US president Joe Biden has been in his element over the past week. A tour of Europe, spanning the G7, the EU and Nato, played to the foreign affairs bent of this seasoned diplomat. He emerges with a greater sense of western unity and, if no rapprochement with Russian president Vladimir Putin, then at least a firmer sense of what is possible. The tone of their summit in Geneva was, Biden insisted, “constructive”.
It is what he returns home to that will dampen his mood. True, the Supreme Court has reaffirmed the Affordable Care Act, which Biden helped to craft as vice-president to Barack Obama. The margin of seven votes to two was resounding and crossed political lines. But the survival of that historic law only forces the question of what lasting reforms Biden himself will be known for in the future.
A presidency that was likened to Franklin Roosevelt’s in its domestic ambition is starting to slow. Bills that have run into a mire of Congressional intransigence include his infrastructure plan and much-needed reform of voting rights. The tax increases on corporations that were to help fund the first of these are similarly in doubt. Biden does not even have the consolation of being able to blame Republicans alone. The right of his party, namely West Virginia senator Joe Manchin, is part of the blockage.
This, remember, is before the midterm elections of 2022. On that front, historic precedent augurs badly for the Democrats. The party’s previous two presidents lost Congress at the first time of asking. Their domestic programmes never wholly recovered.
Biden is far from helpless here. One solution is to reform the filibuster that requires most legislation to win a supermajority in the Senate. Parts of the Democratic left press for a unilateral resolution to kill it entirely. They are correct that the public will is too often stymied in the upper chamber. But abolition is known as the nuclear option for a reason. It would clear the way for the next Republican Senate to pass contentious laws under a bare majority. What compromise and restraint there is on Capitol Hill would be risked.
Another way is to appeal over the heads of Washington to the electorate. It is mostly a good thing that Biden is quieter and less visible than his predecessor, Donald Trump. In electing him, Americans voted, in part, for a breather from politics. He has mostly delivered. More than two months passed before his first press conference as president. He tweets at a moderate pace.
This inconspicuousness comes at a cost, though. Policies that command enormous public support end up being undersold. After a week or more of geopolitics, Biden should bang the drum more insistently for his reforms at home. At the least, it would confront Senators with the political risk of opposing popular ideas. The ACA was a hugely contentious law at the time but now Republicans pay an electoral price for even threatening to tamper with it. Biden has the advantage of proposing bills that are well-liked from the off.
The Bill Clinton administration thought of government as a “permanent campaign” to persuade the public. Biden lacks Clinton’s silver tongue, but he is a much better retail politician than his gaffe-obsessed critics suggest. With shortlived exceptions, his lead throughout the Democratic presidential primaries was eerily consistent. A few months ago, it seemed that he would not just achieve his own equivalent of the ACA, but perhaps several. How much he salvages of those giddy hopes depends in part on how hard he fights.