No one said it was going to be easy. But it also doesn’t have to be this hard.
The Biden Administration faces enormous challenges in pursuing its promised agenda. Decades of policy failures, a catastrophic pandemic, and a predecessor who governed more as saboteur than leader have dug this president into a deep hole from which to climb. A razor thin House majority and an evenly split Senate make holding a unified governing coalition together a daunting task in the face of unprecedentedly hostile Republican obstruction.
But that’s all the more reason for the president and his team to move with boldness and alacrity before an atmosphere of helpless malaise engulfs the capital.
So far, unfortunately, most of the president’s moves have been reflected the same caution that marked much of his Senate career. Recently Biden has made the following regrettably timid decisions:
1) Rather than work to convince Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) to eliminate the filibuster, the Biden administration has allowed the effort for a $15 minimum wage to fail and flounder in the Senate. After Democrats attempted to attach it to the COVID relief plan under budget reconciliation, the Senate parliamentarian predictably ruled the effort out of order under the Byrd Rule. While many progressives have advocated for Vice-President Harris to overrule the parliamentarian, the reality is that the parliamentarian is likely correct on the merits in interpreting the Byrd Rule–and in any case, Manchin and Sinema have indicated that they are just as unwilling to cooperate with overruling the parliamentarian as they are with eliminating the filibuster. And while some have suggested that separating out the minimum wage proposal from the COVID relief bill might yield results, it is unlikely that ten Republicans will come on board for even the glaringly unacceptable Romney version of the increase.
This in turn means that almost nothing the Biden administration wants to accomplish will see the light of day, unless he can do it by narrow budget reconciliation or by executive order. The House just passed sweeping protections for LGBT Americans under the Equality Act, but it is doomed to die in the Senate. Democratic hopes of creating a fair playing field for voting and ending the horrors of voter suppression and gerrymandering rest on the shoulders of H.R.1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. But both are dead letters in the Senate, where malapportionment favoring Republicans and an anti-majoritarian filibuster exacerbate apartheid electoral institutions and prevent any efforts at reform. A bolder president would be figuring out any possible path to convince recalcitrant Senators to change their mind on the filibuster.
Failing that, however, Biden could unilaterally use sweeping executive powers to implement the Day One Agenda and improve millions of lives. But little is being done on that front, either.
2) Biden decided not to hold Saudi Arabia’s Prince Salman accountable for the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi. The decision mutes what had been the growing voice of a new moral authority in left-leaning circles that America would no longer look the other way when tyrants friendly to temporary U.S. foreign policy goals commit atrocities. It also, in spite of the wise move to cease assisting Saudi Arabia in its immoral actions in Yemen, reaffirms an overly friendly U.S.-Saudi relationship that has long been in need of re-evaluation as part of a broader overhaul of U.S. policy in the region.
3) Rather than take the simple and legal step of firing the entire Postal Board for cause as a precursor to rapidly removing Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, Biden chose instead to nominate three more members to the board. Even if they are confirmed, the board will then be evenly split by party, with the result that DeJoy will likely remain in his position for a long time to come, continuing to wreak havoc on the Postal Service. There are Democratic congressmembers who have advocated holding fire on DeJoy in the hopes of passing bipartisan legislation to undo the Postal Service’s artificially manufactured fiscal constraints. But Republicans will not cooperate with any such moves regardless of any actions taken to protect or remove DeJoy.
4) Instead of canceling $50,000 of student debt by executive order, Biden has curiously indicated he would only be willing to eliminate $10,000 of student debt along with interest. This is ostensibly because many who fear populist attacks from the right say they do not want to be helping the children of the wealthy pursuing lucrative careers from prestigious schools to avoid paying the cost of their education. But in reality such individuals are few in number compared the millions struggling to cover the cost of increasingly outrageous college costs while earning average or below-average salaries. And in any case, taxes could be leveraged on those who earn higher incomes to pay back the government’s investment in their education. Conveniently, those taxes could even be passed under reconciliation.
The list does not end there. On issues from climate change to labor law and much else, the need for decisive measures is clear. The Biden Administration cannot keep its campaign promises and realize the hopes of the millions of Americans that elevated it to power, without committing to a bolder course of action. Failing that, Americans will—fairly or not—hold the party in ostensible power accountable in 2022 and beyond either by staying home or voting for the opposition. They won’t be inclined to hear excuses about filibusters, parliamentarians, and means testing.