Biden bolsters legacy with energy and health care bill. Will voters reward him?

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A month ago, the heart of President Joe Biden’s national agenda was on life support, and his jobs approval rating had fallen to a new low. Biden and his party appeared headed for a bombardment in the midterm elections. Even Democratic voters seemed ready to quit the president, openly wondering if he should seek a second term.

But seemingly overnight, in an unexpected turn of events, Biden has regained some momentum after what has been the most productive period of his presidency.

In a rare flurry of bipartisan activity over the past six weeks, Congress passed the most significant gun control regulations in three decades and made a major investment in American manufacturing to counter competition from the China. And on Sunday, Senate Democrats approved an energy, tax and health care package in a party vote, addressing a number of longstanding Democratic priorities. The House is expected to vote on the bill on Friday.

Yet the president’s approval rating remains underwater. Concerns in Democratic circles of his age have not gone away. The national mood is uneasy over high inflation and fears that the economy could slide into a recession. Democrats still risk losing control of both houses of Congress in November.

Still, as members of Congress leave Washington for the August recess, Democrats and the president have a stronger legislative record to run for midterm this fall than most expected.

Now comes the hard work of selling the achievements to voters.

“Biden has a significant track record. He’s not FDR or Lyndon Johnson, but he found ways to push legislation through a very deadlocked Congress,” said Julian Zelizer, professor of political history at the University of Princeton. “But often when you have a lot of legislative success, it doesn’t mean things are going well mid-term.”

This moment marks an inflection point in Biden’s presidency. Most U.S. presidents have about 18 months when they take office — from their inauguration to the summer before the midterm general election begins — to deliver on as many of their campaign promises as possible. After spending most of their political capital during this time on their core issues, it becomes much more difficult to get things done, especially if the president’s party loses power in Congress.

Republicans are expected to take control of the House and could also secure a majority in the Senate, despite the recent string of Democratic victories. Biden’s ability to advance his remaining legislative agenda would be severely limited in a divided or entirely Republican-controlled Congress.

President Joe Biden speaks before signing two bills aimed at combating fraud in COVID-19 small business relief programs at the White House August 5, 2022 in Washington, DC.
Evan Vucci/Getty Images

The president will have more leeway independently of Congress on foreign affairs. Biden has received praise from across the political spectrum for his leadership in rallying the West to oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Coordinating the international response to the war will continue to be a top priority for the administration, regardless of the makeup of Congress.

But given the harsh reality of the US political calendar, Biden’s body of work on important domestic issues is unlikely to change much between the midterm elections and the 2024 presidential election.

Republicans have already made their decision on Biden’s presidency. They were highly critical of his handling of the economy and the biggest rise in inflation in four decades.

“He’s kind of stuck with the circumstances he’s in,” said Terry Holt, who served as senior campaign adviser to former President George W. Bush. Newsweek. “Inflation and the Economy [will] run the elections.”

Presidents have often struggled to weather periods of economic uncertainty. Ronald Reagan, a gifted communicator, managed to convince most Americans that the economy would recover from a downturn early in his first term. George HW Bush’s approval rating soared to 89% after the first Gulf War. But an economic downturn caused his popularity to plummet and he was unable to recover, leading to his defeat in the 1992 presidential election. Similarly, Biden appears unable to bolster public confidence in economics, said Lee Ohanian, professor of economics at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“Biden is unable to deliver the message that people wake up in the morning saying things will get better,” Ohanian said.

Republicans in Washington and across the country also blame Biden for the influx of migrants to the southern border. Senate Republicans opposed the energy and health care bill. In early campaign ads, Republican candidates and conservative groups portrayed the president as a far-left Democrat who accomplished nothing in office.

