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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden’s legislative victories will ripple across the country for decades

President Obama signs the Affordable Care Act at the White House in Washington on March 23, 2010.

By Michael D. Shear and Zolan Kanno-Youngs

He promised a new social safety net. He pledged to develop a robust plan to fight global warming. He vowed to reduce the gap between rich and poor by making the wealthy “pay their fair share.”

And along the way, Joe Biden often said as he battled Donald Trump for the White House in 2020, he would prove that democracy still works in America.

With final House passage of the Inflation Reduction Act on Friday, Biden was poised to deliver the latest in a series of legislative victories that will ripple across the country for decades — lowering the cost of prescription drugs, extending subsidies to help people pay for health insurance, reducing the deficit and investing more than $370 billion into climate and energy programs.

“The choice we face as Americans is whether to protect the already-powerful or find the courage to build a future where everybody has a shot,” Biden said on Twitter. “Today, I proudly watched as House Democrats chose families over special interests.”

Even with the latest legislative triumph, the president’s accomplishments on Capitol Hill fall far short of the scale and ambition of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal or Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. And passage of Friday’s bill may say less about Biden’s ability to restore American bipartisanship than it does about the deep ideological breaches in his own party, which forced him to accept a much scaled-back version of his original legislative goals.

But taken together, the bills Biden has helped usher through a closely divided Congress since taking office 18 months ago touch many parts of American society.

There will be a vast new pot of money to combat climate change. Medicare will be free to negotiate for lower drug prices. The government will invest billions to help computer chipmakers compete. Health care subsidies will be extended for years. Lead pipes will be replaced. Broadband internet will be built in poor and rural communities. Roads, bridges and tunnels will be restored. New gun safety measures will go into effect and background checks will be expanded. The nation’s budget deficit will be reduced.

To pay for some of it, investors will send more of their profits to the government, with a new tax on company stock buybacks and a 15% corporate minimum tax for wealthy companies.

Republicans immediately assailed passage of Friday’s bill.

“Can’t believe this has to be said again, but raising taxes during a recession is NOT a good idea,” Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said on Twitter moments after the bill had enough Democratic votes for passage.

Since taking office, Biden has already signed a $1.9 trillion pandemic rescue plan, a $1 trillion infrastructure measure, a $280 billion chip manufacturing bill and bipartisan gun legislation intended to prevent dangerous people from accessing firearms. Along with Friday’s bill, the legislation will likely end up as the centerpiece of his legacy as the nation’s 46th president.

“It’s still consistent with what the president has always done, which is keep his head down and do the necessary work,” said Cedric Richmond, a senior official at the Democratic National Committee who served as a senior adviser for Biden. “Families were feeling the effects of higher costs and the president wanted to keep his head down and address it. That until now has been the focus.”

The challenge now for Biden and his administration is to convince the American people of that after more than a year of griping and political hand-wringing among some in the Democratic Party.

For all his legislation will achieve, Biden fell into a kind of political trap, setting expectations at sky-high levels and allowing a sense of disappointment to harden among his closest allies as key priorities — once included in his Build Back Better agenda — had to be abandoned.

To the dismay of many of the president’s supporters, there will be no free community college, no federally paid family leave, and no new climate enforcement measures. The nation’s young children will not go to preschool for free. Parents will not receive federal help with child care. Medicaid will not be expanded in a dozen states and immigrants living in the country illegally will not be given legal status. There will not be a tax on the superrich, and no extra money will go toward creating affordable housing.

Biden has said that it is all about compromise. But the process of negotiating, which played out day after day on social media and in newspapers, left many people with the feeling that more was lost than gained.

“My instinct is that these don’t add up to transformative matters on the scale of Social Security, Securities Exchange Act, Federal Housing Administration, Civil Rights Act of ’64,” said David M. Kennedy, a historian at Stanford University and the author of “Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945.”

“They’re just not in that league,” he said.

Kennedy noted that Roosevelt had a wide majority in Congress, while Biden’s party is barely in control — and with deep disagreements internally.

“Today’s Democratic Party is far more fractionated with all kinds of divisions,” Kennedy said. “It’s proving very, very difficult to get that body of Democrats in both chambers to legislate coherently.”

“The package is much smaller, more modest and that was to be expected,” he added.

Biden’s achievements — even shrunken in the eyes of some — may also prove to be his legislative high-water mark. After the final votes were tallied, Biden made a video call to his longtime adviser, Steve Ricchetti, to congratulate a couple dozen staffers in the Roosevelt Room.

Congressional elections are around the corner, a time when there is typically little appetite for high-profile lawmaking. Democratic majorities in both chambers may slip away in the elections, and even if they don’t, the president may not be able to use the same legislative tactics he did this year to get around Republican opposition. Few people in Washington expect Democrats to end the filibuster so they can pass the parts of his agenda that ended up on the cutting room floor.

Despite the moment of real euphoria inside the West Wing and among Democrats on Capitol Hill about likely passage of the spending bills, it will take an enormous amount of effort for Biden and his party to capitalize politically on their legislative success. The president’s signing of a bipartisan infrastructure package last year did little to improve his approval rating among voters frustrated with soaring inflation. Passing a bill is the hard part — but convincing Americans that it was a victory could be harder still.

The main message, strategists said, will be that Biden and his Democratic allies have successfully defeated the special interests in Washington who for decades had tried to stand in the way of similar legislation.

They said Biden will remind voters that pharmaceutical lobbyists have for years tried to block Medicare from negotiating drug prices. Oil and gas executives have fought climate change provisions. Corporate interests have tried to keep Congress from instituting a minimum tax. Conservatives have fought the subsidies in the Affordable Care Act. Gun rights groups stopped new legislation for years.

The president and his aides will tell voters that “those tables have been turned,” one of the strategists said.

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