Ukraine War Ruining Biden’s Plans

Crises tend to be distracting.

Source: The White House

A rather odd piece from Michael Shear in today’s NYT under the headline “The War in Ukraine Is Upending Biden’s Agenda at Home.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has scrambled the global foreign policy landscape. But it has also upended President Biden’s domestic agenda back home, diverting the attention of the White House and contributing to rising prices that have become a top concern of Americans just months before congressional elections.

Three months after Mr. Biden vowed in a sprawling, two-hour news conference to continue fighting for college tuition, child care, early education, prescription drugs and the environment, the president’s domestic agenda has drastically shriveled.

The fighting in Ukraine has disrupted global oil markets, sending gas prices and inflation in the United States soaring and — for the moment — pushing aside longer-term issues that Mr. Biden had long hoped would become the centerpiece of his legacy.

Mr. Biden, who spent months in congressional negotiations last year, now spends more of his time responding to the global crisis caused by Russia. Last month, he flew to Europe for four days of emergency meetings with allies. The president is expected to attend two more European summits in May and June.

Asked about the administration’s legislative goals in an interview this week, Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, said the targets for the next several months included a bill to support American innovation and the semiconductor industry, and funding requests to battle the coronavirus and continue sending weapons to Ukraine.

“We’ve got a bunch of agenda items like that,” Mr. Klain said on a podcast hosted by Chuck Todd of NBC News, conceding, “The calendar has only so many months left in this year.”

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a massive international crisis that’s already a humanitarian disaster—quite possibly genocide—and has a nonzero chance of escalating into World War III. That it’s impacting the American President’s ability to enact his preferred domestic agenda is, well, par for the course.

Biden may well be cursing his fate, just as his predecessor did when COVID-19 popped up and derailed the global economy and started us on a path to a million dead domestically. Unlike his predecessor, Biden is unlikely to whine about it. It’s the nature of crises to be inconvenient.

Mr. Klain and others in the West Wing insist the president has not given up on larger ambitions. White House officials quietly continue to talk with lawmakers about some parts of what they used to call the president’s “Build Back Better” social policy agenda, which they still hope to pass with just a bare majority in the Senate using a legislative maneuver called reconciliation.

“The president also continues to work with a wide range of lawmakers,” Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman, said in a statement, “on a reconciliation plan that would cut the costs of prescription drugs, energy and child care while lowering the deficit even more and fighting inflation for the long haul, as well as a landmark bill to strengthen our competitiveness with regard to China.”

But Mr. Biden — who no longer uses the phrase “Build Back Better” because members of his own party distanced themselves from it when the legislation bogged down in bickering — has done little in recent weeks to revive parts of the $2.2 trillion bill that he fought for last year.

On Thursday, during a visit to a historically black college in North Carolina, Mr. Biden ended a speech with a hopeful riff in which he said politicians in the United States had come together in unison to invest in middle-class families, colleges and clean technologies.

“Let’s keep building a better America because that’s who we are,” Mr. Biden said, almost pleadingly. “And we can do this.”

But here’s the thing: Build Back Better was killed by Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, not Vladimir Putin. And there was never any hope Manchin, whose fortune is tied in more ways than one to Big Energy, was going to allow a green energy bill to pass.

Even aside from the war, Congressional Democrats are already more focused on staving off electoral disaster in November than they are on Biden’s agenda. And Republicans were never in the mood for bipartisan cooperation.

In better times, the war would actually be helpful in that regard: a rallying point for decent people of both parties. Unfortunately, that has only marginally materialized.

But polling suggests the sentiment is at odds with the reality of the country Mr. Biden governs and the Washington establishment he presides over, where politics have become more divisive, the country is less unified about the right direction, and the world is distracted by Russia’s brutal attempt to take over a neighbor.

A poll by Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service on civility in America released in February found the country deeply divided, with most people concerned about the rising cost of goods. In a Monmouth University poll last month, voters used the words ”divided,” “mess” and “chaos” to describe the American political system.

Mr. Biden’s aides frequently lean on the cliché that they can “walk and chew gum at the same time” to suggest that the president and his team can pursue his domestic agenda while navigating the crisis in Ukraine.

Again: the Biden train had already run out of steam. Not because he did anything wrong but because he prioritized other things during whatever “honeymoon” period he had and was never able to get Manchin and Sinema on board for the more ambitious goals.

In the interview this week, Mr. Klain hinted that the administration was still trying to persuade Mr. Manchin to sign on to some version of some pieces of the broader legislation. The Democratic caucus holds 50 seats in the evenly divided Senate and can approve the legislation over unified Republican opposition only with Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote, meaning that failing to convince even one Democratic lawmaker — like Mr. Manchin — prevents it from passing.

“We have to come back and figure out what formula works with the 50 to get it passed in the Senate,” Mr. Klain said. “And you know, we’re not there, that’s for sure.”

But even if the president makes progress on that legislation, it is not the only part of his domestic agenda that remains incomplete. As a candidate, Mr. Biden vowed to find a new bipartisan willingness in Congress to confront longstanding challenges like overhauls to the nation’s immigration system, policing and sentencing, and a new sense of equity in how the government spends money.

