Joe Biden and the Constraints of the Long Game

While he managed to get his infrastructure bill passed through Congress, the U.S. president should expect lengthy discussions over his second plan. With his popularity at its lowest, investing in the future holds no immediate benefits for him.

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that we took a monumental step forward as a nation.” Joe Biden did not spare any superlatives to congratulate himself on the House of Representatives passing a cornerstone of his political agenda: his infrastructure bill on Nov. 5. The goal of this $1.2 trillion spending plan is to build and refurbish bridges and highways and modernize water infrastructure, electricity networks, ports and airports. Who could oppose such a significant investment in the future? Despite the extreme polarization of the political landscape, 13 Republican members of Congress crossed party lines and voted in favor of the bill.

Six Democrats from the left wing of the party, however, opposed it. This anomaly highlights the extent to which the display we have witnessed over the last two months has been both typical and detrimental to the credibility of the party: it was one of haggling, blackmailing and endless negotiations between its moderate and progressive branches.

This spectacle, which can be explained by the very slim Democratic majority in both houses, could persist for at least another 10 days around the fate of the Build Back Better bill, the second legislative element of the president’s agenda. This one provides for the regeneration of the American welfare state and massive investment in the green economy. The progressives were hoping to pass this bill alongside the infrastructure plan but Biden and Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, skillfully twisted their arms. This change in the political choreography promises renewed brawling over the content of the BBB bill. Indeed, moderates are awaiting a serious assessment of its costs and funding.

The Perilous Path of Compromise

Biden calls himself a “congenital optimist.” He claims to be convinced that this second bill will also overcome the hurdles in Congress. Should this be the case, the first year of his presidency could well be described as historic, when we add into the mix an impressive vaccination campaign and the definitive withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, despite the dreadful chaos surrounding its implementation in the summer. But beyond the debate over the efficacy, funding and sustainability of his projected social and economic measures, the Democratic president has created the conditions for a painful, if not necessarily irreversible, political fact: Investing in the future holds no immediate benefits.

Since August, Biden’s popularity has dropped dangerously low. Independent and moderate voters, who contributed to his victory in a presidential election marked by record participation rates, have forsaken him. The election of a Republican governor in Virginia is a prime example of this phenomenon. The hostility toward Democratic plans in rural areas is another warning signal. Hiccups in the supply chains, a worrying inflation rate, the Republicans’ culture war over children’s education and abortion rights and restrictions on minority voters’ rights are all immediate causes for concern.

The Democrats must address them or face annihilation in the midterm elections in fall 2022. “I know we’re divided, I know how mean it can get, and I know there are extremes on both ends that make it more difficult than it’s been in a long, long time,” Biden concluded on Saturday. But the middle way, that of compromise, is not the least perilous.

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