The word transformative appears five times in the White House’s announcement of a $1.75 trillion framework for tackling climate change and bolstering the social safety net. The word historic shows up another 12 times. But if Democrats are truly reshaping American government with President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda, they’re doing it on the fly.
The recent frenzied days of negotiations over the plan have been confusing for seasoned veterans of the Capitol Hill sausage mill, not to mention the hundreds of congressional Democrats who must vote for the proposal and the millions of people whose lives stand to improve because of it. A brand-new billionaires’ tax? In one day and out the next. Paid family leave? First 12 weeks, then four weeks, then gone altogether. Expanding Medicare and Medicaid? That depends on what Senator Joe Manchin ate for breakfast. Biden and Democratic leaders released detailed proposals for their agenda months ago, but now they seem to be disassembling and then frantically reassembling a plane in the minutes before takeoff.
Last-minute, closed-door haggling is a hallmark of Washington and unique neither to the Democratic Party nor to Biden. The president’s vanishingly thin majorities in Congress and the complex rules of Senate procedure make his task all the more difficult. But it’s nobody’s idea of good government, and the rushed compromise raises the risk that Biden’s supposedly transformative legislation will have a far shorter legacy than its supporters would like and its considerable price tag would suggest.
First, some perspective: On the morning of November 7, 2020, when Biden captured enough electoral votes to win the White House, a progressive Democrat would likely have been ecstatic to learn that within a year, the president would be on the cusp of enacting three major bills totaling well over $4 trillion in new spending on child care, climate change, health care, and housing. Biden had run to the right of most of his Democratic rivals during the primary, and the prospect of a Senate majority remained two long-shot victories in Georgia away. As I wrote last month, the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and even a pared-back social- and climate-spending package, when joined with the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that Congress enacted in the spring, easily dwarf the size and scope of the achievements President Barack Obama secured during his first two years in office with far larger Democratic margins on Capitol Hill. In his typical hyperbole, Biden went even further this morning, telling House Democrats in a private meeting that the two bills now before Congress were more significant than the combined accomplishments of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, according to a person familiar with his remarks.
Yet as Biden announced the deal he had struck with the Senate holdouts, Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, progressives were hardly celebrating. While Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi leaned on them to finally pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill that cleared the Senate months ago, progressives were still mourning the fallen centerpieces of the more ambitious half of the party’s agenda. A clean-electricity mandate to combat climate change, paid family and medical leave, a plan to lower the price of prescription drugs, and free community college all succumbed to the cost-cutting demands of Manchin and Sinema.
More troubling for the Democrats, most of what the public has been hearing about the bill has focused on the parts left out of it. In 2010, Pelosi gave Republicans a political gift when she said of the emerging Affordable Care Act, “We have to pass the bill so you can find out what’s in it.” The speaker’s ham-fisted remark was less a defense of congressional cloak-and-daggery than it was an explanation that is equally true today: Democrats have to enact their legislation so they can sell the public on its surviving benefits. “The conversation will quickly shift from what’s in and out to what it does,” Jesse Ferguson, a veteran Democratic strategist who is helping to market the “Build Back Better” plan, told me.
In this case, those policies are formidable. Before Biden jetted to a major climate conference in Europe, he could tout the increasing prospects of the largest-ever U.S. investment—$555 billion, or about one-third of the entire bill—in clean energy, funding to establish prekindergarten programs for 3- and 4-year-olds across the country, an extension of the expanded child tax credit he and Congress created this spring, and a broad expansion of health-care programs and subsidies. Unlike a decade ago, when the public had soured on Obamacare by the time Democrats passed the bill, polls show that voters remain broadly supportive of the elements of Biden’s agenda (even as a majority disapproves of the president himself). The White House desperately wanted to finish the negotiations before Biden left, so the president could tell the world that the U.S. would help lead the fight against climate change, that its embattled democracy could function. But Biden can’t quite claim to have closed the deal.
While the president was describing the agreement he had reached, Democrats across the ideological spectrum were still scrambling to save their preferred policies from the scrap heap. Progressives such as Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington State were once again vowing to torpedo a vote on the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure legislation until the second, broader bill was ready. And Manchin and Sinema offered no assurances that they would vote for the eventual deal—a pledge that appeared to be the minimum progressives needed to see before they agreed to move forward.
Biden implored House Democrats to give him their trust, and their votes. “I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that the House and Senate majorities and my presidency will be determined by what happens in the next week,” the president said during his meeting at the Capitol. He might have spent a bit more time persuading progressives, or securing commitments from Manchin and Sinema, or hammering out the details of his hastily completed framework. But Biden’s plane was waiting, and he had a flight to catch.