Back Home, Biden Returns to the Tough Stuff

Despite wall-to-wall media coverage of his first overseas trip as president, Joe Biden returned to Joint Base Andrews on Wednesday no better or worse than he was when Air Force One took off the previous Wednesday. To the disappointment of his conservative critics, who seemed to hope and even expect a presidential hoof-in-mouth incident on the biggest of international stages, he did fine. We should remember that these were the same folks who were convinced that Biden would never make it through the presidential debates without going blank, drooling onstage, or saying something self-destructive. They had actually convinced themselves that he was senile. (Some still apparently think so.)

Biden’s meetings with the G-7 leaders, Vladimir Putin, and a variety of other dignitaries including the queen of England seem to have gone fine. The former high school baseball player scored no grand slams or home runs, but he didn’t strike out or pop out, either. The reality is that Biden knows these foreign-policy scenes and issues well—33 years on the Foreign Relations Committee and eight years of intelligence briefings and meetings as vice president will tend to do this.

Biden’s standing with voters is good, not great. We should probably get used to that. A Gallup Organization analysis shows that John F. Kennedy, at 75 percent, topped elected incumbents’ approval ratings in May of their first years in office. Dwight Eisenhower was right behind him at 74 percent, followed by Ronald Reagan at 68 percent. Keep in mind, however, the country wasn’t nearly as polarized as it is today. We likely won’t see numbers like those anytime soon, absent the extraordinary happening. Since Reagan left office, the two best May showings were George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama with 65 and 58 percent, respectively. The two lowest were Donald Trump and Bill Clinton at 39 and 45 percent, respectively. Where’s Biden? Right in the middle, at 54 percent, which also happens to be his May average in both RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight.

If only dealing with Congress were as easy as this trip was. Passing his agenda, particularly the American Jobs Act and American Family Act, is a feat like trying to solve a legislative and political Rubik’s Cube, only with millions of people watching closely and keeping a close eye on both a stopwatch and a calendar.

Most everyone in Congress wants to see some kind of infrastructure program enacted into law, lest they take the blame for inaction. Interestingly, it is hard to say which group is more likely to scuttle it. Progressives feel that since their party has the White House and majorities in both the House and Senate, they should propose and pass anything they want. Republicans, meanwhile, don’t want to give Biden any kind of win. They also hold a much more limited philosophy of what government can and should do.

The reality is that some type of infrastructure package is going to pass. Indeed, public-works bills are already chugging through the system, albeit under the radar. On June 10, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, after a marathon 19-hour markup, reported out and sent to the floor two bipartisan measures: H.R. 3684, the INVEST in America Act; and H.R. 1915, the Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act of 2021. Chairman Peter DeFazio described them as “transformational investments to modernize America’s roads, bridges, highways, rail, transit, and wastewater systems."

"The policy changes advanced in committee today mark a significant departure from status quo infrastructure legislation of the past in order to catapult our country into a new era of smarter, safer, more resilient infrastructure that fits our evolving economy and society and cuts carbon pollution,” he said.

Last month on the Senate side, the Environment and Public Works Committee pushed through on a unanimous vote the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act in the same general direction.

These are going to pass, albeit with less fanfare than Biden’s more ambitious package. The question is, will they be the last major trains to leave this particular station? Biden’s problems are just as much with Democrats as with Republicans—and far more of an immediate headache than the presidents and prime ministers he just left in Europe.