It’s beginning to look a lot like 2011. A Democratic president and Senate are facing an obstructionist Republican House, which has taken the full faith and credit of the United States hostage, to the delight of fiscal hawks and the fear of the rest of the world.
The way the White House plays out the next few months will show how much President Joe Biden, and the Democratic Party more broadly, have learned since the lowest ebbs of the Barack Obama presidency. In 2011, Obama fatefully tried to negotiate in good faith with the Republicans, in part hoping he could usher in the post-partisan utopia he’d promised in 2008. The result was years of gridlock, the first-ever downgrading of the United States credit rating, and a thorough weakening of the Democratic brand as the party of unions, Social Security, and Medicare. Worst of all, the whole hysteria played out amid the worst economy since the Great Depression—unemployment sat at 9 percent as Washington debated just how much to slash aid to the vulnerable. Obama’s once-solid popularity continued to plummet, and apathy toward politics set in across the nation.
It’s clear that Democrats have learned at least some lessons in the intervening decade. The Biden administration is wisely refusing to negotiate with the Republicans, who have only grown less serious and more fascistic in the intervening decade. Biden is also lucky enough to be overseeing the best economy for workers since the 1960s.
But the months after a midterm always bring turnover in the White House, and the way the White House handles those changes necessarily informs the kind of policy we can expect in the lead-up to 2024. The question is: How will Biden prevent his party from losing momentum?
I wrote two weeks ago about the White House’s decision to elevate Jeffrey Zients to chief of staff. Zients is a cost-cutting management consultant who cut his teeth as the Obama White House’s ambassador to big business. He came to prominence during the early 2010s deficit hysteria as Obama’s cost-cutter in chief.
Zients has always been laser-focused on giving big business what it wants (they’re the “customers” of economic policy, in his words). But when put in charge of delivering what average people need, like tests and masks two years into a global pandemic, Zients has made unforced errors at best, and been simply uncaring at worst.
Nor is chief of staff the only concerning job opening. National Economic Council Director Brian Deese announced that he’s stepping down last week, and some of the leading names to replace him raise alarms. One is Lael Brainard, currently the most powerful and consistent dove on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. As the Prospect’s Robert Kuttner argued, she’s both highly effective and irreplaceable at the Fed, and her record in government outside the Fed is concerning at best. Moving her to the NEC is a lose-lose proposition for the country, and, oddly, would be a loss in stature for Brainard.
Another NEC front-runner is Sylvia Burwell, a Robert Rubin disciple who was Obama’s health and human services secretary. At the height of the opioids crisis, Burwell chose not to declare the spread of fentanyl a public-health emergency, claiming “it would be largely symbolic,” according to The Washington Post. At HHS, Burwell also rejected a proposal to use “march-in rights” on government-funded medical research to lower drug costs, saying the authority “is strictly limited … we believe the statutory criteria are sufficiently clear and additional guidance is not needed.” In fact, restrictions on march-in rights are famously unclear: They can be used on any government-generated, patented technologies that aren’t made available to the public on “reasonable terms,” but government lawyers have never granted a march-in petition, much less faced down Big Pharma in court over whether “reasonable terms” includes drug prices. Under Biden, advocates have argued vociferously that not only can the administration use march-in rights on drug monopolies, but doing so is crucial to serving the public interest.
The actual policies coming out of the White House have shriveled too. My colleague Vishal Shankar wrote on Friday about Biden’s piddling response to the housing crunch, one of the most desperate issues in American economic life right now. The tenant-led Homes Guarantee gave White House officials a clear list of executive actions they could take. They responded with a “Resident-Centered Housing Challenge” for landlords, a public-private partnership so wimpy that industry lobbyists openly bragged about “help[ing] avert an executive order advanced by renters advocates and members of Congress, which would have imposed immediate policy changes.”
This isn’t what you’d expect from the Biden White House that wowed everyone in early 2021. Almost as soon as he’d taken the oath of office, Joe Biden signed a popular COVID-19 stimulus, the centerpieces of which were $1,400 stimulus checks for all and a first-of-its-kind Child Tax Credit. Within a few months in office, Biden had cut childhood poverty in half nationwide.