This line of attack contradicts the fact that Biden pushed many parts of his agenda forward in a difficult political environment. The list includes the $1.9 trillion US bailout, the aid package passed early last year to fight the pandemic; the $1 trillion infrastructure act and Biden’s nomination of Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Democrats have a slim majority in the House and have often had to rely on Vice President Kamala Harris to vote in a tie in a tied Senate, 50-50. Extremely thin margins in both chambers have hampered Biden’s ability to act on issues like abortion, which will play a big role in the midterm elections after the June Supreme Court ruling overruling Roe v. Wade.

“It’s pretty remarkable that Biden has accomplished what he’s done so far,” said Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. “I think that’s about the best he can do in this crucial 18-month window.”

Democrats’ assessment of Biden’s presidency so far has been more mixed.

Biden’s record would be more impressive, allies say, if Democratic senses Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona had agreed last year to back Biden’s original Build Back Better proposal.

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Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia leaves the Senate floor following a vote in favor of the Cut Inflation Act August 6, 2022 in Washington, DC.
Anna Rose Layden/Getty Images

The plan, which has been renamed multiple times as Democrats try to keep it alive, included more climate and health care funding than the bill the Senate just passed, plus significant investments in child care, education and housing. Manchin and Sinema also angered many in their own party by rejecting a plan by Democrats in January to change Senate filibuster rules to push through voting rights reform.

Ultimately, the two centrist Democrats helped resurrect Biden’s domestic agenda ahead of the midterms. Manchin brokered the energy and health care deal with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York in recent weeks. Sinema backed the plan after reaching an agreement with fellow Democrats to change new tax provisions in the legislation.

Biden remained in the background as Manchin and Schumer finalized the deal, an approach that reflected his respect for Congress as a senator who has passed 36 years. He was also a less visible presence as he spent two separate periods isolating himself in the White House after testing positive for COVID-19, while Democrats strategized to approve the final bill using a parliamentary decision known as reconciliation, which allowed them to pass it without all the Republican votes.

The resulting legislation, called the Inflation Reduction Act, is an assortment of energy, tax and climate measures. It includes the most funding to fight climate change that Congress has ever passed. The bill also provides funds to expand subsidies to people who receive health care coverage through the Affordable Care Act and will allow the Medicare program to negotiate prices for certain prescription drugs.

However, it is unclear exactly how the legislation will reduce inflation in the short term. There are also so many different parts of the bill that it can be difficult to get voters to understand its overall impact, Zelizer said.

“We’re in a time where presidents are using reconciliation to get things done, and it’s more complicated,” Zelizer said. “It’s not like, ‘Here’s a program, Congress passed it and now you have this advantage.’ It’s a hodgepodge of things in a process that no one understands.”

Recent presidents have had more success rallying their base around policy-focused legislation. Donald Trump’s greatest legislative achievement in his first two years in office was a simple tax overhaul that reduced personal and corporate tax rates. Barack Obama signed into law the Affordable Care Act early in his term, setting in motion the biggest health care reform in generations.

Biden, arguably, doesn’t have a similar signing achievement that can easily be seen as a milestone for supporters. He called the energy and health care bill a historic investment in America’s future. He also likes to point to the COVID Bill and the Infrastructure Act as significant achievements. Both were important pieces of legislation, but they failed to capture the public imagination, and neither provided Biden with a lasting boost to popularity. Time will tell how voters view the Democrats’ new legislation.

Left-leaning critics have said Biden’s domestic policy record, while impressive in some ways, has fallen short of the transformative vision he presented as a presidential candidate, partly because he was willing to compromise instead of pushing harder for radical change.

“Biden has been very technocratic and focused on what we can do on the sidelines, nibbling here and there,” said Kait Sweeney, spokesperson for the progressive group Democracy for America. “It’s not a compelling view, and it’s going to hurt us halfway through.”

Perry said the idea that Biden could have pushed through a more ambitious agenda is unlikely, given the makeup of Congress. Whether her accomplishments will inspire voters remains to be seen, she said.

But especially with the latest win, Perry said, “at least now Biden can make the case for voters.”

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