Opinion | With No Votes to Spare, Biden Gets a Win Obama and Clinton Would Have Envied
Before you join the chorus, you might want to check in with the last two Democratic presidents. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both landed in office with much bigger majorities, and ended up taking it on the chin anyway. Despite the narrowest of majorities to get anything done, Biden, in fact, may be in a much better position.
When Clinton came to power in 1993, he had wide majorities in both houses: 57 Democrats in the Senate, and 258 Democrats in the House. But the resistance to his key economic package was so intense within his own party that his plan passed by just a single vote in both the House and the Senate, and only after important elements of that plan—like a gasoline tax—were thrown over the side to win the votes of suburban Democrats.
When Obama was inaugurated in 2009, Democrats and their independent allies held 59 seats in the Senate, and when Al Franken finally claimed his seat months later, they had a supermajority of 60—enough to overcome a filibuster. But in order to hold those votes, the Obama Administration had to keep the cost of its Great Recession stimulus package under $1 trillion—an amount, his team later conceded, was too small to trigger a robust recovery. Similarly, in order to get reluctant Democrats like Joe Lieberman to vote for the Affordable Care Act, the White House had to kill the public health-insurance option, which left progressive Democrats disheartened. (As Obama accounts in his memoir, “A Promised Land,” the handwringing from members of his own party took much of the shine off his signature achievement as president, the biggest expansion of health care since Medicare.)
The two ex-presidents also share a common, painful experience with the political consequences of their battles. Clinton’s tax and budget initiatives were aimed at reducing the then-unacceptable budget deficit of some $250 billion—a deficit that helped propel independent candidate Ross Perot to 19 percent of the vote in 1992. (I hope you realize we’ve become Eisenhower Republicans, Clinton groused to his staff.) The policy ultimately worked—Washington was running a huge surplus by the end of the Clinton years—but in the short term it was a political liability, leading to the loss of both houses of Congress in 1994.
For Obama, the slow pace of the recovery and the Republicans’ relentless political attacks on Obamacare led to massive midterm losses in 2010 at every level. The House turned Republican, the Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and 18 state legislatures turned red—a political upheaval that is still tormenting Democrats as they watch those legislatures push through voter suppression laws that will shape American elections for years to come.
But this time, Democrats may be able to provide a more upbeat answer to a question the approach of Passover inspires: “Why is this one-vote victory different from the other one-vote victories?”
This time, the benefits to tens of millions of Americans will be clear: $1,400 in bank accounts; extended jobless benefits; expanded childcare help. Donald Trump understood the impact of such assistance when he insisted his name be on the checks sent to American households. Joe Biden won’t be as blatant, but the direct aid will be a sharp contrast to what happened under Obama’s stimulus, when most Americans didn’t even realize they were getting a tax cut. It’s a sharp departure as well from the impact of Obamacare, where the benefits did not begin until long after the bill was passed, and after the midterm elections as well.
And this time, the bill that was passed was backed by enormous majorities of the citizenry—polls suggest that as many as 75 percent support the Covid plan, including clear majorities of Republicans. This suggests that the unanimous opposition to the plan by Congressional Republicans may leave the party with a political posture at a polar extreme from where they were in 1994 and 2009. The GOP was able to (inaccurately) pin Clinton with the “largest tax increase in history”; they were able to characterize the Obama stimulus and the Affordable Care Act as a giveaway to “those people.” But if the polls are right, Republican efforts to paint the Covid relief as a “blue state bailout” or a “Pelosi payoff” aren’t working.
More significant, if the impact of $1,400 payments, the vaccination assistance and the other elements of the plan are really felt back home—by voters, who notice the difference in their bank accounts and their health—it is actually conceivable that the line “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” could become something other than the punchline of a joke.
It is, of course, possible that all those proposals that fell by the wayside—the $15 minimum wage, higher income limits on the stimulus checks, bigger jobless benefit—will trigger so much grousing from progressives that Biden has trouble keeping his own side of the aisle in line. If they’re thinking about 2022, they should be careful how much complaining they do. With the slimmest possible of majorities, Biden managed to push through something whose potential political payoff his two Democratic predecessors would have envied.