We are just over one month into Joe Biden’s presidency, and the fragility of his governing coalition is already beginning to show. Last year, the Democratic Party won the White House, reclaimed the Senate and maintained its House majority in an impressive sweep; however, the size of the majorities and the internal caucus dynamics make the Democrats’ grip on power akin to that of an airplane being held together with duct tape and spit.
The Senate Democrats hold a majority thanks only to Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote. It would only take a single Democratic senator’s defection for a partisan bill to fail. In the House, three vacancies have given Speaker Nancy Pelosi one of the slimmest majorities in modern history: 221–211. With 217 votes needed for a majority, House progressives could easily torpedo legislation if they want to.
For President Biden’s first 100 days, I will be covering this seemingly unworkable dynamic: a sclerotic Senate that caters to more conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, an increasingly populist, left-wing House caucus and a president whose campaign relied heavily on the notion that he could get things done.
The first and most obvious challenge for Biden is responding to the ongoing pandemic and ensuing economic fallout. His nearly $2 trillion American Rescue Plan still includes a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour, one-time payments of $1,400 to Americans who qualify based on previous income, billions of dollars for vaccine distribution and much more.
But the Democratic Congress is already giving him headaches. In the Senate, Manchin shot down hopes for the minimum wage increase even after meeting with some of the nation’s leading anti-poverty activists. In the House, progressive representatives are calling on Biden to increase the $1,400 payments to $2,000 while also making the payments reoccur every month that the pandemic lasts.
With incredibly tight majorities in both houses of Congress, it will take some painstaking political maneuvering for Biden to get things done. And even though some progressives rightfully point out Biden’s broken promises on the minimum wage and student loan debt cancellation, the president — and the Democratic Party as a whole — seem to have learned from their mistakes over a decade ago.
During President Obama’s first year in office, he and then-Vice President Biden tried to cater their financial recovery stimulus to some very conservative Democrats in Congress. A coalition of Blue Dog Democrats in the House and conservative Senate Democrats like Ben Nelson and Kent Conrad successfully pushed Obama to limit his 2009 recovery bill. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was less than half the size of Biden’s pandemic-era stimulus. The shrunken 2009 package later proved to delay full economic recovery and likely contributed to the Democrats’ massive losses in the 2010 elections.
But learning a lesson may not be enough. If Biden hopes to keep some of the left in his delicate coalition, he would be better off conceding to them more often than not.