Why Biden is making more progress on economic than social issues

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CNN's Harry Enten explains why Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin's election to the US Senate from deep red West Virginia makes him one of the most powerful members of Congress.

Posted: Apr 19, 2021 8:01 PM
Updated: Apr 19, 2021 8:01 PM

The magnitude of the economic proposals that President Joe Biden may pass through Congress this year is drawing legitimate comparisons to Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society.

But Biden simultaneously faces the prospect that almost all of his legislative initiatives revolving around social, cultural and racial equity issues, from immigration to gun control and LGBTQ rights, could die in the Senate.

That sharpening divergence reflects the inescapable legislative reality that Biden can pass most of his economic blueprint through the special reconciliation process, which requires only a majority Senate vote, while the bulk of his cultural and racial priorities remain vulnerable to GOP filibusters -- unless Democrats can convince their last few recalcitrant senators to curtail or eliminate the practice.

With Democrats facing uncertain prospects for changing the filibuster -- and no guarantee they can unify all 50 of their senators behind all of the party's top cultural goals even if they do -- the coming months will provide a revealing stress test on the priorities of the modern Democratic coalition.

The economic agenda that Biden is positioned to advance -- from massively expanding the child tax credit to breaking ground on big new public works projects -- embodies the highest priority of earlier generations of Democratic leaders, from Roosevelt to Johnson, on expanding opportunity for average families. Where Biden could fall short is on legislation advancing equity and inclusion on the grounds of race, gender and sexual orientation that has become the most powerful motivation for many younger Democratic activists.

During the 2020 campaign, Biden often described himself as a "bridge" to a diverse new generation of Democratic leaders; yet, ironically, the first two years of his presidency may be marked by a reversion to the kitchen-table issues that dominated the party when he came of age during the 1950s and 1960s.

Even though the House has quickly passed an array of Democratic social and cultural priorities (from police reform to voting rights), White House officials and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer have left no doubt that their principal focus for the coming months will be winning approval for the $2 trillion economic plan focused on physical infrastructure that the President recently issued and the follow-up plan that's expected soon on human capital, including education, training and extending the child tax credit.

"You can certainly see that is where Biden and Schumer are focusing their legislative chits relative to the other issues," says Sean McElwee, a pollster for liberal groups.

The big question for Biden is whether even historic progress on economic goals will satisfy advocates for gun control, immigrants, civil rights, voting rights and LGBTQ communities, who are certain to grow increasingly frustrated about the inability to pass through the Senate long-standing priorities that have already cleared the House.

"Does Biden get blamed for the failure to advance things that he strongly supports and will invest political capital to move but may be unable to achieve?" says Matt Bennett, executive vice president for public affairs at Third Way, a centrist Democratic group. "I don't think anybody really knows if he will be punished for that, but the overwhelming sweep of the party will be unhappy if we get to the midterm and we have done nothing on guns, immigration, certainly on voting rights and on racial equity generally."

Democrats' good news and bad news

It is difficult to overstate either the scale of the opportunity opening before Democrats on the economic front or the obstacles looming for their principal non-economic goals. The $2 trillion jobs plan that Biden recently proposed would commit the federal government to a sweeping economic development agenda that ranges from repairing bridges, roads and sewer systems to promoting the development of electric vehicles and other forms of zero carbon energy to providing billions to support mostly low-wage workers in the "care economy."

"On paper, this is likely the biggest effort since the Great Society to couple nationwide investment with efforts to direct more economic activity towards the heartland, rural or left-behind regions and neighborhoods that have been really struggling in the last decade," Mark Muro, policy director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, told me.

If anything, the scale of the $1.9 trillion stimulus plan Biden signed last month was even greater. Just one component of the multifaceted bill -- a massive expansion in both eligibility for, and benefits from, the child tax credit -- directed aid to at least 95% of families with children headed by Blacks, Latinos or Whites without four-year college degrees, according to an analysis conducted for me by Columbia University's Center on Poverty and Social Policy.