This seemed to signal a real sea change between the philosophies of the Obama and Biden White Houses. Deference to business and technocrats was out, unions and social spending were in. It made sense, especially on the heels of the Trump administration. Biden commanded a divided Democratic Party, had the narrowest Senate majority possible, faced an apathetic populace, and had a huge agenda in front of him. But he knew what kinds of actions could unify progressives, moderates, and nonpolitical Democratic voters alike: “If we don’t show people we’re helping the shit out of them, this country could be back to Trump way too quickly,” an anonymous White House economic adviser told The New York Times’ Ezra Klein in April 2021.
In the two years that followed, the Biden policies which followed that simple mantra enjoyed strong support. Things like student debt relief, the aforementioned stimulus checks, banning noncompete clauses, and pardoning nonviolent cannabis convictions have consistently polled strongly, and it makes sense why: They help people, in obvious ways that don’t take three hours and an economics degree to explain.
Contrast this with Biden’s signature legislative achievements, the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act. Both are also popular with voters—once someone explains what they actually do. Eight months after the first infrastructure law’s passage, even its most fervent cheerleaders at Third Wayfound that only 24 percent of voters even realized that the roads-and-highways bill was now law. Likewise, Data for Progress found one week before Election Day 2022 that only 39 percent of voters knew the Inflation Reduction Act had passed three months earlier. None of that bill’s impressive achievements, from green-energy tax credits to Medicare negotiating drug prices, were understood by even half of likely voters.
This might surprise the sort of politics junkies who read the Prospect, but it unfortunately makes sense. Most news coverage of the bills focused more on whether they’d ever get past Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) than on their actual content. As the Prospect’s David Dayen has argued, clumping so many worthy priorities together meant the bills lacked identities of their own. Moreover, they haven’t had any immediate, visceral effect on the public. It will take years for BIL money to actually renovate the transportation system, or for IRA tax credits to actually build new green-energy projects, or—in the biggest self-own of the lot—for Medicare to actually be allowed to negotiate lower drug prices.
The bad news is that Democrats losing the House forecloses any major new legislation. The good news is that this restores an emphasis on implementation. Implementing and enforcing law, especially big and complex laws like the IRA, is often where you can find the best tools and creative ideas to tangibly help people. The Prospect has a whole tracker’s worth of them, and many of the opportunities Biden has taken are among his best-polling policies.
But this doesn’t appear to be the direction in which the White House is moving. A White House focused on delivering concrete wins for average people wouldn’t want to unseat Brainard, its best restraint against Jerome Powell’s war against workers. It wouldn’t be looking to empower Burwell, whose record undercuts Democratic messaging about lowering drug prices. It wouldn’t be “challenging” landlords to build units and lower rents; it would use the tools at its fingertips to force more housing and lower rents itself.
In all, these look like the moves of a White House trying to endear itself to big business, now that the Democratic trifecta is gone. It’s a classic pivot to the center, if “the center” means the C-suite. If history is a guide, then average people hoping Biden can make their lives better might be in for polite smiles and closed doors in the months ahead.
Longtime politicos might think this is much ado about nothing. “Of course a president under divided government pivots to the center,” they say, “that’s the only way to get things done!” Notice a few assumptions in that statement: that there’s even a possibility of passing meaningful new bills, and that any price is worth paying to do so.
Why would anyone think that any Democrat could accomplish anything with this Republican Party, no matter what that Democrat gives up? This House’s top priorities appear to be publicly humiliating the president’s son and erasing any parts of American history that make white people uncomfortable. Is there any bill that could pass Kevin McCarthy’s House which would be worth signing? If instead, you could go all in on strong enforcement actions that actually help people, why wouldn’t you?
Biden already recognizes that he can’t bring Republicans to a compromise on the debt ceiling. (Republicans themselves don’t even know what they want on the debt ceiling.) Perhaps he also sees the broader pointlessness of working across the aisle for its own sake. In any case, the nexus of policy for the next two years is going to be in the executive branch. Let us hope that Biden remembers how much the public loved when he used his powers to help people.