A Consequential Week, With Uncertain Consequences

AW
September 28, 2021

By now, you've probably heard that this is the 'most consequential' week of President Biden's young presidency. Democrats in Congress have to find a way to keep the government from shutting down, raise the debt ceiling to avoid default, and pass Biden's legislative agenda. All combined, this presents "a tumultuous moment for Biden and his party, with consequences certain to shape his presidency and the lawmakers' own political futures."

But, how did it get to this point? After all, the math problem for Democrats has been obvious; with the slimmest of majorities in the House and Senate, they can’t pass any legislation without almost unanimous Democratic support. It's also been clear from the very beginning of this legislative session that nothing was going to make it through the Senate without the buy-in from centrist Senators like Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema (with a supporting role for the Senate parliamentarian). Manchin has been explicit for weeks that he wasn't going to support a $3.5T package. 

So, why the last-minute scramble for votes? 

As the boxer, Mike Tyson put it: everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth. Earlier this year, the Biden White House had a plan. Spend the spring and early summer focused on delivering vaccines, bringing down COVID cases, and getting the economy back up and running. Democrats would use that momentum to push through substantive legislation on everything from infrastructure to the social safety net. 

By summertime, the plan was still chugging along. In May, the CDC lifted its indoor mask guidance for vaccinated people. By June, consumer confidence hit a 16-month high, "as growing labor market optimism amid a reopening economy offset concerns about higher inflation." And, in a speech before the 4th of July holiday, President Biden declared: "Today, while the virus hasn't been vanquished, we know this: It no longer controls our lives, it no longer paralyzes our nation and it's within our power to make sure it never does so again."

In early August, the Senate passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill, rebutting the naysayers who argued that Biden's plans for cross-party alliances were hopelessly outdated and naive. Just hours later, all 50 Democrats supported a budget resolution, the first step in the budget reconciliation process which Democrats would use to pass the Biden Administration multi-trillion-dollar Build Back Better legislation.

Flush with confidence, the president and congressional leadership believed that they could have it all; bipartisan infrastructure legislation and a massive, generation-defining investment in social service programs. 

However, by the end of August, the first part of this plan — defeating COVID and restoring economic confidence - had fallen apart. Then there was the pull out of American troops in Afghanistan, which led to the frantic — and fumbled — response to the Taliban's swift takeover of the country. By mid-September, the momentum that Biden had hoped to be riding into the intra-party legislative negotiations was all but gone. His approval ratings dropped below 50 percent in early September and remain underwater today. 

Meanwhile, the infrastructure and reconciliation legislation was already far down the tracks. Derailing it would put Biden in an even more precarious position at a time when he's incredibly vulnerable. But, there's also no guarantee that passage will be electorally advantageous either. Republicans are eager to make 2022 a referendum on Congressional Democrats' record of spending on everything from the COVID relief package earlier this year to the reconciliation spending package, arguing that they are moving the country down a 'socialist' path. 

With more than a year to go until the midterms, there's still plenty of time for Biden and his party to recover from what has been a very dismal late summer and early fall. However, for that to happen, the economy — and Americans' opinion of it — needs to improve from where it is today. On Tuesday, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell "cautioned Washington legislators that the causes of the recent rise in inflation may last longer than anticipated." Americans are clearly feeling this in their pocketbook. A recent poll by Pew Research found 63 percent of Americans are "very concerned" about rising food and consumer good prices and showed a “significant drop since March in the percentage of Americans who think that economic conditions in the country as a whole will improve over the next year." Opinions of Biden's ability to “make good decisions on economic policy” have also dropped since the spring — including an 8-point drop in confidence among independent voters.

So, yes, Democrats have a lot riding on the legislation before Congress this week. But, their electoral fate is more closely tied to whether voters feel more confident about the economy a year from now. If consumer prices remain high and Americans remain pessimistic about a return to ‘normal,’ Republicans will have an easier time making the case that Democratic policies are a cause of our economic malaise. The more optimistic the public is about the economic recovery, the more open voters may be to Democrats’ legislative agenda.