Back to Basics
Why the Biden administration needs to refocus on fighting the pandemic and righting the economy
It’s safe to say that President Biden hasn’t had the best of winters. His two main legislative priorities – the Build Back Better legislation and a voting rights bill – appear stalled. The omicron variant of COVID-19 sent cases skyrocketing across the country amidst a shortage of tests to detect the virus, though thankfully cases appear to have peaked and free tests will start shipping through the U.S. Postal Service by the end of the month. Inflation hit seven percent in December, the highest rate since 1982, and the third straight month with more than six percent increase in prices. To top it all off, Russia appears dead set on starting a full-blown war with Ukraine.
No wonder President Biden’s approval rating has bottomed out just a year into his presidency. A recent CBS poll, for instance, showed just 44 percent of the public approving of Biden’s performance – a first-year rating that bests only former President Trump’s dismal 37 percent. That poll also gives us a good indication of why the public mood has turned so sour one year into the Biden administration: a perceived lack of focus on the two issues Americans care most about, the COVID-19 pandemic and inflation. Fully two-thirds of the public says the administration isn’t focused enough on inflation and that the fight against the pandemic is going badly. Making matters worse, 57 percent of Americans say the information provided by public health officials is confusing.
The Biden administration can understandably counter that both inflation and the COVID-19 pandemic are largely beyond their control. But it’s hard to say that the administration has its political and policy priorities right, with just a third of the public agreeing that the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress are focusing on issues they care a lot about. Some 63 percent of those who now disapprove of Biden’s performance say that their opinion of the president would improve if inflation came down, while only 24 percent say it’d improve if Congress passed the moribund Build Back Better legislation.
What’s more, the Biden administration continues to suffer from self-inflicted wounds when it comes to handling the pandemic. While President Biden publicly announced last August that all Americans would be able to receive booster shots, his administration deferred to decisions by the FDA to limit access to boosters – only to see multiple states move later on to buck the FDA’s overabundance of caution. Then there’s the failure to provide an adequate number of COVID tests ahead of the holiday season, leading to the depressing spectacle of Americans waiting in long lines to be tested for the virus.
While most Americans remain focused on the persistent threats of COVID and inflation, the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress find themselves in a legislative quagmire of their own making. The passage of the landmark Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in November has been overshadowed since by bickering among Democrats over the Build Back Better legislation, voting rights, and the fate of the Senate filibuster that’s stymied progress on both fronts. Nor have fiery presidential speeches and jawboning behind closed doors conjured up the necessary votes for these bills.
As a matter of both politics and policy, the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress need to rededicate themselves to the two issues that the public cares most about: the pandemic and the economy. As John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira have argued, the public cares little for the actually-existing-version of Build Back Better put forward by Congressional Democrats and doesn’t see voting rights as an existential priority in the same way as progressive activists. Worse, a failure to effectively address pressing public concerns about the pandemic and the economy threaten to undermine support for active government in the future.
So what should Biden and the Democrats do now?
1. Demonstrate competence on the pandemic – and overrule the bureaucracy when necessary. More than anything else, the course of the COVID-19 pandemic will determine the course of the Biden presidency. That makes the relative lack of urgency the administration has displayed over the past year – it took ten months for it to decide to ramp up vaccine production capacity, for instance, and a year to release hundreds of millions of N95 masks from national stockpiles – all the more baffling. Biden himself acknowledged shortcomings when it came to testing, saying that if his team “had known, we would have gone harder, quicker, if we could have.” Still, it’s far better to have a glut of tests, masks, and vaccines and not need them than to only have them when they’re no longer in such severe demand, as may be the case when COVID tests finally make their way through the Postal Service later this month.
Similarly, the Biden administration needs to overrule the public bureaucracy when necessary. That bureaucracy has hardly covered itself in glory since the start of the pandemic, with the CDC initially advising against masks for two months, the FDA and CDC pausing the use of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine over six cases of a rare blood clot, and numerous public health experts approving some mass public gatherings while saying others would lead invariably to mass death. More recently, the FDA’s initial restrictions on booster doses left the country unprotected against the emergence of Omicron – like a soldier sent into battle without body armor. Public health authorities have bled so much credibility over the past two years that CDC announcements and guidelines have become a punchline. There’s no reason for the administration to reflexively defer to bureaucracies and experts who exist seemingly only to sow public confusion and prevent action.
2. Think outside the box on inflation. The policy response to the current bout of inflation remains largely in the hands of the Federal Reserve, which has indicated it’ll do what’s necessary to keep prices from spiraling out of control. What’s more, it’s hard to pinpoint any one underlying cause for this round of inflation. Supply chain snarls, labor shortages, energy prices, consumer spending on goods rather than services, and the direct impact of the COVID-19 pandemic itself – ranging from sick workers to the potential for new lockdowns in places like China – have all likely contributed to rising prices over the past several months. While subduing the pandemic won’t bring inflation to an end, it could take enough of the edge off of it to make a difference to many Americans.
That alone should add some urgency to beating back the pandemic. But there are some other measures that the administration should consider, including lifting or reducing tariffs introduced in recent years. It’s hard to say that the tariffs on Chinese goods imposed in 2018 achieved much of anything constructive – Beijing has failed to meet targets set by the so-called Phase One trade agreement signed by the Trump administration – aside from passing on increased costs to American importers and consumers. As Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen put it, some of these tariffs “create problems without having any real strategic justification.” For its part, the Biden administration doubled duties on Canadian lumber in November and likely increased construction costs in the process. Reduced consumer costs aren’t everything at all times, of course, but persisting in a costly and ineffective policy doesn’t make much sense either.
3. Make progress where possible on other priorities. It makes even less sense for the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress to bash their collective heads against the wall in the futile pursuit of legislation that stands no chance of passage as currently conceived. Both Build Back Better and the voting rights legislation amount more to a grab bag of progressive policy priorities than anything else, with the former choosing to do many things inadequately and the latter failing to address clear and present threats to democracy. Instead, the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress would do better to limit their ambitions and pass what can be passed given the political realities.
On Build Back Better’s Child Tax Credit provisions, for instance, it may be worth pursuing Sen. Mitt Romney’s (R-UT) offer to negotiate on the basis of his own proposed family support plan. Democrats in Congress have publicly ruled out any effort to pass a separate Child Tax Credit extension, however, insisting it be included in Build Back Better legislation. Similarly, as Ruy Teixeira pointed out, the voting rights legislation put forward by Democrats would do little if anything to address the threat of election subversion wielded so farcically – and dangerously – by President Trump in 2020. A bipartisan group is already at work on reforms to the way Congress counts electoral votes, closing off avenues to subvert election outcomes.
Ultimately, the best way to safeguard democracy is for the Biden administration to govern competently and solve – or at least make tangible progress against – pressing problems. The shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan has already tarnished the administration’s reputation for competence, and nothing since has managed to restore it. Right now, moreover, the administration’s fixation on Build Back Better and voting rights dangerously distracts it from the task at hand. If he’s serious about protecting democracy, President Biden needs to take the public’s priorities seriously and lead – even if that means overruling exhausted experts and inert bureaucracies or dismissing activist groups.