Biden is hoping for a different fate than his most recent predecessors. In his first address to Congress Wednesday, he will tout his accomplishments, largely defined by Covid-19, including a vaccination rollout and the passage of a relief package, the American Rescue Plan. Then he’ll pivot to what’s next: the need to negotiate with Congress on both the American Jobs Plan and American Family Plan — a combined $4 trillion in spending on everything from roads and bridges to pre-kindergarten and childcare that would usher in a government overhaul of the economy.
“In the beginning, it was all things American Rescue Plan because without getting the pandemic under control everything else was moot,” said Cedric Richmond, senior adviser to the president and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. “Now that we have that, we can focus on a broader set of policy proposals. We don’t have a limited list of issues to work on.”
To this point, the White House has carefully scripted the president’s days with a relentless focus on the pandemic and the economy. But the real world has occasionally complicated that tunnel vision: a spike in unaccompanied children at the southwestern border, mass shootings that increased as Americans began returning to work after a year of pandemic-induced isolation and fatal police shootings.
Already, Biden is being pushed by supporters and advocates to prioritize efforts to reform police forces, reverse Trump immigraton policies and curb gun violence — all issues he promised to tackle and any of which could upend his carefully crafted agenda. Beyond that, they want him to weigh in more forcefully on voting legislation, embrace the expansion of the Supreme Court and find a way to raise the federal minimum wage.
Those who advise Biden say he’s benefited from a unique set of circumstances. The pandemic has been so all-consuming that his presidency is being judged largely by his response to it. But that won’t go on indefinitely and that may be where problems arise.
“No president since FDR has had a clearer tangible task than Biden in confronting the virus,” said Jon Meacham, a presidential historian who occasionally advises the president. “Once that is fully addressed — both in the vaccinations and in the economic rescue plan — he’s going to have to decide how to allocate his capital among infrastructure, racial justice, climate, guns and the things that are going to land on his desk that we don’t know about yet. Maybe he can press on all fronts at once, but history suggests there’s going to have to be some prioritization.”
So far, the public seems to be supportive of Biden’s approach. Recent polls give him a net job approval rating, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released this week. And though it’s the third-lowest of any president at this point in office since Harry Truman, that seems to be due largely to today’s stark political polarization. Biden has generally received his highest marks for his handling of the pandemic and the economy.
But the era of positive reviews could have a limited shelf life; and not just because summers are complicated, politically. In those same polls, his lowest approval is on two issues that the White House has been routinely forced to address — guns and immigration. And as the turn of the calendar comes into focus, members of Congress will be consumed by the midterms and then the next presidential race.
“Every president who’s smart focuses on a small number of priorities, their affirmative agenda and then they typically get knocked back on their heels by the world around them,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit that works to make government more effective and efficient. “The reality is that they’re having to fight fires on a whole lot of different fronts.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that in the next 100 days, Biden expects to continue to tackle the pandemic, police reform and climate change but also signaled the importance of the two major spending plans.
“We will be working with Congress closely, in a bipartisan way is certainly our intention, to get the American Jobs Plan passed, to get the American Families Plan passed,” she said. “Those will certainly be big priorities of our next 100 days.”
When he entered office in January, Biden was open that he was prioritizing the pandemic over everything else. During his first 100 days, he asked Americans to wear masks, set a goal of 100 million vaccine shots (that quickly shifted to 200 million shots), and pushed schools to open for in-person learning.
But Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress Wednesday — a delayed, more subdued affair in the Covid era — marks the end of the first chapter of his presidency.
In his speech, he is expected to mention the Jan. 6 insurrection, acknowledge the history- making moment of two women, Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, sitting behind the president for the first time, and speak about a litany of issues including police reform, immigration and gun violence, according to White House aides.
But the speech is primarily designed to focus on his two legislative priorities: the American Job Plan, a sweeping $2.3 trillion package designed to fix the nation’s crumbling roads and bridges, create jobs and tackle climate change; and the yet-to-be-unveiled American Families Plan, a $1.8 trillion plan to fund Democratic priorities, including billions of dollars on child care, pre-kindergarten, paid family leave and tuition-free community college.
“This is a White House that has been very focused and you’re going to continue to see them be very focused on the crises that America is going through — one of them was Covid and now it’s economic recovery and job creation,” Biden’s lead pollster John Anzalone said. “That doesn’t mean you’re not going to hear about other things.”
Republicans have responded coolly to both of Biden’s spending plans, expressing concerns about the hefty price tags, the proposed tax hikes on wealthy Americans and corporations, and the generational, historic expansion of the social safety net.
They also note that the proposals come after another costly bill. Just six weeks ago, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan that sent $1,400 checks to Americans, increased enhanced unemployment benefits and pumped billions of dollars into vaccine distribution and reopening schools. It passed without Republican support.
Though Biden could push to use a budget maneuver requiring only a simple majority to pass the bills through the Senate, even Democrats in that chamber are encouraging him to look for bipartisan support.
“I’d love to hear him make the case for why Republicans and Democrats should find … common cause with respect to a wide range of infrastructure issues,” Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) told reporters Tuesday about Biden’s speech. “And I think there’s a case to be made for those and to make it clear to our Republican friends that the door is not closed because he’s sincerely interested in getting as close to bipartisan solutions we can.”
The White House may not have the patience to find and win over Republican votes. Aides say Biden wants to make progress on both bills by Memorial Day and sign them into law this summer. A lot of that will depend on how well Biden and his team can work the Hill. But, if recent history is any guide, it will also require the world to cooperate.
Sean Spicer, who served as White House press secretary in Trump’s first year, said the summers are always tough because the president and staffers expect to be able to take a breath. “Every time you think there’s going to be calm and quiet, it never works out,” he said.
Nick Niedzwiadek contributed to this report.