Alarm bells start clanging in the White House as Biden struggles with his legislative programme

President Joe Biden has passed his first 100 days in office, generally popular, but facing increasing challenges. He commands a bare majority in the Congress – six seats in the lower house and 50-50 in the senate.

On the international stage he has restored much of America’s prestige and reputation, certainly in Europe and Asia.  But there is no movement on trade. Even close friends like Britain can make no progress. 

Biden is unlikely to engage with the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) either. 

All this can be put down to strong opposition within the Democrats and the union movement which heavily backed Biden’s campaign.

Nightly television screens are flooded with advertisements “explaining” how Biden will restore the US economy, install a new green energy campaign, by building strong union jobs. In reality, his arguments are not too different from Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign pledge. Biden continually pushes a “buy American” line.

On the domestic front, the picture is similarly uncertain with a rock-strewn path ahead of Biden. The Democrats are split between the progressives and the traditional. So far, the former have the upper hand. Witness the first person Biden spoke to after his address to both houses last month – it was a beaming Senator Bernie Sanders, doyen of the progressives.

So far, he has failed to exercise what he claims is his greatest strength, being able negotiate across the aisle with Republicans, based on his Senate service from 1973 to 2009.  In March he enacted a $US1.9 trillion coronavirus relief measure (“American Rescue Plan”) without a single Republican vote by using an obscure budget reconciliation process.

Now there’s a $US2.25 trillion infrastructure plan, financed by tax hikes for companies, and a $US1.8 trillion package focused on areas like child care and education that would be funded by raising taxes on high-income households.

His prospects of getting the second two packages are diminishing by the day. First, there is opposition within the Democrats to the infrastructure package, including from Senator Joe Manchin.  He thinks the infrastructure definition is too broad and should stay with the traditional roads, railways and bridges.

If he stays with his word, the package will fail in the upper house even with Vice President Kamala Harris’ casting vote.  No Republican senator agrees with the $US2.25 trillion plan. One group has proposed a modest $US4 billion plan which covers the traditional issues.

On Friday Biden was forced to defend the American Rescue Plan after the US Labor Department issued disappointing jobs report indicating only 266,000 new jobs were created in April – and the unemployment rate had crept up to 6.1%.

Many analysts were expecting up to one million new jobs would be have been created. 

Biden says the new data prove the necessity of the legislation and that it would take more time for the economy to recover.  He also pointed out the US economy had added 1.5 million new jobs since he took office in January.

“When we came into office, we knew we were facing a once-in-a-century pandemic and a once-in-a-generation economic crisis. And we knew this wouldn’t be a sprint, it would be a marathon,” he said.

And:

“It was designed to help us over the course of a year. Not 60 days, a year,” he said of the coronavirus relief passed earlier this year.

“We never thought after the first 60 days that everything would be fine.” 

The Republicans tore into Biden’s agenda, arguing it proved that his large recovery package was too extreme and incentivized people not to work. The March package provided financial assistance to workers, businesses, and state and local governments, as well as funding to implement a national coronavirus vaccine program, among other provisions. 

House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, said the definition of insanity was doing the same thing and expecting different results.

“Unless President Biden stops doubling down on his failed tax-and-spend agenda, unless he works with Republicans to rebuild our economy, his crisis-era policies will continue to trap Americans in a cycle of fear.”

Republicans argue the rescue plan extends enhanced unemployment benefits through the beginning of September, and  the $300-a-week boost to weekly unemployment benefits is discouraging people from returning to work.

Behind these arguments of the day lie next year’s mid-term elections. These will be held on Tuesday, November 8, 2022. All 435 seats in the United States House of Representatives and 34 of the 100 seats in the United States Senate will be contested along with 39 state and territorial gubernatorial and numerous other state and local elections.

Traditionally, the party holding the White House can expect to lose up to 20 seats in the House of Representatives and up to five in the Senate. The Republicans know this full well and refuse to assist Biden. 

Should such an election outcome happen Biden will face Republican majorities in both houses of Congress.

Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both faced this situation during their presidencies and both found enormous problems in enacting legislation.  No wonder the alarm bells are starting to sound in the White House.

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