Just 12 days into Biden’s presidency, the emerging alignment of forces holds the promise of two giant early legislative breakthroughs. The potential for rapid payoffs in public health and economic recovery exceeds anything recent predecessors managed to find.
That’s not because Biden swept into office on a landslide. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all won larger electoral majorities with wider popular vote margins.
It’s not because of superior numerical muscle in Congress. Jimmy Carter and Donald Trump, as well as Clinton and Obama, enjoyed bigger partisan majorities in the House and Senate.
And it’s not because Biden’s grandfatherly persona bests Reagan’s charisma, Clinton’s persuasiveness or Obama’s star quality. At 78, the oldest president in American history has made understated calm his early signature.
“He’s facing the deepest problems but the biggest opportunities of any president probably since FDR,” observes Biden adviser Anita Dunn, who opened her career as an intern in the Carter White House. “Even with narrow majorities in Congress, he has the opportunity to build broad bipartisan support for his program — not necessarily in Congress but with the American people.”
Building consensus — even without congressional GOP
But he explained last week that unity, as he defines it, does not require votes from the congressional Republicans who unyieldingly opposed Obama on every front.
Rather, Biden cited the need for his Covid relief plan to attract broad popular support and inspire consensus among experts that it meets the needs of the moment. He already holds supportive evidence on both counts.
A big asset for a new President
Light at the end of the pandemic tunnel generates additional political momentum.
So does the prospect of an economic snap-back if American life can regain a semblance of normalcy. Business economist Diane Swonk sees Biden’s proposal swelling overall 2021 growth from the 4% currently projected to 6%; Moody’s economist Mark Zandi says it would accelerate the return to full employment by a year, to the end of 2022.
On infrastructure, Biden can harness years of pent-up demand that Republicans resisted under Trump and Obama alike. He benefits from a growing economic consensus that America’s ability to borrow cheaply makes the benefit of public investment exceed the burden of increased debt.
And as with Covid relief, congressional Democrats can protect Biden’s infrastructure package from Republican filibuster.
But it means he doesn’t have to. That represents an enormous asset for a new President who has learned how quickly the window for action in Congress can close. Clinton, Obama and Trump all saw their parties lose control of the House after their first two years.
“We never talk about experience when we’re picking a president,” says Ted Kaufman, the longtime Biden friend and aide who helped lead the transition to the White House. “This is the right guy for the right time.”