The war in Ukraine is upending Biden’s agenda at home
By Michael D. Shear
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has scrambled the global foreign policy landscape. But it has also upended President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda back home, diverting the attention of the White House and contributing to rising prices that have become a top concern of Americans just months before congressional elections.
Three months after Biden vowed in a sprawling, two-hour news conference to continue fighting for college tuition, child care, early education, prescription drugs and the environment, the president’s domestic agenda has drastically shriveled.
The fighting in Ukraine has disrupted global oil markets, sending gas prices and inflation in the United States soaring and — for the moment — pushing aside longer-term issues that Biden had long hoped would become the centerpiece of his legacy.
Biden, who spent months in congressional negotiations last year, now spends more of his time responding to the global crisis caused by Russia. Last month, he flew to Europe for four days of emergency meetings with allies. The president is expected to attend two more European summits in May and June.
Asked about the administration’s legislative goals in an interview this week, Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, said the targets for the next several months included a bill to support U.S. innovation and the semiconductor industry, and funding requests to battle the coronavirus and continue sending weapons to Ukraine.
“We’ve got a bunch of agenda items like that,” Klain said on a podcast hosted by Chuck Todd of NBC News, conceding, “The calendar has only so many months left in this year.”
Klain and others in the West Wing insist the president has not given up on larger ambitions. White House officials quietly continue to talk with lawmakers about some parts of what they used to call the president’s “Build Back Better” social policy agenda, which they still hope to pass with just a bare majority in the Senate using a legislative maneuver called reconciliation.
“The president also continues to work with a wide range of lawmakers,” Andrew Bates, a White House spokesperson, said in a statement, “on a reconciliation plan that would cut the costs of prescription drugs, energy and child care while lowering the deficit even more and fighting inflation for the long haul, as well as a landmark bill to strengthen our competitiveness with regard to China.”
But Biden — who no longer uses the phrase “Build Back Better” because members of his own party distanced themselves from it when the legislation bogged down in bickering — has done little in recent weeks to revive parts of the $2.2 trillion bill that he fought for last year.
On Thursday, during a visit to a historically Black college in North Carolina, Biden ended a speech with a hopeful riff in which he said politicians in the U.S. had come together in unison to invest in middle-class families, colleges and clean technologies.
“Let’s keep building a better America because that’s who we are,” Biden said, almost pleadingly. “And we can do this.”
But polling suggests the sentiment is at odds with the reality of the country Biden governs and the Washington establishment that he presides over, where politics have become more divisive, the country is less unified about the right direction, and the world is distracted by Russia’s brutal attempt to take over a neighbor.
A poll by Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service on civility in the U.S. released in February found the country deeply divided, with most people concerned about the rising cost of goods. In a Monmouth University poll last month, voters used the words “divided,” “mess” and “chaos” to describe the U.S. political system.
Biden’s aides frequently lean on the cliche that they can “walk and chew gum at the same time” to suggest that the president and his team can pursue his domestic agenda while navigating the crisis in Ukraine.
They point in particular to Biden’s $5.8 trillion budget, which he released at the end of March. But while he proposed an increase in domestic spending of close to 7%, the president’s plan puts far less emphasis on the kind of big, ambitious social programs that have stalled amid opposition from moderate Democrats and almost all Republicans.
The annual budget was in some ways the clearest indication of how far the president has pulled back in the midst of the Russian invasion, rising inflation and political stalemate in Washington.
It included a nod to Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., whose opposition to the social policy plan helped tank its chances at the end of last year. The budget called for reducing the nation’s budget deficit by $1 trillion over the next decade, something Manchin has repeatedly said is necessary for the country’s economic health.
In the interview this week, Klain hinted that the administration was still trying to persuade Manchin to sign on to some version of some pieces of the broader legislation. The Democratic caucus holds 50 seats in the evenly divided Senate and can approve the legislation over unified Republican opposition only with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaking vote, meaning that failing to convince even one Democratic lawmaker — like Manchin — prevents it from passing.
“We have to come back and figure out what formula works with the 50 to get it passed in the Senate,” Klain said. “And you know, we’re not there, that’s for sure.”
But even if the president makes progress on that legislation, it is not the only part of his domestic agenda that remains incomplete. As a candidate, Biden vowed to find a new bipartisan willingness in Congress to confront long-standing challenges like overhauls to the nation’s immigration system, policing and sentencing, and a new sense of equity in how the government spends money.
The immigration bill he sent to Congress on his first day in office is going nowhere, blocked by opposition from Republicans and squabbling among his allies. Efforts to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would have made it easier to prosecute police officers, died in Congress last year. And efforts to make good on sweeping climate change legislation have sputtered.
Courts have stymied the president on some initiatives. Early last year, Biden signed economic stimulus legislation that included $4 billion for Black and other “socially disadvantaged” farmers who were discriminated against for years by banks and the federal government. But the money remains frozen because of lawsuits.
In the face of those failures, Biden has said he will increase the use of executive actions that do not require congressional approval. Officials say the president is close to signing an executive order on changes to policing that was delayed by a surge in violent crime across the country. Biden has also stressed the steps that he has taken to address inflation, including releases from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and efforts to encourage competition in industries like meatpacking.
In his remarks Thursday in North Carolina, Biden called on Congress to act quickly on the semiconductor legislation, a sprawling bipartisan effort that would invest billions of dollars with the goal of helping the U.S. compete against China and other countries. The House and Senate passed competing versions of the bill and must reconcile the changes before sending it to Biden’s desk.
Biden said the legislation would bring down the cost of goods, noting for the audience that it would provide $90 billion for research and development, manufacturing and education in science, technology, engineering and math.
“All those elements of the supply chain,” he said, “we need to produce end products right here in America.”