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 on CNN.
President Joe Biden is facing a huge week. In the early days of his presidency, his ambitions to expand the social safety net had some people hailing him as a potential successor to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson.
But his agenda could come apart at the seams next week as Democrats face a looming government shutdown, the threat of a federal debt default and the potential implosion of either the infrastructure bill or the $3.5 trillion spending package.
If this happens, Biden’s presidency will suffer a huge setback and the American Rescue Plan, his biggest accomplishment to date, could become a fading memory for many voters by the time 2022 rolls around.
The harsh reality of governing in modern times is sinking in. The threat of a filibuster allowed Republicans to pressure Democrats to compromise on the infrastructure bill, which passed in the Senate with bipartisan support after painstaking negotiations. Now, as the bill heads to the House, Republican leaders in the lower chamber are rallying members of the party to oppose the bill. Congressional Republicans are also upping the pressure by threatening to block a measure that would raise the debt ceiling.
Meanwhile, the rifts within the Democratic Party are in plain view. Biden, with the help of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has to figure out a way to reconcile both the progressive and centrist flanks of the party. Moderate Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, for example, wants to limit the scale and scope of the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package and reduce the new tax burden on corporations and the wealthy that it would bring.
There is no clear path forward for the administration. If Democrats can agree on a framework for reconciliation, pass the infrastructure bill, and finalize the reconciliation package, reaching whatever compromises are necessary to pass that bill as well – all before the September 30 deadline to avoid a government shutdown – the party will have accomplished a massive feat.
Any alternative would be a disaster for Biden and the Democrats. If Congressional Democrats fail to pass at least one of the bills, the uphill battle they face in the 2022 midterm elections will be difficult. Add to this the devastating possibility of triggering a government shutdown or hitting the debt ceiling, and Biden’s approval rating would likely plummet. His agenda would take a huge hit, with little opportunity to bounce back if Republicans campaign on his failures and gain control of the House or Senate (or both).
By the end of the coming week, Biden’s fate should be clearer. Whether his extensive experience as both a senator and vice president will mean anything in our dysfunctional political system remains to be seen. He is still bound by what political scientists call the asymmetries of American politics, with the GOP willing to go much further in partisan warfare even as the Democrats are intent on following the rules.
But Biden has learned some tough lessons under former President Barack Obama, and the fact that he is relying on the reconciliation process to pass his version of the New Deal or Great Society is proof. He’s also been much more direct in his criticism of the GOP, striking a different tone than the consensus-building rhetoric he had become famous for on the presidential campaign trail.
It is not clear that this is enough. Republican radicalism and Democratic divisions are immense obstacles. Even reconciliation might not be enough to finally tackle the many issues, ranging from child care to climate change, that have continued to go unaddressed decade after decade.
If the week ends badly for the President, it won’t just be his problem – it will be an ominous sign of the broader problems that afflict liberalism and the ability of our government to respond to major crises. Our planet is in demise, the systems that perpetuate racial injustice are still in place and economic inequality is only getting worse. Will Washington be able to step up and finally provide big solutions?