“We need less talk and a lot more action,” Shakir said. “It’s important for the president to be seen as trying desperately to get to ‘yes.’ Even if other people already are concerned, wishy washy, not sure – the president needs to be forceful.”
Shakir said that moving forward, Biden should make his red lines clear and, if the social spending and climate package passes the House, he should quickly set a Senate vote deadline. The House is set to consider both packages on Friday though leadership has twice delayed votes before.
Shakir resides on the progressive wing of the party. But his sentiments are shared by moderates, too. They have bristled at Biden’s decision to twice speak to House Democrats without directly asking members to vote on his physical infrastructure bill. They believe failure to do so helped create the political climate that hurt the party in Virginia and New Jersey this week.
That Biden needed to take a more aggressive role in pushing through his economic agenda was a sentiment reiterated again and again in interviews with nearly two dozen Democratic lawmakers, operatives and pollsters — the majority of whom declined to go on record for fear of further complicating Democrats’ legislative efforts. Some said they wanted Biden to execute easy policy victories that would quickly alleviate voter struggles, such as forgiving student loan debt, a move the president has pushed off since taking office to the chagrin of party members.
“I’m a loyal Democrat, but if I have to start paying my student loans again come January I’ll be ready to throw up my hands and chant ‘Let’s go, Brandon,’” said a Democratic campaign aide, using the now popular euphemism on the right for “f— Joe Biden.”
Other Democrats second-guessed Biden’s decision to spend months entertaining the whims of different members of Congress over how to sequence and organize his two main bills. But others were more sympathetic, arguing that Biden was correct to be patient and deferential to the Hill on his social spending plan, which would boost aid to families and make historic investments in combating climate change. The president, they say, can’t fully sell his proposals until Democrats in both chambers actually agree on the legislative language around them.
Biden himself has acknowledged the unease around his performance. In the wake of Tuesday’s elections, he argued that Democrats must move swiftly with his legislation. But asked whether swifter passage would have improved national conditions for Democrats, he said he was unsure. Some party veterans said more contrition would have been helpful.
“When Bill Clinton got shellacked, he said ‘I hear you,’” veteran Democratic strategist and Clinton White House political adviser Paul Begala said of the 1994 midterm elections that spawned Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution. “President Biden, and Democrats need to say ’I hear you, I listened.’ “You buy yourself a lot of credibility with voters.”
Underlying much of the party’s fears is that, in the absence of legislative action, Biden and fellow Democrats have allowed Republicans to define their agenda. Senior officials in the party said they’ve been taken aback by the confusion and lack of public awareness around the domestic package aimed at helping families and expanding health care coverage.
“I’ve been looking at some numbers today and I’m shocked at the number of people who actually feel that this bill is going to contribute to the deficit,” said Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.). “This bill is paid for, it won’t contribute one dime to the deficit. This bill’s got tax cuts in it.”
“People don’t realize it and they think that taxes are going up because people have lied to them,” Clyburn added.
Others who have spent months taking the pulse of the electorate offered similar assessments about what they described as the vague and non assertive nature of the White House’s approach.
“Nobody’s ever heard of ‘human infrastructure,’” said Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican pollster who supported Biden’s 2020 bid, in reference to a term the White House uses frequently to describe their social spending bill. “No one knows what ‘reconciliation’ is, nobody knows what’s in it. All they know is the price tag. … They’re just like, ‘Why isn’t Biden talking to us? Where’s Kamala Harris?’ Like we’re lurching from crisis to crisis, and no one’s talking to us.”
Begala defended the White House’s overall strategy for handling Congress and chalked up the president’s low approval numbers to the fact that his fate rests in the hands of a split Senate and closely divided House. But he also said Biden should be more outfront in “explaining the process.”
“He should say, ‘you know why this is so hard? Because I have to get every one of the Democrats. You know why? Because Republicans will not give me even one from their party,” for a bill that would boost child care and lower prescription drug costs, Begala said. “Make them pay a price for absolute intransigence against a very, very popular agenda.”
A White House official argued that the nature of Biden’s proposals made them inherently complex political undertakings. The official added that the White House has in recent days stressed that more urgency is needed and that the administration has sharpened its messaging on how the social spending bill will be, among other things, a long-term investment against inflation, which Republicans have used as a cudgel to attack the president.
The White House also feels bolstered by a Moody’s study, which found that “concerns that the plan will ignite undesirably high inflation and an overheating economy are overdone.” Biden is expected to reiterate those points when he addresses the monthly jobs report on Friday.
But in Virginia, close allies of defeated Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe said they believe the headwinds created by Biden severely harmed their chances. One suggested that McAullife never recovered once the president’s approval rating nose-dived in August, around the messy and violent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. After that, they watched lawmakers on Capitol Hill descend into open partisan warfare as Biden’s agenda stalled.
“That’s when the numbers started to tank and the national narrative started to go in the shitter,” a Democratic operative working in the state said.
The operative said at least one half of Biden’s legislative agenda — the bipartisan infrastructure bill — would have had to pass three weeks or even a month before Election Day to have made enough of an impact for Democrats and McAuliffe. Even the late-stage theatrics which culminated with Biden declining to implore House Democrats last week to vote on the infrastructure bill, would have been too late.
“What’s done was done,” the ally said.
The White House responded that the president’s economic agenda has proven to be politically salient.
“The President won the most votes of any candidate in American history running on his Build Back Better proposal, and he has fought to deliver on its promise over months of direct engagement with lawmakers while travelling the country to make the case for the agenda the House is voting on tomorrow,” said White House spokesperson Andrew Bates. The White House in recent days has focused in particular on touting the savings in child care expenses, prescription drug reform, and tax cuts they say the bill would enact.
Though parties in power traditionally suffer bad results in the off-year gubernatorial elections, Tuesday results still sparked intense gloom throughout the party. The results marked a major shift from 2020 when Biden won Virginia and New Jersey by 10 and 16 points respectively. Democrats turned out for McAuliffe in comparable numbers to the 2017 gubernatorial race, but Republicans turned out new voters and reached near presidential-level turnout.
In dissecting what happened, Democrats have once again pointed to a failure to convey to the public their successes and priorities. They note that a significant share of voters have not credited the party for the nearly $2 trillion Covid relief bill it passed at the start of the year, even though it included direct checks to many Americans and an expanded child tax credit.
“We’ve got to talk to them in their vocabulary, in their language — how they impact them in their daily lives in plain ordinary language,” said Rep. Greg Meeks (D-N.Y.), to ensure voters credit them for Biden’s infrastructure and social spending plan.
Meeks contends that the lack of wins in Congress since that Covid relief bill passed has burned precious time off the clock — and put Democrats and Biden in the tough holding pattern that’s hard to explain to Americans.
“I look at it as a lost opportunity, he said, “but we can correct it.”
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