He may not do much else for the next few months. It may not matter.
Joe Biden’s first major piece of legislation has crossed an early hurdle. On Monday, the House announced they are about to pass his COVID-19 relief bill, which includes aid to states and local governments, an extension of unemployment benefits, and the famous $1400 checks to millions of Americans. The bill remains popular among both Democrats and Republicans. 83% of all Americans want another relief bill, while 40% are concerned that the current two-trillion-dollar bill is too small. Some Republicans are almost resigned to its passage. The New York Times reported last week that no attacks on the bill have stuck, mainly because of “the fact that many of the lawmakers objecting to Mr. Biden’s proposals supported similar provisions, including direct checks to individuals, when Mr. Trump was president.”
Progressives worry that the bill may be all that Democrats are able to pass in 2021. They scoff at the frequent dismissal of proposals popular on the left by both Biden and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. At a town hall last week, Biden dismissed the possibility of raising the national minimum wage to $15 an hour with the latest relief bill. Manchin has opposed creating new states and ending the filibuster. The last of these is particularly irksome for many Democrats, who remembered Mitch McConnell’s endless stonewalling during Barack Obama’s eight years in office.
Every president needs to enact a significant piece of legislation in their first two years in office. This legislation must check a number of boxes. It must cut through the noise and clutter that traps so many accomplishments in a one- or two-day news cycle. Dramatic legislation must fulfill one or more of a president’s campaign promises. It must help a significant constituency who aided the president in their election. Finally, a signature bill serves as a statement to midterm voters. If the president succeeded, perhaps there is not a need to send a message of disapproval that characterizes so many of the nation’s historic midterm elections.
Joe Biden will not be able to accomplish these goals with the ambitious legislation that many progressives want. He only has 50 seats in the Senate. Two Democratic senators have already defined their political brands in opposition to many liberal ideas. Also, Biden clearly does not want to pressure them to do so. He has not criticized any conservative senators for their opposition to progressive bellwethers.
But the relief bill is different. If passed, it will be viewed as a key part of the American recovery from the depths of the COVID-induced recession. The recovery is likely inevitable, as vaccines, pent-up demand, and money from earlier relief bills will bolster the economy in the second half of 2021. By passing a relief bill, Biden may not convince economists that his actions helped save the country and create prosperity. But he will be able to convince many voters who are only paying attention to politics in passing. “Biden passes big law” and “Economy gets better” will be two tangentially connected news stories that will give Biden a boost in 2022.
Joe Biden may be able to pass more significant legislation during his first two years in office. He has more chances at budget reconciliation. Republicans such as Mitt Romney have signaled a willingness to work with him on issues like raising the minimum wage and introducing child allowances. But getting this bill done now will ensure that he is not tripped up by future events or rogue conservative Democrats. He will have accomplished something that helps Americans and makes a material impact on their lives. That may be enough for the party in 2022.