H I G H L I G H T S
• THREE BILLION DOLLAR BETS
• UNPOPULAR BIDEN
• BIDEN’S IDEOLOGY
• JAYAPAL RISES
THREE BILLION DOLLAR BETS
The administration of President Joe Biden is on the cusp of passing two of the biggest chunks of his Build Back Better programme. One is a $ 1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and the other a $ 1.75 trillion social welfare bill that, though smaller than his original proposals, will represent the most sweeping changes to the domestic role of the US government since the passage of affordable healthcare by President Barack Obama.
Biden’s primary struggles have been navigating between the right and left of his own Democratic Party, both of whom exploited his razor thin majority in both congressional houses to force the bills to accommodate their respective agendas. The Democratic right, represented by Senators Joe Mancin and Krysten Sinema, have been able to halve the size of the welfare bill. On the other side, Representative Pramila Jayapal has emerged as the voice of the 100-strong Congressional Progressive Caucus. She successfully blocked the bills in September and ensured that even if funding is reduced, the social welfare bill will still cover the left’s core agenda: climate, healthcare expansion, childcare, paid leave and affordable housing. The last mile battle is over prices of prescription drugs.
The Biden administration has accepted it will have to do with less money spread over a broad agenda, even though this will make the programmes less effective. Presumably it calculates that once the bills start working they will prove so popular that it can secure funding from the Congress later. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi has ambitiously said she hopes to get the legislation passed by November 2nd with most players on board. Jayapal is believed to be insisting that the Senate, where the two conservative Democrats have yet to endorse the bills and could demand last minute changes, vote first. With the ruling party hostage to just a handful of votes, a large number of lobby groups and individual congressmen are trying to add their special interests to the bills.
In their present form, the two laws will still pave the way for a major overhaul of the US physically and socially. Over a half billion dollars of the infrastructure bill, for example, will be spent on greening the economy. The welfare bill will introduce limited paid family and medical leave, universal pre-kindergarten and child tax credits. While these are commonplace in Europe, this will be the first time they are mandated by federal law in the US. While the fight with his own party members has not helped Biden’s domestic standing and weakened him in the runup to the Group of Seven summit in late October, he hopes that once the benefits start to trickle down the US voter will take a different view of the administration. Much of what the bills promise attract strong bipartisan support among the wider public. A number of Republicans have said they will vote in favour of the infrastructure bill.
Donald Trump is inadvertently helping Biden by insisting Republicans put his personal desire to get his 2019 presidential election loss legally overturned at the top of their agenda. Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, and others have publicly argued the party should concentrate on widespread public unhappiness over the Biden administration’s performance. There has been no evidence, despite repeated legal challenges and investigations, that the election results were in any way the consequence of fraud. Trump’s continuing hold on his party’s base has meant few Republican leaders are willing to challenge him publicly. The few that do are personally targeted by the former president, including McConnell, and a number of moderate Republican legislators have decided to not seek reelection next year because of Trump’s hostility.
Even as President Biden is close to passing one more historical piece of legislation, his support among American voters has continued to fall. His numbers are not unprecedented. The approval ratings of two of his predecessors, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, were the same or worse after their ninth month in office. What worries the US president is that such poor ratings often lead to a poor party showing in midterm congressional elections. If this happens to him next year, accomplishing the rest of his legislative agenda will be a struggle.
Biden has seen his support fall most dramatically among independent voters and Hispanics. Among independents his approval rating has fallen by half, indicating the president is losing the political centre. This is dangerous in an already polarised environment. The numbers indicate independents are most unhappy with the administration’s handling of the Covid epidemic. A YouGov poll also showed the number of Democrats and Republicans calling themselves independents is rising but the former are doing so at nearly twice the rate of the former. Some argue these Democrats may feel their party has moved too far left, largely over the administration’s huge social spending. Others believe it is a lack of enthusiasm for Biden. The Economist carried an article titled “No one loves Joe Biden.” However, even with these shifts self-identified Democrats still outnumber Republicans by eight percentage points.
Biden has seen his support sag across all demographics, even among registered Democrats and black Americans. The most precipitous drop is among Hispanics where his approval rating has fallen from nearly 70% to less than 50%. The single largest ethnic group in the US, they have been wooed extensively by both Republicans and Democrats. Hispanics have been disapproving of the administration’s handling of the pandemic, the economy but also immigration. Only 23% of Hispanics support the president’s handling of the last issue.
