be a grim decade for American democracy. Joe Manchin will not, it seems, be won over. CNBC reports that as his name finds itself more and more in the headlines over his ever-more-controversial refusal to support Biden’s legislative agenda, the infamous right-wing Koch network has stepped up its efforts to pressure Manchin into staying the course and holding out for the elusive ten Republican votes that will unlock his support for Democratic legislation.

The message from progressives next year will, no doubt, be to primary both Manchin and Sinema – take them off the board and replace them with Democrats who’ll play ball. This isn’t as easy as it would appear, either; both Senators sit in deeply conservative states, and a primary challenge from the left may simply be doomed to fall to their Republican general election opponent, thus flipping the Senate back into Mitch McConnell’s waiting hands. There is also the increasingly plausible reality that when the time comes, the type of voters who would eagerly vote against both Senators in a primary challenge will simply not be allowed to vote at all.

Such is the Gordian knot facing the Democrats over the next year and little less than a half, and such is the battle that will for better or worse define the Biden presidency. Not his relationship with Vladimir Putin in the wake of the Trump era, or how he deals with China, but how he steers and navigates the American Republic through its most treacherous waters since the Civil War.

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