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How Joe Biden Can Reverse His Incredible Shrinking Presidency

Congressional Democrats are breaking the president’s promise of an FDR-size presidency. It’s time for him to take his case back to the public.

A masked President Joe Biden sits in the Oval Office.
Doug Mills/Getty Images

In the closing days of the 2020 campaign, Joe Biden took a trip to Warm Springs, Georgia, where Franklin Delano Roosevelt used to go to receive treatment for polio. “This place, Warm Springs, is a reminder that though broken, each of us can be healed,” Biden said. “That as a people and a country, we can overcome a devastating virus. That we can heal a suffering world. That yes, we can restore our soul and save our country.”

Biden’s invocation of FDR was never just about rebuilding the country after Covid-19. Shortly after securing the Democratic nomination, Biden began hyping a forthcoming “FDR-size presidency.” Speaking to CNN in April 2020, he said that reopening the country after the pandemic was “probably the biggest challenge in modern history, quite frankly. I think it may not dwarf but eclipse what FDR faced.” But the crisis also provided an opportunity to expand government for the first time in decades to provide badly needed reforms, particularly in health and childcare.

Crucially, Biden was willing to articulate the case that this was a moment for a new New Deal, the first major expansion of government since Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, and found a message that might bind the Democratic base toward a common cause. “The blinders have been taken off because of this Covid crisis,” he said at a fundraiser the following month. “I think people are realizing, ‘My Lord, look at what is possible,’ looking at the institutional changes we can make, without us becoming a ‘socialist country’ or any of that malarkey.” Now, Biden’s FDR-size presidency is at risk—and the time has come for the president to, once again, beat the drum.

The $3.5 trillion budget framework passed by the Senate last month reflected Biden’s considerable ambitions. It contains billions for universal pre-K and free community college; it would expand Medicare and reduce prescription drug costs; it will inaugurate the most important and drastic shift toward clean energy and away from fossil fuels in history. Paired with another $1 trillion infrastructure bill, this was an agenda aimed at existential crises: rebuilding after Covid-19 while preparing for worsening climate change.

But in recent weeks, moderate and conservative Democrats have hijacked the process; lobbyists have spent the last several weeks puncturing many of its most important provisions, particularly its prescription drug costs and climate items. “If all else is equal, and I happen to be a lobbyist on the side of ‘kill the bill,’ I automatically have an advantage,” James Madison University political science professor Timothy LaPira told Bloomberg. Given that the senate is evenly divided, all it takes is one member to raise a bill-killing objection.

For Biden and for congressional Democrats, this is their existential issue. The party’s hopes of holding onto just one chamber of Congress are already slim—the passage of these agenda items is their one chance not only to make their best case for the midterm elections but also to hold the presidency in 2024. Once the GOP takes over either body, it will immediately do everything it can to grind the gears of government to a halt, while also gumming up the Biden administration with wasteful faux inquiries—perhaps even a sham impeachment.

But for now, the GOP holds little sway on developments. Democrats are their own worst enemies; internal bickering has deflated the once promising Biden agenda while also reinforcing the false idea that the $3.5 trillion budget is both too big and too radical. All this has happened despite the fact that the conservative and moderate Democrats opposing the bill have largely failed to specify what exactly it is about it that they don’t like, beyond the price tag. But every compromise they have been given has only spawned further demands, nearly all of which come from lobbyists and donors recognizing the chum in the water.

For Biden, this is a particularly delicate moment; his poll numbers have cratered amid a chaotic pullout from Afghanistan and rising Covid-19 cases. But that only makes passing a transformative budget more important. Biden has largely stayed on the sidelines, though, preferring to work behind the scenes.

Enough is enough. Biden won the presidency in large part because of his ability to hold together the Democratic Party’s squabbling factions: It’s time that he reminded congressional Democrats of this fact. Now is a good moment to return to the invocations of Warm Springs, remind his fellow colleagues of what they got sent to Washington to do and, if necessary, engage the people directly in a campaign to enact his agenda. Here, the public might be a fitting ally: Many of the measures at risk of being stripped from the twin-bill agenda are very popular. And unlike tough legislative battles, such as the fight to pass Obamacare, there hasn’t been an authentic outpouring of public anger against what Biden wants to do: no fierce opposition at town halls, baying for the top-line number on the budget to be shaved by a billion and a half dollars.

There is a strong argument for making the case publicly: The infrastructure and spending bills advancing through Congress are vital parts of not just his presidency but of the Democratic Party’s electoral future. They are moral necessities, given the threat of climate change and the convulsions of the last 18 months. Most of all, these measures comprise a slew of campaign promises and pacts that Democrats made with the American people. The party needs to stop so aggressively devouring its own tail in public. But it will take a proverbial “adult in the room” to reset the scene and remind everyone of their commitments. Only Biden can truly fill that role.

Yes, it is still likely that something will pass. But the Democrats and Biden have hung their electoral future on passing something transformational. Here was, at long last, the opportunity to move past the austerity politics of the last half-century and pass long-overdue measures that might knit up the tattered sleeve of the commonwealth. Covid-19 and the disastrous fallout of the Trump presidency made that possible. But now, it’s time for Biden to seal the deal.