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The coming weeks will define Biden's presidency and shape the midterm elections

6September 2021

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The weeks following Labor Day will reveal answers that will set the stage for next year’s congressional elections. They will also help decide whether Biden has the potential for a historically significant presidency or gets swamped by the crises he was elected to conquer.

A crush of challenges and political battles are dominated by a pandemic Biden hoped would now be history. But the crisis is beginning to feel endless, and, as it batters national morale, is denting his political standing. The fallout from a chaotic exit from Afghanistan that encapsulated the ignominy of a US defeat is meanwhile raising questions about Biden’s core promise of competency. The internal Democratic Party tussle between progressives and moderates is highlighting the huge bet of the Biden presidency: That, at a time of national crisis, voters want a multi-trillion-dollar assault on climate change and the remaking of the social safety net.

Reverberations still ring from the conservative Supreme Court’s decision not to block the effective eradication of a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion in Texas, which promises multiple political consequences. The House Republican Party’s radical turn to pro-Donald Trump authoritarianism also underscores the deep peril still facing American democracy.

Biden’s critical few months will unfold with his presidency tested as never before. His approval rating dipped over a brutal August, and he often seemed obstinate and impatient at criticism of his performance. But he has the tools of a political rebound at hand. He’s been underestimated almost his entire career — including during a campaign for the 2020 Democratic nomination that only his close family and most loyal aides believed he could win. While all presidents endure rough patches, only the most successful pull themselves out of political slumps.

Capitol Hill drama

History sizes up presidents based on the transformative bills they passed. So, Biden’s legacy is on the line as soon as this week, as the battle resumes over a bipartisan infrastructure bill and the $3.5 trillion companion spending blueprint that would transform climate, social care and health care policy. Success on both will allow Biden to claim one of the most significant legacies of any Democratic president for half a century.

Each bill is core to his entire political belief system in prioritizing working and middle-class Americans. They are meant to show government can still work for regular citizens and to answer contempt for Washington democracy felt by many blue-collar Americans who were wooed by Trump’s populist nationalism and his skill at corralling the resentment of millions of Americans against distant elites.

Biden is stoking his own populist sentiment as he calls on the most well-off to bankroll the bills with higher taxes.

“For those big corporations that don’t want things to change, my message is this: It’s time for working families — the folks who built this country — to have their taxes cut,” Biden said Friday. “And those corporate interests doing everything they can to find allies in Congress to keep that from happening, let me be — as the old expression goes — perfectly clear: I’m going to take them on.”

Biden’s ambitious social spending plan is the price progressives in the House demand for voting for the infrastructure bill to repair roads, bridges, and railroads that would honor another Biden promise — to promote political unity in bitterly divided Washington. But West Virginia moderate Sen. Joe Manchin — a critical Democrat vote in the 50-50 Senate — wants to pump the brakes on the spending bill.

His position could unravel the entire choreography of Biden’s domestic agenda, and it highlights the knife edge between progressives and moderates on which his presidency stands. The confrontation also underscores the huge gamble Biden is taking with some of the most ambitious social engineering in decades. If he fails to lock in fundamental reforms, he could demoralize Democratic voters and decrease their turn out next year.

But voters last year did not hand Democrats the clear congressional mandate that would make this a risk-free endeavor and Republicans relish the thought of a midterm election campaign targeting liberal profligacy. There are two possibilities: it’s quite possible Democrats lose the House and Senate next year if they fail to pass these bills. But if Republicans are right, they might also lose control of Congress because they did so.

Biden defiant over Afghanistan

Biden’s foreign policy, as well as his domestic plans, is meant to appeal to working Americans. As critics of his mismanaged Afghan withdrawal highlighted chaos, Biden repeatedly said he was right to end a costly foreign war. He seemed to be speaking to hard-working voters whose kids bore the brunt of casualties in the wars abroad triggered by the September 11 attacks — the 20th anniversary of which the President will mark Saturday.

Yet the messy withdrawal highlighted some sides of Biden’s character not previously apparent during his presidency. He often lacked candor, along with empathy for Afghans. And the deaths of 13 US service personnel along and dozens of civilians in a Kabul airport suicide attack raised questions about his self-described foreign policy expertise.

Republicans are vowing not to let Biden pivot to his domestic agenda, with around 100 Americans still awaiting rescue in Afghanistan and with potentially tens of thousands of Afghans who aided US troops and officials over 20 years left behind after the massive US evacuation.

“President Biden desperately wants to talk about anything but Afghanistan,” Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse said in a statement. “But Americans who are hiding from the Taliban, ISIS, and the Haqqani network don’t give a damn about news cycles, long weekends, and polling — they want out.”

The White House appears to be convinced Americans are now ready to focus on their own problems. But if Biden’s brittle demeanor and missteps highlighted in the Afghan chaos spill over into other policy areas, there will be fresh questions about his performance.

Texas abortion law ignites new battle

Another stunning political development at the end of a turbulent summer was contained in the conservative-majority Supreme Court’s failure to block a Texas state law outlawing abortion after about six weeks. The law does not only undercut the constitutional protection to an abortion — it is also written in a way that makes it hard to challenge in court.

The episode is likely to supercharge Republican base enthusiasm since it is the culmination of a decades-long bid by conservatives to remake the federal judiciary. But it could also offer an opening to Democrats since it may mobilize female and suburban women voters — who have been crucial in recent elections — to their cause. Still, the power of the conservative Justices could also renew frustration among progressives at Biden’s refusal to back abolishing the Senate filibuster that prevents Supreme Court and voting rights reform.

Channeling liberal fury, Biden has promised a full government response to the Lone Star’s state’s hardcore conservatism. And Attorney General Merrick Garland on Monday pledged to use federal law to protect Texas abortion clinics.

The magnitude of the Texas controversy is only fueling a sense that the coming weeks are not just critical for Biden but could define the character of America for years to come.

A discouraged national mood

The worst reality of the pandemic for Biden is that his options for suppressing it have already been used. He pleaded for months with vaccine skeptics — many of them Republicans — to save themselves. Now, around 150,000 Americans are getting infected every day and 1,500 are dying, and the political blowback is hurting him. A challenging fall looms as kids under 12 not yet eligible for shots resume in-person classes. The sense of national exhaustion is palpable and could brew wider perceptions that the country is heading in the wrong direction — a damaging sentiments for incumbents.

Biden’s White House has not been blameless either. Recent pushback by medical officials over a White House announcement that Covid-19 booster shots would be ready by September 20 called Biden’s vow to always put science before politics into question.

When he took office, after Trump’s disastrous handling of the virus, it was often said that Biden’s presidency would be judged on whether he restored normality. That is still the case.

In a revealing aside last week, Biden mused: “Imagine if the other guy was here.” He was speaking, of course, of Trump and the former President’s misleading penchant for cheering stock market records as proof of an equitable economy.

His comment also reflected the way in which in his first seven months in power, Biden’s presidency has often been judged as a contrast to Trump’s tempestuous term. But the time has come when he will be evaluated not against the malfeasance of his predecessor but on his own promises and decisions.

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