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, “Abraham Joshua Heschel: A life of Radical Amazement.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
President Joe Biden scored a major victory on Friday night. For months, negotiations between different factions of the Democratic Party have threatened to tank his domestic agenda. But after the President stepped up the pressure and urged lawmakers to “vote now,” the House passed the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill with bipartisan support, sending it to Biden’s desk for his signature.
House Democrats also moved forward with the larger spending package to strengthen the social safety net and fund environmental programs, with a tentative deadline to pass the legislation by mid-November.
The deal took place after a difficult week. Democrats have been scrambling for answers after the party suffered several resounding election losses, from the gubernatorial race in Virginia to local contests on Long Island. Many Democrats, convinced they know exactly what went wrong, claim the party moved too far to the left. “Nobody elected [Biden] to be FDR, they elected him to be normal and to stop the chaos,” said Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger.
But Biden has chosen a more ambitious path. As a veteran legislator, he still believes when voters yearned for competence and normality in November 2020, it didn’t just mean they wanted a President who avoided Twitter and refrained from firing White House staff in dramatic, made for television announcements. He understood Americans wanted a President who could actually tackle the nation’s biggest problems.
And Biden is on to something important.
Competence means governance and problem-solving. It means getting things done, so voters can see tangible results. The New Deal was successful not because it offered voters some grand ideological vision of society, but because President Franklin Roosevelt addressed the problems Americans faced by providing public jobs, electrifying rural areas, building roads and bridges and creating unemployment insurance and Social Security.
In 1965, voters were excited about President Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare not because it shifted the debate over the American safety net, but because older Americans could afford the health care they needed.
Part of what has made President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act more popular over time is voters gradually experienced firsthand the benefits it provided.
Biden also enjoyed high approval ratings early in his presidency in part due to the vaccine rollout and the American Rescue Plan, which provided financial support to families across the country.
Our political standards have fallen so far we have forgotten what competence actually looks like. When Spanberger argues Americans voted for Biden because they wanted him to be “normal,” she underestimates what the American electorate wants and needs. What made Biden so attractive to Americans was he came to office with decades of experience. In fact, he entered the White House as one of the most seasoned politicians since George H.W. Bush. In the aftermath of the tumultuous Trump presidency, Biden seemed like the kind of person who could get things done and rely on the help of experts and political veterans who knew how to move the needle on public policy.
To be sure, President Biden would do well to spend his time wrestling over his rhetoric in the months ahead. Should the President stick to his guns, continuing to offer a robust Rooseveltian defense of New Deal liberalism? Or should he take a page from former President Bill Clinton, who in 1996 famously proclaimed in his State of the Union Address the “era of big government is over”?
Ultimately, Biden needs to ensure the reconciliation bill passes. And even then, he should continue to focus on the core issues that concern average Americans and make legislative, as well as executive progress on issues like stabilizing the economy. Though October’s job report was promising, inflation and snags in the supply chain remain key issues to address. The more the President can ameliorate these problems through the levers of policy, the more his numbers will likely improve.
Addressing other perennial issues, such as drug costs, childcare, family leave policy and climate change will only boost his standing.
Despite some Democrats denouncing progressive policies in response to the party’s election losses this week, Biden should continue to work in tandem with Democratic leaders to make progress on these issues, rather than getting mired in a conversation about procedural issues or costs. Any success at addressing these longstanding problems would be good for Biden, good for the party and a huge benefit for the American people.
And, finally, the pandemic remains front and center. Over the past few months, the administration has made significant progress with vaccines. By shifting to a more proactive approach with vaccine mandates, we have seen big jumps in the number of Americans receiving the jab. The more the administration can do to reach unvaccinated populations in the US, control the spread of the virus at home and work with allies to boost supplies of the vaccine in other parts of the world, the better the prospects are for an economic rebound.
Passing the infrastructure bill counts as a significant victory for Biden. But there is still the reconciliation package – and plenty more to be done beyond that. If the Democrats cannot offer tangible progress on the economy, the pandemic and popular social policies like paid family leave, they will likely be looking at Republican congressional majorities in 2023 and a very competitive presidential election the year after. But if they keep problem-solving, the party can beat the odds and pave the way for a much brighter future.