Biden is trying to pass some of the most socially transformative legislation in recent US history, inviting comparisons to the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Great Society of Lyndon B. Johnson. While he has accomplished some surprising victories, his lack of a solid legislative majority means the passage of every bill has been a tortuous affair. Scholars say Biden otherwise comes from the same school of “pragmatic progressive pluralism” that Roosevelt and Johnson arose from. It is an ideology that believes that the way to build a popular consensus is to simply get things done on the ground and not worry too much about theatrics, that eventually policy action will move the political needle in your favour.
This thinking believes that long-term social engineering, as opposed to obsessing about winning the next election, can change the political landscape in favour of a party for generations. This is backed by a large amount of political science research but is unpopular with politicians who have to win elections. Much of the flagship legislation being passed by the Biden administration has the potential to force such changes but is deliberately sold as non-ideological.
Some Democratic strategists argue that bread-and-butter economic policies is how the Biden administration can ensure a long-term tilt in US politics in favour of their party. They are wary of putting too much stress on racial and identity policies. The first wins the support of working class whites and minorities alike, the latter alienate white and some minorities. The leftwing of the Democratic Party, however, feel these issues re a necessary part of any transformation of US society. They also reflect the far greater sensitivity towards racial and inclusion issues that exists with Democratic Party supporters, a sentiment that has hardened over the past decade. Polls also show that on identity issues, independent voters have also move leftward opening a significant gap between the centre-left and the right. The New Yorker ran an article looking at the new grassroots, youth-driven activism being seen on the Democratic left, arguing that it harks back to the inclusiveness and welfarism of the New Deal and directly seeks to challenge the more market-friendly centrist positions taken by more recent Democratic presidents like Bill Clinton.
Nonetheless, a Populace survey found that for all the animosity between Biden and Trump supporters, their disagreements are over overblown in their minds and limited to only a few partisan issues such as immigration. They found Americans of all stripes share a common view on healthcare, community safety, infrastructure modernisation and criminal justice reform. They also privately believe that restoring respect for one another is needed and do not worry too much about national unity as an end in itself.
The increasing influence of the leftwing Congressional Progressive Caucus has greatly boosted the prominence of the first Indian-origin female congresswoman, Pramila Jayapal. A member of the House of Representatives for six years, her policies and background made her a forerunner to the more publicised “Squad” of leftist Democratic female legislators.
In the battle over Biden’s infrastructure and welfare bills, Jayapal led progressive moves to ensure conservative Democrats did not slash the bills in both size and scope. National Democratic leaders have criticised her, arguing that by holding up the infrastructure bill she could cost the party crucial gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey. Her supporters believe Jayapal has successfully fought off mainstream, “corporate funded” Democratic politicians and preserved their agenda. The left-leaning Nation said of her, “the striking skills of CPC chair Pramila Jayapal have come to be broadly recognised – even by those who have not always agreed with the Democrat from Seattle.”
Jayapal has been one of the most ardent supports of open immigration policies and easier paths to citizenship, which wins her points from the Indian-American community. She has also been a public critic of what she claims are the anti-minority policies of the Indian government. There have been charges she is less liberal with her own staff, often sacking people without severance pay and has among the highest employee turnover rates among legislators because of a penchant for “unrealistic expectations.”
Vice-President Kamala Harris, until recently the most prominent Indian-American female politician, continues to struggle to get traction. This is not unusual for a vice-president, but significant given the possibility of a future Harris vs Trump presidential battle. Political analytics website fivethirtyeight.com has already begun running a poll of Harris vs Trump. The polls shows Harris largely tracks the popularity of Biden, but one or two percentage points lower. Her approval rating is presently holding steady at 42-43%. Harris saw her numbers drop after she began handling the US’s illegal migrant problem in June. She also faces some discrimination over her race and gender going by her high unfavourability among white men. Her biggest liability is that most US voters, when asked, admit they have no idea what the vice-president does.
The Los Angeles Times pointed out that Harris and Biden are involved in less and less events together. In January and February, according to their official schedules, the two were together in three-quarters of their activities. By September and October this had fallen to a fifth, of which one-third were the two jointly receiving the President’s Daily Brief, the regular US’s classified intelligence rundown. Reports speak of friction between the Biden and Harris staff, though not between the two of them personally. It doesn’t help she’s been given difficult assignments such as immigration and voting rights that will not produce results in the short-term. Not being seen with the president also means far less media attention.
The previous issues of USA Review are available here: LINK
(The views expressed are personal)