Divided America is not noticing Joe Biden's victories

The Democrats may have lost Virginia, but the Biden administration is winning big in Washington

US President Joe Biden addressing the media about the passage of his vast bipartisan infrastructure bill. EPA
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The past week saw both the low point and the high point, in rapid succession, of Joe Biden's still very young presidency. From here on, his fortunes could go either way, but the American leader probably has considerably more going for him than most people think.

It's been a painful summer for Mr Biden. The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan was widely criticised, and he has been plagued by surging inflation and supply chain bottlenecks. Although the pandemic is increasingly under control and the economy seems to be gaining strength despite inflation, many Americans simply don't feel good about where the country is right now.

Angst is pervasive.

In their daily lives, they still see pandemic-related problems with schools, inflation – especially at the gasoline pump – and difficulties in buying many consumer products as a result of supply chain issues.

Dissatisfaction reached a crescendo last Tuesday when Terry McAuliffe, a veteran Democrat and former Virginia governor, lost the usually reliably Democratic state to a wealthy Republican upstart, Glenn Youngkin. The defeat was long anticipated, but it still was a stinging rebuke, especially coupled with the difficulty the Democrats had in holding onto the governorship of solidly Democratic New Jersey.

Virginia Republican Glenn Youngkin at his election night party last week. Reuters

Bitter recriminations ensued, and the media, yet again, was eager to pronounce Mr Biden's presidency dead in the water. He has been the recipient of some of the most pessimistic coverage in recent memory, possibly reflecting an effort by the press to balance its undying hostility to his predecessor, Donald Trump.

Yet, Mr Biden and the Democrats did seem to get the message that they had better start delivering, or else.

After months of endless negotiations, which often left the impression that nothing would eventually be accomplished, on Friday the President and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi fashioned a remarkable compromise in which progressive Democrats agreed – against all their vows and instincts – to vote for the $1 trillion hard infrastructure bill without simultaneous action on social spending.

Six of the most hard-left Democrats voted against the measure, though. The leftists fear that by supporting the infrastructure bill, they relinquish all their leverage on the also-pending $1.75tn social spending package.

Nonetheless, it is a significant and historic achievement. A whopping $110 billion is allocated for roads, bridges and other surface infrastructure. Another $66bn goes to rail, $39bn to public transport, $11bn for transportation safety, and $65bn for broadband access and additional funds for upgrading power lines and the energy grid, and providing clean drinking water. Airports get $25bn and ports $17bn.

This is the largest-ever federal spending on transportation infrastructure, and the most significant spending on hard infrastructure since the construction of the interstate highway system in the 1950s. The scale of the achievement is underscored by the fact that Mr Trump continuously promised major infrastructure development but never even proposed, let alone passed, such a bill.

Furthermore, this package delivers on another of Mr Biden's promises: resurrecting bipartisanship. Both in the House and the Senate, where the bill passed in the summer, he managed to secure significant Republican support despite the tendency of most Republicans to try to block almost all his initiatives.

Securing such significant spending with no majority in the Senate and only three spare votes in the House is remarkable enough. Doing it with Republican support is even more extraordinary.

Now, progressives will justifiably demand that centrists, with pressure from Mr Biden, Ms Pelosi and others, return the favour and vote for the social spending bill. Despite many reservations, that will probably happen in the House. A vote is scheduled for November 15.

The bigger problem will be in the Senate, where two conservative-leaning Democratic holdouts, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, may be harder to convince. It will be the biggest test yet of Mr Biden's persuasive powers. But the progressives deserve the best effort possible.

Joe Biden will be chasing the support of Senator Kyrsten Sinema, pictured above. AFP

Theoretically, this bill ought to be a turning point for the Biden administration and the Democrats. Coupled with the $1.9tn pandemic relief bill passed in March, in less than a year they have managed to pass two major pieces of legislation on behalf of the general public.

Moreover, many of the key sources of widespread anxiety and dismay look set to ease in coming months as the pandemic lifts further, with new treatments and vaccines for children, supply chains begin to open, and labour markets regain their balance.

Indeed, inflation appears to be the only major immediate issue to which they may not have an obvious answer.

If Democrats can pass any version of the social spending bill before the midterms, they will have an enormous set of governance achievements, with virtually no majorities and an extremely polarised environment, to set before the public.

There are, however, two major challenges beyond that.

First, Democrats have traditionally been strikingly inept at selling their achievements. Mr Biden, too, has suffered from this phenomenon, with Democrats and the media focusing on conflicts within the party and the difficulties of passing the legislation, not the achievement it means. So, he will have to become a much better salesman, and move attention from the messy sausage-making to the tasty sausages.

A more alarming question runs even deeper. Mr Biden's broad political strategy is based on the idea that Americans really want effective governance, and for politics to deliver improvements in their daily lives. But is that true of enough Americans to prove a winning strategy?

Counterintuitively, given the polarised times and the deep social fissures, there are reasons to suspect that large segments of the American public aren't paying as much attention to what government is doing or isn't doing on practical policies. Many, instead, seem more invested in cultural divides and prefer politics as spectacle – a performative routine based on identity-signalling, trolling, stunts and one-upmanship of the kind Mr Trump has specialised in and which has become the particular stock-in-trade of the Republican Party.

The Democrats may go to the midterms with many significant achievements under their belt but it's possible key American constituencies simply won't care. Those Americans may only respond to tribal affirmations that express their grievances.

The more Mr Biden achieves, the more clearly this terrifying possibility will be tested in the 2022 and 2024 elections. So far, governance versus the politics of spectacle is emerging as the biggest contest on those upcoming ballots.

Published: November 07, 2021, 2:00 PM