President Biden’s infrastructure train is leaving the station.
In remarks Wednesday pushing for his sweeping $2.3 trillion plan, Biden said he wants to meet with Republicans about it and hopes to negotiate in “good faith” — a political tenet that hasn’t been practiced much in Washington, D.C., in recent years.
But Biden is not waiting around.
“We will not be open to doing nothing,” the president said. “Inaction, simply, is not an option.”
Translation: Get on board or step aside.
This Biden technique is one former Gov. Howard Dean, D-Vt., recently described to Politico as “smiling as he steamrolls.”
To be clear, Biden will have challenges when it comes to passing his infrastructure and jobs plan through Congress — and not just with Republicans, but with members of his own party, too. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a more moderate Democrat, has voiced opposition to hiking the corporate tax rate as much as the president wants, for example, while Virginia Sen. Mark Warner has expressed concerns as well.
With the narrowest of majorities, one defection kneecaps the ability of Democrats to pass anything — even through partisan procedures such as budget reconciliation, which requires a simple majority and was used for the COVID-19 relief bill.
But Biden’s overall approach to legislating so far — on a big, bold agenda — is winning plaudits from political strategists, left and right.
“I am more impressed with Joe Biden than I ever thought I could be in the last few months,” said Jamal Simmons, a Democratic political analyst who worked as an adviser to the Democratic National Committee during Barack Obama’s first run for the White House and in the Clinton administration.
Several strategists said Biden has been more organized and disciplined out of the gate than former Democratic Presidents Obama or Bill Clinton, and they said his team’s steadiness — so far — resembles someone Biden has almost nothing in common with from a policy standpoint: George W. Bush.
“In contrast to his immediate predecessor and President Obama, the Biden team’s policy rollouts have been about as smooth, methodical and drama-free as you could expect, particularly given the polarized nature of our politics,” said Brian Jones, a veteran of the 2004 Bush reelection team.
“The Biden team,” Jones added, “is effectively taking advantage of D.C.’s Trump hangover by just engaging in straightforward communications tactics.”
Jones noted that the Bush White House made a point of having “a very focused, businesslike approach when it came to his policy priorities, and he scored some victories early in his first term with No Child Left Behind and his tax cuts. It seems like Biden has taken a page from the Bush playbook, essentially cauterizing the chaos that defined Trump’s policy announcements and replacing it with a fact-driven, drama-free approach that’s working.”
Maria Cardona — who worked in the Clinton administration, on the Hillary Clinton 2008 primary campaign, and served as a surrogate for both Obama elections — agreed and said the early success is in no small part due to experience and professionalism.
“It reinforces the fact that governing actually does take experience and does take knowledge,” she said. “Experience and knowledge are not conspiracy theories against a certain bereaved class that Trump ran on and won. Governing really does take experience. George W. Bush, he got some stuff passed, like No Child Left Behind and tax cuts, and, yes, it was because he had seasoned political people at his side.”
“An opportunity to deliver massive change”
Biden clearly wants to do big things. On Wednesday, he made a case for a grand vision when it came to infrastructure. He drew on the past but looked to the future, and he swatted down GOP concerns about the size of the plan and criticism that he should focus on “traditional infrastructure” like roads, highways and bridges.
“We are America,” the president said. “We don’t just fix for today, we build for tomorrow. Two hundred years ago, trains weren’t traditional infrastructure either until America made a choice to lay down tracks across the country. Highways weren’t traditional infrastructure until we allowed ourselves to imagine that roads could connect our nation across state lines.”
Biden has been acutely aware of attempting to establish his place in history, even though he’s been in office fewer than 100 days. Last month, in fact, the 78-year-old met with historians at the White House. Biden wants to be a bridge to the transformation of the country — and this infrastructure proposal is clearly a big part of that.
“He sees this as an opportunity to deliver massive change, the literal infrastructure of the country,” said Gurwin Ahuja, who worked in the Obama administration and was an early supporter of Biden’s and worked on his campaign. “His general approach of not being distracted by the day to day is why he is president. It is the singular reason he was able to defeat so many candidates when he was running in the Democratic primary.”
Biden’s tactics are different from Obama’s, analyst Simmons said.
“It’s the return of traditional politics in a way that neither Trump nor Obama were willing to do,” Simmons said, noting that “the Obama people did really good things. I think that they did not sell them very well.”
Ahuja sees the difference as something not unprecedented in U.S. politics.
“It’s a Kennedy and Johnson-type dynamic,” Ahuja said, referring to former Democratic President John F. Kennedy and his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy as president. “Lyndon Johnson was phenomenal at working Congress, because that’s what he did. President Obama was phenomenal at inspiring the public, as did Kennedy.”
Biden has much smaller majorities in Congress than Johnson had, however, and this is a time of embittered partisanship. And while Biden would prefer bipartisanship, Cardona notes that Biden “learned the lessons of the Obama era” — not to wait around for Republican support that never materialized.
“A lot of people in the Democratic Party thought, this guy is living in ‘la-la land,’ ” she said. But despite fears that some of the pitfalls of the Obama administration would be repeated, Cardona sees Biden operating on “parallel tracks.”
“He’s not giving up on bipartisanship,” she noted, “but he is living in a cold and cruel reality. … These are things Biden has learned the hard way and taken to heart.”
Republicans, though, don’t see Biden as willing to come around to their positions and say he is instead paying lip service to bipartisanship with the intention of forcing through partisan legislation.
“The Biden team is playing the game as the rules currently exist,” Democrat Simmons said. “This is the bus. You can argue about the paint color, the tires, but this is the bus. … They [Biden’s staffers] don’t have a choice. They just have to get the bus down the road, get accomplishments and show the American people that the government and reestablished order can produce results.”
Biden seems very aware of that need to show competence — and results.
“We’re at an inflection point in American democracy,” Biden said Wednesday. “This is a moment where we prove whether or not democracy can deliver.”
And whether or not he can, too.