Democrats’ reality check

Carl P. Leubsdorf

DALLAS (Tribune News Service) — One of the most challenging aspects of the modern presidency is to keep the focus on your own agenda, lest what you want to do is overwhelmed by what you have to do.

Joe Biden was elected president to restore a sense of national normalcy by ending the previous administration’s frequently chaotic approach to governing and bringing the COVID-19 pandemic under control.

For six months, he largely succeeded. Despite the distractions of inherited problems like the immigration situation, outside events only occasionally intruded. That enabled him to implement a strong response to the pandemic, press an expensive but popular program to meet long ignored domestic needs and preside over a steadily improving economy.

But that sense of command diminished over the summer as the delta variant-fueled resurgence of the pandemic stalled the return to national normalcy and his mishandling of the long overdue U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan resembled the chaotic responses he vowed to end.

As a result, Biden’s public support dropped from the low 50s into the mid-40s according to the Real Clear Politics average, with the most significant reductions among political independents who were crucial in his narrow 2020 election victory.

Now, he faces the challenge of restoring some lost support by re-energizing the anti-COVID campaign and maintaining enough public support to ensure his slender congressional majorities can implement key aspects of his legislative agenda. Time is becoming a major enemy.

Despite continuing difficulty in explaining its policies, the fallout from the Afghanistan withdrawal is likely to fade with the end of the American airlift and reduced attention on the Taliban’s restoration to power. When Americans’ interests are not directly involved overseas, the public’s attention tends to go elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Biden last week took a significant step toward regaining the domestic initiative by announcing an expanded campaign against the pandemic, including an unprecedented effort to use federal authority to pressure private companies into protecting their employees.

His announcement produced predictable resistance from the Republican governors who have argued such federal efforts infringe on the freedom of their constituents. But separate polls by ABC/The Washington Post, CNN and the Associated Press/NORC all show a majority of Americans favor stricter anti-COVID measures like mandates for vaccinations on employers, teachers and hospital workers and requirements for students to wear masks.

A discordant aspect of this situation has been the way such fervent states’ rights advocates as the Republican governors of hard-hit states like Texas and Florida have sought to place the same kinds of strictures on local governments and school boards that they reject from Washington.

Biden’s renewed federal effort is especially crucial amid signs that the pandemic’s resurgence is slowing the economic recovery. But that strengthens the case for his legislative program, notably the bipartisan-backed infrastructure rebuilding plan and the sprawling $3 trillion-plus package of Democratic domestic measures.

In the next few weeks, Biden faces crucial congressional tests on these proposals. At the same time, he needs to work with lawmakers to pass two more routine but equally important measures: funding the government for the next year and raising the legal limit on the federal debt.

None of these will be easy, since the administration’s working majority in Congress consists of Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote in the evenly divided Senate (assuming all 50 Democrats back specific measures) and three votes in a House with Democratic divisions over the size and details of the president’s program.

Committees in both houses are working through those issues, though it may take pressure from the White House and top congressional leaders to bring the Democratic troops into line behind whatever version of the proposals can achieve the necessary majority.

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders plan to follow traditional congressional practice by delaying any showdown over federal spending with a resolution maintaining the current level beyond the Sept. 30 expiration into mid-December.

But even that commonsensical solution has been complicated by the GOP leadership’s decision to revert to its traditional refusal — while out of national power — to help pass the necessary legislation to increase the debt ceiling.

When Republicans felt more responsibility for running the government during the Trump administration, they were willing to protect its ability to borrow and spend. After all, the need to raise the ceiling stems from continued high spending by both parties and the GOP’s sweeping 2017 tax cut.

Now, Republicans have resumed the irresponsible stance that it’s all due to big spending by the Democrats. Of all the problems the administration faces, this may be the thorniest, though as usual, the assumption is some solution will be found to prevent a government shutdown. Ideally, Congress ought to scrap the whole idea of a legal ceiling on the debt, but the pipe dream of balancing the federal budget remains appealing, if practically impossible.

Of course, Republicans recognize that any delays could pose problems for the Democratic administration. To claim success by next year’s mid-term elections, it needs to make enough progress against the pandemic to keep the economy growing and to pass both the infrastructure bill and some version of its domestic program — even if substantially reduced.

Those goals will be easier to reach if last week’s expanded anti-COVID program not only reduces the pandemic’s threat but convinces the public that the administration is once more in control of events.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may send emails to Distributed by Tribune Content Agency. © 2021 The Dallas Morning News.

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