Joe Biden
President Joe Biden speaks about the COVID-19 pandemic during a prime-time address from the East Room of the White House, Thursday, March 11, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Joe Biden, despite spending almost his entire adult life in Washington, D.C., speaks like a regular person. And, as much as possible, he talks about what regular people want him to talk about. Thursday’s prime-time televised East Room address about the pandemic—exuding empathy, offering hope, touting his American Relief Plan but not lobbying for more legislation—was a case study in connecting to voters. Biden met them where they were, and didn’t try to push them somewhere they weren’t planning to go.

Annoying, impatient pundits like myself often want to pressure a president to move faster, pick sides and join battles. I still stand by my counsel from earlier this week that Biden should set his post-relief bill priorities and assert control over his agenda. Otherwise, the House will keep cranking out bills that the Senate can’t pass, and the expectations of Biden’s left flank will become harder to manage. But there is merit in Biden’s apolitical approach as he spends the coming days touting the plan’s benefits and his cabinet members fan out to amplify his message.

For Biden to accomplish anything legislatively, he needs political capital—the intangible bank of trust to rally legislators and the public behind his ideas. To the extent political capital can be quantified, it shall be measured by the loathed polling industry.

Whatever outside chance Biden has to win over 10 Senate Republicans and break filibusters rests upon his ability to wield intimidating job approval numbers, as well as numbers for specific proposals. The party-line vote for the pandemic relief showed that good poll numbers are not necessarily enough; political polarization may continue to make Republican lawmakers line up more obediently behind their #MAGA voters than the median voters. But there’s always hope. George W. Bush came into office with low approvals after the divisive Florida recount. Quickly, he won significant Democratic support for tax cuts and the No Child Left Behind education bill championed by Ted Kennedy. In the wake of the party-line relief bill vote no such bonhomie can be expected now, but so long as the filibuster remains in place, it remains in Biden’s interest to keep trying. Any poll slippage would rob Biden of his ability to convince Republicans that he reflects the views of the broad middle and support of his agenda is worth the risk of crossing the aisle.

Biden may instead choose to keep bypassing Republicans and rely on Democrats to enact his agenda; either with additional budget reconciliation bills or with filibuster changes that could expedite his non-budgetary policy plans. But he can’t count on his own party to remain unified organically.

Already intra-party division is surfacing over whether the cost of an infrastructure bill should be at least partially offset with tax increases and spending cuts. An even bigger potential conflict looms over an extension of the temporary one-year expansion of child tax credit. The provision of the American Rescue Plan is designed to slash child poverty, and many Democrats hope it will become a permanent legacy of the Biden presidency. But Sen. Angus King, the Maine independent who caucuses with the Democrats, was asked by CNN if he would support a permanent extension, and he said, “The question is how it would be offset, how would it be paid for … I think we ought to start paying for things.” If the checks for children stopped coming because party unity frayed, that would be a huge disaster for Biden, the Democrats, and for many families.

Nearly all of the deficit-conscious Democrats set their fiscal worries aside to pass the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. Undoubtedly, Biden’s healthy mid-50s job approval rating combined with the approximately three-quarters support for the bill, were huge factors keeping Democrats in line, not to mention the massive closures afflicting the economy, shuttered schools disrupting families, and a plague still claiming lives, albeit at a much-reduced pace. But did passage of the bill earn political capital or spend political capital? When lawmakers suddenly find their inner deficit hawk after spending a lot of government cash, that indicates they feel political capital was spent too.

A knock on Barack Obama that has become widely embraced by Democrats inside and outside the White House is he didn’t “sell” the 2009 stimulus enough. It’s an unfair knock. Obama did try to sell it: in March 2009 at a California electric car facility, in April 2009 at an Iowa wind tower manufacturer and in May 2009 at a New Mexico high school. While he kept talking about the stimulus beyond that point, from June 2009 to March 2010, more of his rhetorical energy was occupied with building support for his next agenda item: health care. And after health reform was enacted, Obama turned his attention to Wall Street reform. As a President’s time is finite, to have sold stimulus more would have meant campaigning for health care and Wall Street reform less. And Obama had the luxury of 59 votes and sometimes 60 in the Senate before the 2010 decimation.

Progressives may dismiss Obama as a compromising neoliberal, but his approach largely worked out. He locked in big reforms and still got re-elected, even if Democrats in Congress paid the price during his two midterm elections.

In 2010, after the push for a climate bill foundered, The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza reported of internal White House division over how much Obama should get involved in congressional machinations:

“We ran as an outsider and then decided to be an insider to get things done,” a senior White House official said. According to the official, [congressional liaison Phil] Schiliro and the insiders argued, “You’ve got to own Congress,” while [David] Axelrod and the outsiders argued, “Fuck whatever Congress wants, we’re not for them.” The official added, “We probably did lose part of our brand. Obama turned into exactly what we promised ourselves he wasn’t going to be, which is the leader of parliament. We became the majority leader of both houses, and we ceded the Presidency.” Schiliro’s side won the debate over how the White House should approach health care, but in 2010, when the Senate took up cap-and-trade, Axelrod’s side was ascendant.

You might have expected Biden, a Senator in his bones, to function as a de facto congressional majority leader. And maybe he will. But if Thursday’s speech is any indication, he appears to be calculating that with such a tenuous congressional majority, what will help his agenda most is to stay popular, empathetic, and out of the political fray. That way, Biden maintains a reservoir of political capital to spend when other congresspeople feel spent. He’s already shown steady judgment by not getting dragged into Fox News-driven culture war stories, from Dr. Seuss to Smith College.

Biden will end up selling his American Rescue Plan far more than Obama sold his stimulus. He’s made it clear that one of his lessons from that era is that it’s okay to brag. It’s possible in some cases, less talk is more—smoothing passage by keeping proposals out of the spotlight and away from controversy. (Obama enacted sentencing reform and food safety regulations with healthy bipartisan votes by staying under the radar.) Still, the risk remains that if Biden is passive about lobbying for his agenda, congressional Democrats, especially in the House will embark on their own, less politically realistic, agenda. Expectations on the left, and animosity on the right, will escalate, making it impossible for Biden to avoid the fray.

But I’m just an annoying, impatient journalist. Biden has shown he knows more than just about anybody how to nurture a bond with the public.

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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.