Wissot: The two-year presidency
Joe Biden has less than a year to cement his legacy as our 46th president. By the time next year’s midterms are over, his party is likely to lose control of the House and perhaps the Senate. If there ever was a time to go for broke, Joe, that time is now.
If you look at the accomplishments of presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, they took place during the first two years of their presidencies. Obama got very little done after he rescued the country from the economic abyss caused by the 2008 financial crisis and managed in 2010 to get Obamacare passed. He was held hostage in his last six years in office by a Republican-controlled Congress hellbent on making sure he never achieved another legislative victory.
For Trump, who began his one term in office with his party in control of the House and the Senate, the only significant piece of legislation he signed was the massive tax cuts given mostly to the rich and to a lesser extent the middle classes. He was pretty much a lame duck president once the Democrats took back control of the House in 2018.
Biden needs to heed the lessons of recent history, namely, that DC gridlock closely resembles driving on the 405 freeway in L.A. It’s essential for him to get stuff done before next fall when his party may suffer crushing defeats and his role as president diminishes. After their parties lost in the midterms, both Obama and Trump were reduced to issuing executive orders as their only means of exercising presidential power.
I think Biden is in a unique and pivotal position because I doubt very much he will run for reelection. At 79, he appears frail and elderly. It’s doubtful he will look more robust three years from now when he turns 82; far better for him to summon his remaining strength and strive to immediately accomplish as much as he can. Not having to worry about re-election should give him the courage to act boldly and decisively. Time is not on his side in many ways.
What should be his priorities? First, get signed into law the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, and then fix a broken immigration system so that a clear pathway to citizenship can be given to the estimated 10.5 to 12 million undocumented immigrants now living in the country. The voting rights act is needed to preserve the integrity of our democracy and prevent Republicans at the state level from disenfranchising millions of minority voters. Passing immigration reform would improve the lives of the many immigrants living in limbo here for years who contribute to the economy by paying taxes and yet are forced to live in the shadows for fear of deportation.
Getting both priorities through Congress will be a daunting challenge. The Democrats really don’t have a mandate based on last year’s election results to pursue their lofty progressive agenda. Biden was elected as a Bill Clinton centrist but wants to govern like an FDR “New Deal” president.
Roosevelt had sizable majorities in both chambers when he took office in 1932. He pushed 15 major bills through Congress in his administration’s first 100 days. Biden has a razor-thin majority in the House and more like minority status in the Senate because Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema vote like moderate Republicans. The jury is still out on whether Biden can convince both of them to waive their opposition to eliminating the filibuster. If he can’t, the Democrats will be stymied in their hope of getting any more significant legislation passed.
In spite of the criticism Biden has received for the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan and the fact that inflation is spiraling out of control under his watch, his first year in office has produced bipartisan legislation of historic importance. Getting a bitterly divided Congress to approve a $1.9 trillion COVID Relief Bill and a $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is the political equivalent of Moses parting the Red Sea.
While the money spent on economic assistance during the pandemic will be short lived and soon forgotten, the same cannot be said for the safer bridges, smoother roads, improved train travel and expanded access to broadband that urban and rural America will enjoy for generations.
Not since FDR established a federal program, the Tennessee Valley Authority, which brought electricity to rural parts of seven states in the South that were reliant upon kerosene lamps, will so many Americans directly benefit on a daily basis from government investments in improving the quality of their lives.
Even if sleepy, slow-moving, slow-talking, old Joe Biden doesn’t succeed in getting his fractious party to sign on to reconciliation bills which don’t require any Republican support, his two-year presidency will be remembered for what he did and not what he didn’t do.
Yes, the Republicans will probably make his last two years in office miserable if they take back Congress in 2022, but they won’t be able to repeal his signature legislation. Biden still has the power of the veto at his disposal which should be enough to kill any bills brought to his desk that attempt to repudiate what should serve as the crowning achievements of his presidency.
Biden can then ride off into the sunset at 82 knowing he not only was able to get Republicans to sign off on $3.1 trillion in federal spending but restored a respect for the rule of law in a country which only two weeks before he took office barely survived an insurrection incited by his predecessor.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.