Joe Biden
President Joe Biden speaks about covid relief in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus, Monday, Feb. 22, 2021, in Washington. Credit: (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

On the Biden administration priority list, according to former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, pandemic relief was “No. 1, 2 and 3 of their agenda.” And with the passage of the American Rescue Plan, the president got all three.

The problem is: nobody can name No. 4, 5, and 6.

Democrats in Congress delivered Biden a huge victory within his first 50 days, one that will reduce poverty and potentially breathe life into a suffocated economy. At the same time, it was a tenuous victory that frustrated progressives who wanted to fast-track a $15 minimum wage and reminded everyone that the moderate Sen. Joe Manchin retains significant power. Further, every possible aspiration from this point forward will be harder to achieve than sending out free money. Setting legislative priorities is a crucial initial step. Yet Politico reports that “Schumer and Biden have not decided on the Senate’s next big priority.” And time is already ticking.

Usually, by the end of February of in the first year of a presidential term, the president will have given an address to a joint session of Congress and a prime-time national audience to set legislative priorities. The mere utterance from the dais doesn’t guarantee passage. But at a minimum, when a president prioritizes, he channels his party’s energies towards what policy goals are most important to him and not-so-subtly signals what’s not as important.

In February 2009, in a congressional address delivered soon after passage of his massive stimulus package, Barack Obama put health care, financial regulation, education reform, and climate change at the top of his list, while staying quiet on guns and immigration. A climate bill came up short in the Senate, but the White House, House, and Senate put their shoulders into passing the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. (Education reform was largely driven by executive branch actions.) Obama would not turn his full attention to gun control and immigration reform until his second term.

In February 1993, Bill Clinton asked for, and eventually got, the Brady Bill and a sweeping crime bill. He said taxes had to be raised to cut the deficit—a shift from his campaign rhetoric—and Democrats soon delivered. He made calls for short-term economic stimulus and major health care reform, neither of which became law but certainly determined where his administration and Congress invested their political capital. Meanwhile, his pledge for welfare reform made more impact than he was bargaining for, By 1996, after he vetoed two welfare reform attempts and with his next election looming, Republicans were able to corner Clinton into signing a bill that he called “far from perfect” with “parts … that are wrong.”

Today, we’re a week into March, and Biden’s congressional address has not even been scheduled, and may not happen until April. Last week, the White House Press Secretary said, “We made a decision internally that we weren’t going to have the President propose his forward-looking agenda” until the American Rescue Plan legislation was signed into law. Besides, “parts of his Build Back Better agenda [are] still being determined.”

Biden will eventually make the speech and set his priorities. What’s an extra month or so? The potential problem is that while we wait for Biden’s shortlist, congressional Democrats are filling the void.

The House has already passed progressive wish-list items such as the Equality Act to expand LGBT rights, the For the People Act to broaden voter access and reform elections, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, and the Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act. In the next two weeks, votes are planned on union organizing, gun control, and immigration reform (though Biden’s comprehensive immigration bill won’t get a vote because of internal division among House Democrats).

The votes—which have all been essentially along party lines—help energize the Democratic base, but risk setting unrealistic expectations. As the House pats itself on the back for checking all the progressive boxes, progressive base voters fervently expect the President and Senate Democrats to fight to turn those bills into law. But none of these bills face an easy time in the 50-50 Senate. And Biden’s rhetorical powers do not have unlimited potency; he will have to decide which issues get presidential attention, and which ones don’t.

On the other side of the Capitol, close Biden confidant and promoter of bipartisanship Sen. Chris Coons suggested a different set of priorities. In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Coons offered, “there are a dozen Republican senators who I think see the importance and urgency of working together on a bipartisan China strategy, on a bipartisan manufacturing agenda, on a bipartisan infrastructure agenda, and on supporting national service.” (Coons added, “That’s just four off the top of my head,” but one might surmise that the list beyond those four isn’t very long.)

Depending on the particulars, infrastructure and manufacturing have progressive base appeal—in addition to being job creators, they can be vehicles for progress on climate change. But overall, the Coons list suggests a far more limited agenda than what most progressives want and, at this point, expect.

Already some progressives, such as the activists from Justice Democrats, are crying “betrayal” if Biden doesn’t go to the mat for a $15 minimum wage. Since the proposal has hit a brick wall, these cries will almost surely become louder. Friday’s vote on Sen. Bernie Sanders’ amendment to shoehorn the higher wage in the pandemic relief bill only garnered 42 votes. Clearly, the proposal doesn’t have the support of 50 Senate Democrats, let alone 60 senators who could get it past a filibuster. (In this case of misaligned expectations, Biden must take some responsibility for having put the provision in the initial relief bill proposal, even though he soon tried to lower expectations of it staying in the bill.)

Some degree of disappointment is inevitable for base voters of a party in power. No president bats 1.000 in Congress. But it helps for a President to make clear upfront what the priorities are, get any disappointments out of the way, and get his allies working toward shared goals.

Granted, the bully pulpit isn’t the only way to get a bill passed. For example, other bills signed by Obama in his first two years attracted significant numbers of Republican votes largely by staying under the radar, including criminal justice reform, food safety regulations, and repeal of the discriminatory Don’t Ask Don’t Tell military policy. Biden’s genial style, and his personal relationships with Republican senators, may prove conducive to such low-key legislating. But not every proposal can avoid the spotlight.

Still, major policy goals, destined to attract attention and resistance, require the President’s focus, to prod Congress and engage the public. And the President’s time is finite. He can’t fight hard for every proposal, and he won’t satisfy every Democratic constituency. He must prioritize.

At some point, he will. But if he waits too long, his honeymoon period, during which his left flank has treated him pretty gently, may be over. Biden must hope that expectations won’t get so far removed from the political reality that he can’t corral impatient progressives into rallying behind what matters most to him.

So if it all possible, Biden shouldn’t wait until April for the big speech about his priorities because every day that passes is a lost day.

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.