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Joe Biden started his presidential campaign with promises to be a unifying force in Washington who would help lawmakers come together to achieve bipartisan reform. But over his first 100 days in office, Biden’s message to Republicans in Congress has been closer to this: get on board or get out of my way.
This willingness to go it alone if necessary appears to be a hard-won lesson from the early years of Barack Obama’s presidency, when Democrats negotiated with Republicans on major bills only to have them vote against the final proposals.
It has also prompted some – especially on the left of the Democratic party – to make early comparisons between Biden and Obama that favor the current president as a more dynamic, determined and ruthless political force for progressive change than his old boss.
Just three months into his presidency, Biden has already signed the $1.9tn coronavirus relief package, which did not attract a single Republican vote in Congress. Delivering his first presidential address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, Biden signaled he was willing to take a similar approach to infrastructure if necessary.
“I’d like to meet with those who have ideas that are different,” the president said of his infrastructure plan. “I welcome those ideas. But the rest of the world is not waiting for us. I just want to be clear: from my perspective, doing nothing is not an option.”
Even though he has much smaller majorities in Congress than Obama did in 2009, Biden has decided to take a much more audacious approach. The Biden strategy centers on acting boldly and quickly to advance his legislative agenda. And if he has to abandon bipartisanship along the way, so be it.
The numbers behind Biden’s proposals tell the story of this daring strategy.
While the 2009 stimulus bill that Obama signed into law amid the financial crisis cost about $787bn, Biden’s coronavirus relief bill came in at $1.9tn. The president’s two infrastructure proposals, the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan, would cost a collective $4tn.
The size and scope of these policies have signaled that Democrats are intent on learning from the Obama-era stimulus bill talks, when Republicans successfully negotiated to get many provisions taken out of the final legislation. Democrats have blamed the watered-down legislation for their massive losses in the 2010 midterms.
“I don’t just blame Obama. I could blame all of us – everybody,” the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, recently told writer Anand Giridharadas.
Schumer said Democrats had made two crucial errors in allowing Republicans to “dilute” the stimulus bill and drag out negotiations over the Affordable Care Act. “We’re not going to make either of those mistakes,” Schumer said.
Republicans are taking notice of Democrats’ new no-nonsense approach. In his response to Biden’s address on Wednesday, the Republican senator Tim Scott accused the president of further dividing the country by passing major legislation without bipartisan support in Congress.
“President Biden promised you a specific kind of leadership. He promised to unite a nation, to lower the temperature, to govern for all Americans, no matter how we voted,” Scott said. “But three months in, the actions of the president and his party are pulling us further apart.”
Biden and his team have insisted their proposals are bipartisan, pointing to surveys showing the coronavirus relief package enjoys the support of a broad majority of Americans, including many Republicans. They accuse Republican lawmakers of being out of touch with the needs of their constituents.
“The biggest game-changer this White House has made to the policy debate is redefining bipartisanship to mean among the public and not among DC politicians,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
Green and other progressive strategists expressed hope that these widely popular policies will pay dividends in next year’s midterms, allowing Democrats to avoid their disastrous showing in 2010.
“There are two huge regrets of the Obama administration,” said Reed Hundt, a member of Obama’s transition team and the author of A Crisis Wasted: Barack Obama’s Defining Decisions.
“We didn’t spend enough to get the economy to be fully recovered by 2010, and we disastrously lost the House,” Hundt said. “And regret number two is we never made up for it over eight years.”
Aimee Allison, the founder of She the People, said the 2009 stimulus negotiations demonstrated the potential danger of prioritizing bipartisanship over progressive change.
“It’s a lesson learned because, if you don’t push far enough on a major issue everyone cares about, then the compromise working with Republicans ends up being something that doesn’t satisfy the base,” Allison said.
But Allison also made a point to emphasize that Biden is operating under much different circumstances than Obama was when he became president. Most notably, Biden arrived in office on the heels of Donald Trump, who made hardly any attempts to win over Democrats in Congress.
“It’s really, really different times. We didn’t have the experience of a Trump,” Allison said of Obama’s early presidency. “There wasn’t quite that sense of urgency, whereas I think now there’s that expectation we got to get things done, and we need to get them done this year.”
Obama also faced the unique challenge of being a barrier-breaker as the first African American president. Obama has acknowledged that the hurdles he faced in making history affected his ability to negotiate with Republicans, such as the Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, and even affected his choice of Biden as his vice-president.
Obama writes in his memoir, A Promised Land, “One of the reasons I’d chosen Joe to act as an intermediary – in addition to his Senate experience and legislative acumen – was my awareness that in McConnell’s mind, negotiations with the vice-president didn’t inflame the Republican base in quite the same way that any appearance of cooperation with (Black, Muslim socialist) Obama was bound to do.”
Over his first 100 days in office, Biden seems to have used his image as the centrist “Uncle Joe” to his advantage – something that Obama obviously could not do.
“There’s probably a large range of things that, had the exact policies been proposed by a President Bernie Sanders, they would face a lot more obstacles,” Green said. But he was quick to add, “There’s also a range of things that Biden will not propose that a more progressive president would have proposed.”
John Paul Mejia, a spokesperson for the climate group Sunrise Movement, echoed that point, saying Biden still had a lot of work to do to meet the demands of the progressive coalition that helped put him in office.
“While there is some sigh of relief for the president accomplishing or beginning to accomplish some popular demands, that’s really the floor that we’re examining right now,” Mejia said. “In order to truly deliver to the fullest extent of the crises that we face right now, we need a lot more.”
On infrastructure specifically, Mejia said Biden should aim to spend much more money to combat climate change and build a green economy. While the president’s American Jobs Plan calls for $2.3tn in spending over eight years, Mejia and other progressives, including congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, say the US should be looking to invest $10tn over 10 years.
Ocasio-Cortez has applauded Biden’s legislative approach so far, but she has also emphasized that the president – and Americans in general – should not forget the activists who pushed him on major policy and helped make these bold proposals possible.
“Not enough credit is given to the countless activists, organizers and advocates whose relentless work is why we are even hearing anything about universal childcare, white supremacy as terrorism, labor and living wages tonight,” Ocasio-Cortez said after Biden’s speech on Wednesday. “Yet we cannot stop until it’s done. Keep going.”