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The choices Joe Biden makes now will set his legacy in motion

Early in his term, he must decide which crises deserve the bulk of his attention and political capital and which will have to wait

President Joe Biden points to guests at his inauguration ceremony after he is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States on Jan. 20, 2021.
President Joe Biden points to guests at his inauguration ceremony after he is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States on Jan. 20, 2021. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — President Joe Biden laid out a sweeping mission on Inauguration Day, declaring his goal to tackle the “cascading crises” afflicting America. He cited eroding faith in democracy and even in truth, growing inequity, systemic racism and the climate crisis.

“Any one of these would be enough to challenge us in profound ways. But the fact is, we face them all at once,” he said. Biden pledged then to “rise to the occasion” and “to master this rare and difficult hour.”

The implication was that he would offer solutions, or at least progress, to all of these crises. In reality, he’ll have to pick his battles, and the choices he makes in the coming weeks will begin to set the terms of his legacy.

The modern president faces constraints built into the framers’ system of checks and balances. The job is all the harder given the party polarization that today makes even plausible compromises hard to reach. So Biden will have to decide: Which crises deserve the bulk of his attention and political capital and which will have to wait?

Presidents have to make these choices early, when their terms are fresh and their party is in control of Congress because that’s when making far-reaching law is possible. 

There’s no doubt that Biden will focus on the pandemic. He will try to use COVID-19 relief to address other Democratic priorities around inequity, racial injustice and environmental protection. But with a Senate evenly divided at 50-50 and a 10-seat Democratic House majority, any overreach could plunge his agenda into quicksand.

Biden is seasoned enough in the ways of Washington that he knows this. So of the sweeping pledges in his inaugural address, some will rise to the top of his legislative agenda and he’ll settle in other cases for rhetorical nods, executive actions and regulatory maneuvers. Some pledges will prove just lip service to constituencies in the Democratic Party’s base.

Biden’s agenda is already circumscribed by a pandemic that has taken 400,000 American lives and, despite the rollout of vaccines, shows only halting signs of abating. With his announcement of a $1.9 trillion plan to fight the virus and help Americans crushed by its economic effects, Biden demonstrated that he’d like to use it as a vehicle for his broader goals. That’s why it includes an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour and a refundable tax credit for children. Both would redistribute more of the country’s wealth to those at the bottom end.

In proposing draft legislation to offer a path to citizenship to immigrants living in the country illegally, Biden indicated it was also at the top of his list, and that he’s willing to gamble that 10 Republican senators will want to put the issue that animated Donald Trump’s presidency aside. In 2013, 14 Republican senators voted for a similar proposal, but all but five of them are gone.

What will Biden allow to slip? His incoming Treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, said that tax hikes on corporations and the wealthy would not be an immediate priority. And Biden has not yet pressed Democratic priorities of years past to overhaul policing to combat racial injustice, to bolster the ability of workers to organize unions, and to restrict gun ownership. His climate actions and plans, halting the Keystone XL pipeline and pledging aid for green job creation, look more like a middle ground than the more far-reaching assault on fossil fuels that climate activists want.

These decisions have consequences. The president Biden served for eight years, Barack Obama, let immigration slip off his priority list in 2009 and 2010 in favor of an economic stimulus, an overhaul of American health insurance and a financial regulatory law. The comprehensive immigration bill he said he wanted never got done.

Obama settled for executive actions to combat biased policing and to keep guns away from criminals and unstable people. He put little capital behind congressional Democrats’ efforts to pass laws creating a cap and trade system for carbon emissions and to expand labor organizing via a card check system. 

Obama moved only late in his presidency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and his most far-reaching proposal to combat power plant pollution died with Trump. The same was true of Obama’s plan to dramatically expand overtime pay to help the working class. As a result, some crises grew more severe in Obama’s time, while the ones he prioritized — unemployment, the uninsured and financial malfeasance — abated.

Republicans are already dismissing Biden’s virus relief proposal as too expensive and overbroad and his executive actions as sops to progressives. “On the Biden administration’s very first day, it took several big steps in the wrong direction,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday. He pressed Democrats to commit to preserving the filibuster rule that most Senate legislation win 60 votes in order to “check and balance one another respectfully.” 

But Democratic constituency groups, such as advocates for immigrants and teachers’ unions concerned about school safety during the pandemic, were thrilled to be atop Biden’s priority list, while those further down are holding their fire for now.

Biden could move his proposals with bipartisan support — like $1,400 checks for most Americans and new funding for vaccine distribution and schools — through regular order if 10 GOP senators will vote to break a filibuster. And he could save aid to states and expanded unemployment benefits for a budget reconciliation process that will allow Democrats to pass one bill per year without any GOP support.

Biden could use a second reconciliation process, in 2022, to expand access to health care, rebuild American infrastructure or tackle climate change. But Republicans hope he tacks to the center.

President George W. Bush faced a Congress much like the one with which Biden must deal, split nearly evenly between Democrats and Republicans. He won his biggest legislative successes, tax cuts, through budget reconciliation, then co-opted issues popular with his opposition.

Bush succeeded on territory comfortable for Democrats, increasing education funding and accountability measures in his No Child Left Behind education law, and offering seniors a Medicare drug benefit. The partisan items he let slip, such as partial privatization of Social Security, didn’t get done.

Bill Clinton, chastened by his failure to overhaul health care, also moved to the center to work with Republicans on a welfare law and expanded free trade. Even Trump, after his success using reconciliation to enact 2017’s tax overhaul, worked with Democrats on 2018’s law to offer more leniency to nonviolent criminals and to improve prison programs aimed at reducing recidivism.

For Biden, that might be a path to success with Congress, although it’s bound to disappoint his party’s progressive base.