Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
President Joe Biden is on the cusp of a major legislative victory. If all goes according to plan and the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan is signed into law, Biden will have scored an early triumph in his presidency. The Covid-19 relief bill will provide a wide range of benefits, from direct payments to American families, money for vaccine development and distribution, small business relief, more substantial subsidies for the Affordable Care Act, a child tax credit, a higher Earned Income Tax Credit, federal funds for state and local governments and much more.
Given the scale and scope of this measure, it is an accomplishment that will cement Biden’s historic role in overseeing the country’s recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite last minute concessions to appease moderate Democrats on Friday night, as journalist Ezra Klein tweeted, “This still looks like the most ambitious and progressive economic package Congress has passed in my lifetime. It will do more to cut poverty, and push full employment, than anything else I’ve covered.”
So far, it looks like Biden has learned some important lessons on how to deal with the modern Republican Party. After Biden watched congressional Republicans obstruct the agenda of his former boss, Barack Obama, he saw Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, whose presidency was capped off with a violent insurrection against Congress, expose the radicalization of the GOP.
While Biden has repeatedly touted the importance of unity and bipartisan cooperation, he has not granted Republicans much time to play their “Lucy and Charlie Brown” football game. The President is focusing on issues that command strong Democratic support and building pressure for their passage. He appears to understand that in many cases, turning to Republican interests would only stymie his efforts to pass bold legislation and leave his own party frustrated.
After an initial meeting with a group of 10 Republicans who proposed a $600 billion counterproposal to his relief plan, Biden immediately sent signals to Democratic leaders to forge ahead. The House passed an ambitious bill that included provisions that satisfied both progressives and centrists. Biden also cleared the way in the Senate by giving Democratic leaders his blessing to move forward with reconciliation – a blunt tool that eliminates the threat of a filibuster and allows a bill to pass with a simple majority in the upper chamber.
There were certainly defeats along the way. The amendment to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025 failed. On Friday night, Senate Democrats finally won over Sen. Joe Manchin – a moderate Democrat who threatened to derail the relief bill – by dropping the bid to increase unemployment benefits from $300 a week to $400. To satisfy moderate Democrats, Biden had also agreed to narrow the income eligibility for the $1400 stimulus checks, cutting off couples who earn more than $160,000 a year or individuals who earn more than $80,000 a year. But most of the package has remained intact. While Biden was certainly open to Republican support, he did not cater to their demands in the elusive hope that they would join him.
President Biden is also moving forward with other parts of his agenda. In his first weeks, the President used executive orders to reverse some of the most controversial decisions from the Trump years. He ended the travel ban targeting largely Muslim countries, rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement, and rolled back restrictive immigration measures put in place during the Trump administration. He is also moving forward with a bold immigration reform bill that puts a path to citizenship back on the table for the first time in many years. In other words, he is not allowing fears of Republican opposition to impact his agenda. He seems to be taking a note from President Lyndon Johnson, who once responded to an advisor who warned against using his political capital on civil rights legislation by asking, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”
Nor has President Biden allowed himself to be sucked into the right-wing noise machine, from former President Trump’s CPAC speech to the endless stream of Fox News talk show hosts blasting his every move. As Klein pointed out in the New York Times, the President has kept a very low public profile, tweeting and speaking only when absolutely necessary.
This doesn’t mean that the President has said nothing. He had tough words for the governors of Texas and Mississippi when they recklessly announced that they were ending the mask mandates and lifting Covid-19 restrictions. But overall, he is not taking the bait. Perhaps it was from watching President Obama ultimately get swept up in the Birther conspiracy – peddled by Trump and other conservatives intent on challenging his legitimacy – that he learned there are no gains to be made from trying to engage with conservatives pushing false and baseless narratives.
While Biden, who understands the nature of the modern Republican Party, appears intent on moving forward by relying on the support of his own party, he still faces very serious challenges. Keeping Democrats together is not easy when moderates like Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema command immense power. Then there’s the reality of a highly partisan Senate, where the opposition wields the power of the filibuster. Obtaining a supermajority in an era when a radicalized Republican Party is hellbent on obstruction is a quixotic task. This doesn’t bode well for more contentious legislation dealing with immigration or climate change.
So far, the President we’ve seen hasn’t been your grandparents’ Joe Biden, whose career took root at a time when bipartisanship remained an important norm. Although many critics (myself included) have questioned his promise to work with the GOP, Biden appears to have a clear-sighted understanding of Washington. It’s likely that his experience as vice president taught him that there is in fact a red and blue America, and that trying to blend them could easily lead to political paralysis.
The President doesn’t seem to be holding out much hope for Republicans to change in the short term. Instead, Biden is making his own decisions, shaping his own agenda, and counting on his own party to move policies forward rather than waiting for Republicans to help him along.