"If you take all these changes together -- in food programs, the child tax credit, the Earned Income Tax Credit, subsidies for health care coverage, major expansion of rental assistance, child care, and the like -- this would be historic in terms of strengthening so many of these programs so much ... in the same year," says Robert Greenstein, the founder of the liberal analysis and advocacy group the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who recently stepped down after nearly four decades as the organization's president. "The combined effect on poverty, hardship and well-being for families with low or modest incomes would be bigger than anything I can recall since I came to Washington in 1972."

In the "human capital" package Biden is slated to announce soon, he's widely expected to propose making several of those temporary programs permanent, particularly the expanded child tax credit and enhanced subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

"If these proposals are enacted on a permanent rather than a temporary basis, Biden will have achieved more here [for lower income families] than any Democratic president since LBJ," Greenstein says flatly.

And even that doesn't exhaust the list: Advocates also expect Biden to propose funding for universal access to preschool programs and two years of tuition-free community college, a bookended pair of policies that would effectively extend the current 13 years of free public education to 17.

What makes the sweep and ambition of this agenda especially striking is that Biden is pursuing it with razor-thin Democratic majorities and lockstep opposition from Republicans in both congressional chambers. "Biden is trying to do some combination of the New Deal and the Great Society with the narrowest conceivable political margin and with a country that is sharply divided on fundamentals," says William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was a top White House domestic policy aide to President Bill Clinton.

Given those constraints, Biden almost certainly won't get all of what he wants in the economic sphere. And there's at least some risk that his packages fail altogether because Democratic progressives and moderates can't agree on the size, or how to pay for it. But complete breakdown doesn't seem likely since the budget reconciliation process will allow Biden to pass his economic plan through the Senate solely with Democratic votes: While presidents inevitably face significant changes in the big economic proposals they present in their opening months, some versions of their original conceptions almost always do pass -- think of the Clinton budget plan and Barack Obama stimulus proposals, or the tax cuts that Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Donald Trump won in their first years.

One reason Democrats are optimistic that they can pass a substantial (if inevitably altered) economic package is the belief that Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, often the last vote for party initiatives, will find a way to support one. Representing a preponderantly White, heavily blue-collar and lower-income state, Manchin, despite some criticisms of Biden's plan, will likely find it much easier to support the jobs plan's tangible economic assistance than much of the party's socially liberal agenda, a wide array of Democrats agree.

"I have called Manchin the last New Deal Democratic senator," says Galston. "And he seems almost like a figure from another era, because there are hardly Democrats left who are in favor of expansive government in the economic sphere but not progressivism in the cultural sphere."

Biden's updated economic agenda

It's a subject of spirited debate among Democrats how much that description applies to Biden's deepest priorities as well. Throughout his career, Biden has never shied from engaging in fights that become cultural flashpoints: As he often notes, he led the fight to pass the assault weapons ban from the Senate under Clinton and then endorsed same-sex marriage before Obama did when he served as vice president. As President, he's delivered strong statements on voting rights, gun control and transgender rights and sent a very liberal immigration bill to Capitol Hill.

Yet Biden was reared in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a blue-collar city, when working-class Whites were the backbone of the Democrats' "New Deal" coalition, and he never seems more comfortable than when he's standing in a union hall talking about creating good union jobs through public investments or providing a ladder of opportunity through expanded education and training programs. His public appearances as President have been focused primarily on kitchen-table concerns: shots in arms, checks in pockets and now shovels in the ground.

But even if Biden and his team hope to define him mostly around a bread-and-butter economic agenda, he has clearly updated that agenda in two distinct ways to reflect the interests of the modern Democratic coalition. One is that he's integrated concern for climate change and reducing carbon emissions into the very center of his economic plans. Another is that his economic proposals stress racial equity and inclusion of marginalized communities to the greatest extent of any Democrat since Johnson launched his War on Poverty.

"This economic agenda is not your grandfather's economic agenda: It is a very modern economic agenda with a 21st-century economic perspective," says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who served as one of Biden's principal pollsters during the campaign. "This economic agenda has more equity and race and gender than any economic agenda I've ever seen in my lifetime for this party. It is not a colorblind economic agenda. It really intertwines, rightly so, effectively so, the race and gender components of our modern times."

The question is whether progress on even such a broad economic agenda would satisfy Democratic activists if most of the party's cultural and racial equity priorities die in the Senate because ultimately Manchin and/or Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona refuse to end or curtail the filibuster, thus allowing Republicans to kill the bills.

