The midterm elections are just a few months away, and President Joe Biden has yet to achieve any legislative victory worth calling a legacy. Aside from some COVID relief spending and aid to Ukraine, along with a few feel-good bills – which just about everyone got behind – to shun Russia and to support American veterans, the Democrats have little to show for a year and a half. The big initiatives – like Build Back Better, a federal assault weapons ban, a rehaul of progressive rights in America, anything that could serve as the president’s New Deal moment – remain elusive. As November draws nigh, what hope remains for the Biden agenda?
Manchin the Scapegoat
Though few attempts have come to a Senate vote, Democrats have maintained efforts over the last couple of years to either advance green energy or tax the rich through the reconciliation process or to end the filibuster so the Biden agenda can squeak through by more conventional means. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) has routinely shot down any such attempts. He thus receives a lot of hate from the left, with some, like former Democratic Labor Secretary Robert Reich, saying it’s time to give him the boot. Reich says Manchin already acts like a Republican, and that he has not backed anything the Democrats have sought. Manchin may seem an obvious scapegoat, but is he really to blame for halting the party’s march to progress?
Contrary to what angry partisans claim, his voting record shows that, more often than not, Manchin has voted with the party rather than against it. He helped confirm 84 Biden appointees in 2022 alone – including the latest member of the Supreme Court, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. In a sense, these officials have the gentleman from West Virginia to thank for their jobs; had he truly been a Republican in all but name, many of them would have never cleared the Senate.
It isn’t the appointments that gain media fame, save those to the Supreme Court and major federal agencies, of course, but the bills. Manchin defied the party on two bills this year, one an abortion-access law and the other an initiative to create domestic terror offices in the DOJ, FBI, and DHS. In both cases, Manchin was the only Democrat to oppose. Neither bill would have succeeded with or without his vote. Manchin has toed the party line, however, on 11 other measures. He may have resisted ending the filibuster or changing the nation’s energy and economic policy through reckless reconciliation, but his record doesn’t demonstrate a viable scapegoat for the party’s failures since Biden took office. A bill designed without a single Republican vote in mind is destined to fail – and any victories won through reconciliation or the nuclear option – the only things Manchin has held up – can be lost with the next GOP majority.
Manchin disagrees with the party on climate change, energy policy, abortion, and, to a slightly lesser degree, guns. He’s uncomfortable voting to raise taxes or increase spending while inflation runs rampant. But in every other sense he is a Democrat. Pushing him into the arms of the GOP wouldn’t save the Biden agenda so much as drive another nail – perhaps the final one – into its coffin.
Low-Hanging Fruit and the True Biden Agenda
Since taking office, Biden has successfully appointed one Supreme Court Justice, signed numerous executive orders – most of which simply roll back his predecessor’s directives – and made into law several bills to throw money at the pandemic recovery and the war between Russia and Ukraine. At each turn, the media lauded the president’s success – but these are simply the low-hanging fruit. Bills to restrict oil imports and other business dealings in Russia received unanimous support in the Senate. And why not? They’re feel-good laws. Aid to Ukraine clears with bipartisan approval for the same reason. But was this what Biden wanted when he ran for president?
The Build Back Better Act in all its green progressive glory. The Equality Act to advance the LGBTQ agenda. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would hold voter identification as racist and destroy election security in America. A federal assault weapons ban – permanent and considerably farther reaching this time. Abortion legislated as a right across the nation. These are the hallmarks of the Biden agenda. These are the laws Democrats need to be able to point to come election time, in both 2022 and 2024. Though the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act advanced that gun-control push just a little, the president and his fellow Democrats need another win, a bigger one, from this list of issues to turn the tide before November. The question plaguing them now is how to pull it off in just a few months when they’ve lost for nearly two years.