The immigration bill he sent to Congress on his first day in office is going nowhere, blocked by opposition from Republicans and squabbling among his allies. Efforts to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would have made it easier to prosecute police officers, died in Congress last year. And efforts to make good on sweeping climate change legislation have sputtered.

Courts have stymied the president on some initiatives. Early last year, Mr. Biden signed economic stimulus legislation that included $4 billion for Black and other “socially disadvantaged” farmers who were discriminated against for years by banks and the federal government. But the money remains frozen because of lawsuits.

In the face of those failures, Mr. Biden has said he will increase the use of executive actions that do not require congressional approval. Officials say the president is close to signing an executive order on changes to policing that was delayed by a surge in violent crime across the country. Mr. Biden has also stressed the steps he has taken to address inflation, including releases from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and efforts to encourage competition in industries like meatpacking.

So, here’s the thing: politicians promise things they can’t deliver on the campaign trail. Biden is hardly unique in that regard.

Barack Obama won the 2008 election in what passes for a landslide in the modern era and big majorities in Congress, including, for a very small window, a “fillibuster-proof” 60-vote margin in the Senate. He had to pull out every trick in the book to pass ObamaCare, which was itself a very watered-down version of what he’d hoped to pass. Biden, by contrast, won a relatively close election, has a five-seat margin in the House, and holds a nominal majority (50 who caucus with the party and the VP as a tie-breaker) but has two members who are Democrats in name only. Again, that has nothing to do with Putin or Ukraine.

In his remarks on Thursday in North Carolina, Mr. Biden called on Congress to act quickly on the semiconductor legislation, a sprawling bipartisan effort that would invest billions of dollars with the goal of helping the United States compete against China and other countries. The House and Senate passed competing versions of the bill and must reconcile the changes before sending it to Mr. Biden’s desk.

Mr. Biden said the legislation would bring down the cost of goods, noting for the audience that it would provide $90 billion for research and development, manufacturing and education in science, technology, engineering and math.

“All those elements of the supply chain,” he said, “we need to produce end products right here in America.”

This is the first I’ve heard of the proposal and I’m skeptical it will pass. But, if anything, the war in Ukraine should make it more likely.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    In better times, the war would actually be helpful in that regard: a rallying point for decent people of both parties. Unfortunately, that has only marginally materialized.

    You are a master of understatement, James.

    3
  2. gVOR08 says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Perfect.

  3. Gustopher says:

    Mr. Biden, who spent months in congressional negotiations last year, now spends more of his time responding to the global crisis caused by Russia.

    What is Harris up to?

    Even aside from the war, Congressional Democrats are already more focused on staving off electoral disaster in November than they are on Biden’s agenda.

    It would be a good time to deliver something.

    Again: the Biden train had already run out of steam. Not because he did anything wrong but because he prioritized other things during whatever “honeymoon” period he had and was never able to get Manchin and Sinema on board for the more ambitious goals.

    This would be a good time to get Manchin, Sinema and Harris in a room, and take a few chunks of Build Back Better that they can get on board with and figure out how to make it happen.

    Prescription drug prices. Get the price of insulin under control, and you will have every diabetic voting Democrat — which given the obesity epidemic, might be enough to sway a few elections.

    There are a number of other things like that, where they should be able to get support. I’m annoyed the Child Tax Credit isn’t one of them.

    We have one more reconciliation bill left, but we’re running out of time. I understand wanting to use it for something big, but not using it at all would be a bigger mistake.

    Mr. Biden’s aides frequently lean on the cliché that they can “walk and chew gum at the same time” to suggest that the president and his team can pursue his domestic agenda while navigating the crisis in Ukraine.

    Well, if this administration can do two things at once, they haven’t shown it. If the story a few days ago about Biden repeatedly over-ruling the unanimous recommendations of his security advisors is accurate it points to a potential problem — not being willing to divest some authority to underlings.

    I like Biden. I trust his judgement. I would rather have him taking the lead on what can get through domestically. But if there isn’t enough Biden, he’s going to have to give a little authority to Harris.

  4. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    This would be a good time to get Manchin, Sinema and Harris in a room, and take a few chunks of Build Back Better that they can get on board with and figure out how to make it happen.

    I suspect that the fact that it hasn’t happen probably suggests that there are no chunks, slices, slivers, or crumbs of Build Back Better that Manchin and Sinema are willing to get on board with. My experience with problems of compromise is that lack of trying is almost never the reason for failure.

  5. Matt says:

    @Gustopher: Sinema has no interest in all at compromise or working with Biden. She’s too busy cashing out and setting herself up for a cushy job.

    Manchin is probably reachable on some things but who knows as he’s shamelessly guarded his family’s income and power.

  6. Gustopher says:

    @Matt @, Just nutha ignint cracker: There are a lot of things Manchin has said he would be on board with (not the child tax credit, and he wanted work requirements on the paid family leave which seems to suggest that he is also suffering from cognitive issues… paid family leave from what Senator Manchin?)

    Sinema wants to be a drama queen and wants attention.

    Both of them should be spending a lot of time with Harris. Either as incentive or punishment, whichever…