Among the bills that have already passed the House and could suffer that fate are an LGBTQ equality act, legal status for young undocumented migrants brought to the country illegally by their parents, expanded background checks for gun sales, police reform, a $15 minimum wage and, perhaps most important, the nationwide set of election rules included in the legislation known as HR 1; a new voting rights act and statehood for Washington, DC, are likely to join that list later this year.

The political implications of such an outcome could be complex: While some Democrats worry that widespread frustration over the party's cultural priorities might depress turnout, particularly among younger voters, failing to pass legislation on such hot button issues as guns and immigration also could deny Republicans targets at a time when they clearly feel more comfortable contesting Biden on cultural than on economic grounds.

"Their inability to move some of this rapidly, it may be a blessing in disguise," says former Republican Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, who chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee. "When you get that kind of rapid social change there's always a reaction to it, and the people who stand to gain get complacent and the people on the other side get angry."

Will patience wear thin?

McElwee, who polls mostly for progressive groups and candidates, says that for all the energy around cultural and racial causes in the party, Biden's emphasis on the direct economic issues accurately reflects the preferences of the broad Democratic coalition, if not necessarily the well-educated activists most visible on social media and in the press. While "the $100,000 to $300,000 a year college-educated suburban and urban professional" may be most focused on cultural and equity issues, McElwee says, "that is probably different than the working-class African American voter in South Carolina."

For the latter, McElwee says, Biden's focus "on jobs, health care and the economy" matches their own rankings. "When you look at any sort of survey from Gallup or Pew or anyone, any reasonable approximation of what our base wants is around those issues, and I do think Biden understands that," he says.

Previously unpublished data provided to CNN by the Pew Research Center from a survey in January largely supports that conclusion. In that poll, Black Democrats were even more likely than Whites in the party to identify as a top priority for Biden core economic concerns including jobs, reducing health care costs, improving education and controlling the virus. But Black Democrats were also considerably more likely than White ones to say that Biden should place a top priority on addressing the criminal justice system and race relations. Fully 75% of Black Democrats identified criminal justice as a top priority; 85% of them named addressing race relations. Meanwhile, a formidable 71% of college-educated White Democrats identified climate change as a top priority for them.

Even if Senate filibusters stalemate much of Biden's agenda on such issues, he has the opportunity to show some progress through executive orders and regulatory actions, many analysts note. He can also demonstrate sympathy for those causes through strong rhetorical stands, as he did when he quickly endorsed Major League Baseball's decision to relocate the All-Star Game from Georgia in protest over its new law tightening access to the ballot.

Steve Ricchetti, the counselor to Biden, told me the White House believes the party will remain unified and largely satisfied even if the President can't make as much legislative progress on non-economic issues in the coming months.

"I think we've got to keep working on all of it; that is what we campaigned to do and what we are going to do," Ricchetti says. "I do not think the assessment of how we are doing becomes harsh if any one thing takes longer to get done. I really think making historic progress in the way we've had, with what's in front of us, will allow us to create momentum to get other things done on top of it."

Any tensions won't crystallize right away. Debate over Biden's economic plan will likely consume Congress through the summer. Yet by sometime this fall, when legislators have done whatever they intend with that plan, a long list of other Democratic priorities will remain stacked on Schumer's desk, blocked by Republican filibusters, unless Democrats agree to change it.

At that point, whatever Biden's economic successes, patience among party activists could erode, particularly if a filibuster blocks federal legislation to offset the wave of red-state Republican laws making it more difficult to vote, a trend that many Democratic leaders consider an existential threat to the party's future. If Republican resistance systematically stymies such party priorities, Biden may find that pointing even to a proliferation of new economic government initiatives that would have dazzled Democrats in the generations from FDR to LBJ will carry him only so far with a younger cohort of activists hungry for progress on other fronts as well.

"Wherever Biden's heart of hearts may be, he understands he can't keep the coalition together -- I mean really together, not just united but almost unanimous -- without bowing to all of the different factions within the coalition," says Galston. "So he doesn't have the luxury of choosing between generations. He has to keep them both on board."

UPDATE: This article has been updated to clarify Greenstein's quote.

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