The modern American presidency, like water, always runs along the path of least resistance. Once a president’s window to enact domestic legislation closes — as it invariably does at some point in his first term — he then shifts course, setting his sights on foreign policy. Constitutionally, this amounts to far more fertile ground, as America’s founding document gives the executive branch a great deal more power to conduct foreign policy than it does domestic policy.
Historically, this process has happened even to presidents with significant domestic achievements to their name. For all the brilliant overall luster of his presidency, it was during Franklin Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office that the lion’s share of the “New Deal” programs to combat the Great Depression were enacted. Likewise, following his landslide victory in 1964, Lyndon Johnson’s seismic civil rights legislation (and the formulation of his “Great Society” domestic programs) came early on in his term. The same holds true on the right. Ronald Reagan’s landmark tax cuts came shortly after his victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980, but before the midterms of 1982. More recently, Barack Obama’s signature healthcare legislation, “Obamacare,” came about after his famous electoral win in 2008 and was the first and last major piece of domestic legislation he got over the line.
So, in this larger historical sense, what is presently happening to Joe Biden comfortably fits into the overall historical narrative of the modern American presidency. Presidents achieve their domestic legislative successes early and then — once that political avenue has been halted — like water, move along the path of least resistance to focus on foreign affairs. Nevertheless, the speed of Biden’s domestic legislative decline is as striking as it is unusual.
Following his electoral victory in 2020, Biden rode a year-long wave of domestic political success, enacting both the trillion-dollar COVID-19 emergency legislation and his bipartisan infrastructure plans. However, the even more expensive progressive wish-list bill, the Build Back Better plan, fell afoul of two immovable objects: Ideological tensions within the Democratic Party and a dramatic change in circumstances due to the stratospheric rise in inflation.
Since the Democrats swept to power in both houses of Congress and the White House in 2020, there has been an endemic structural tension between Biden’s maximalist domestic agenda (as he adopted much of the progressive left of the party’s desire for dangerously high rates of spending) and his scant majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The upper chamber, split in half at 50-50 (with Vice President Kamala Harris there to break ties), left Biden entirely at the mercy of any single Democratic senator who was uncomfortable with the political direction the White House was moving in. As Biden tacked ever to the left, moderate Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia (and, to a significant but lesser extent, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona) balked at the cost as well as the scope of Biden’s domestic agenda.
Late last year, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office made plain that, shorn of its accounting trickeries, the actual 10-year cost of the BBB plan would amount to $5 trillion, much higher than had been advertised. It was then that Manchin openly revolted, adamantly refusing to go along with such excessive spending.
Politically, Manchin has ample cover for his revolt. He is the last significant Democratic office holder in a state that voted for Donald Trump in 2020 by the overwhelming margin of 38.9 points, in what amounted to Trump’s second-strongest showing in the nation. In leading the charge against the leftist Democrats’ wish-list bill, Manchin was merely doing what his constituents unabashedly wanted him to do. Biden’s great error was in politically forgetting that, while the Democrats won slender majorities in Congress in 2020, the progressive wing of the party did not.
Beyond the politics, the incontestable fact that made Manchin’s opposition to BBB so successful was that, after an absence of 40 years, the beast of inflation has again been loosed on the American public. According to former Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers’ sagacious analysis, worried about the effects that COVID-19 lockdowns might have on the economy, both the Trump and Biden presidencies primed the pumps, putting a further 14 to 15 percent of federal spending into the economy. Due to the fact that the US economy bounced back far more robustly and more quickly than had been thought, we have a situation wherein this vast amount of new federal spending has been visited upon an economy already roughly back to pre-pandemic levels.
Disastrously, the math being the math, rampant inflation can be the only result. True to form, in January, inflation increased to its highest level in 40 years — an alarming 7.5 percent year on year. Huge increases in the cost of food, electricity and shelter led the way. In such dramatic circumstances, Manchin’s protest against BBB merely looked sane, as the last thing the American economy needs is the gas of further spending poured onto the roaring fire of inflation.
For all these reasons — historical, political and economic — it is safe to say that Biden’s domestic agenda is well and truly over.
- John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also a senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via johnhulsman.substack.com.
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