Joe Biden was seen standing in front of an old bridge in Woodstock in New Hampshire, Tuesday, as the first snowflakes fell. He also highlighted the $550 million in infrastructure funding he just signed into law. But that bipartisan infrastructure law, which will fix bridges and roads and expand Internet access and train lines across the country, isn’t enough, he said. The American middle class has been “hollowed out,” according to Biden, and the time has come to “rebuild the backbone of this nation.”
Biden asks Congress to adopt a second round of spending bills to help reduce costs for elder care, childcare and prescription drugs. It also wants to increase the U.S. role in climate change mitigation. Those are central parts of Biden’s agenda, and most Democratic strategists believe passing them will be important for Democrats on the ballot in next year’s midterm elections. Top aides to Biden also think getting that second fleet of actions done is crucial to reverse Americans’ sagging view of the President’s own performance.
But it is precisely those low approval ratings—hovering in the low 40s by mid-November—that are hurting Biden’s chances of getting the so-called Build Back Better plan through Congress. It’s one of the physical laws of Washington that poll numbers bring their own gravity. Biden, at the moment, is trapped in a vortex. His poll numbers are making it more difficult to pass his agenda, however, his advisors think that passing his agenda will improve polling.
It is possible that the House will vote this week on the Build back Better bill. It will now head to the Senate. Democratic senators Joe Manchin (West Virginia) and Kyrsten Senema (Arizona) have blocked progress on the bill for months because of concerns about climate provisions, tax rates and increased costs. Biden is a patient man with Sinema and Manchin, listening to their views rather than trying to force them to support his agenda. Biden will need to sign the agreement once the House approves the bill. His declining approval rating and rising inflation could have further hurt his negotiation position with stubborn Senate hawks.
TIME was told by multiple Democratic senators that the circumstances don’t prevent the caucus passing the Build back Better legislation before the end of 2011. This is despite Biden signing the bipartisan infrastructure bill Monday. It has been eliminated as an bargaining chip for Sinema and Manchin to stay onboard. CBO will soon report to Congress on economic and financial benefits from the proposed social programs. “There’s so much more in here that will benefit both their states,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois says, referring to Manchin and Sinema. “We’re going to have to wait until the CBO score comes out on Friday. But that doesn’t lessen our commitment to passing this. And if anything, it became very clear that we need to pass this before the end of the year.”
The White House is trying to get ahead of the CBO’s cost projection report that is expected to cast doubt on Democrats’ assurances that the spending bill would be fully paid for, partially through ramping up Internal Revenue Service (IRS) enforcement against wealthy tax scofflaws. The Administration has projected beefing up the IRS’s funding by $80 billion could result in $400 billion worth of revenue over a decade. According to New York Times, Phillip Swagel, Director of the CBO said Monday that the IRS could be funded by $80 billion. This would generate $400 billion in revenue over a decade. TimesHowever, the revenues could be even lower: $120 Billion in 10 years.
While on Tuesday, Andrew Bates (Deputy White House Press Secretary) attempted to create distrust within the agency. “There has been wide agreement on the part of everyone involved—moderates, liberals, et cetera—that CBO does not have experience analyzing revenue amounts gained from cracking down on wealthy tax cheats who are taking advantage of every honest taxpayer,” Bates told reporters on Air Force One.
Before CBO cost projections started to leak out, Sinema and Manchin had voiced their concerns regarding the bill’s size and scope. Inflation is at an all-time high of 6.2% over the past three decades. Voting for something not paid for could make it less popular. Several prominent economists, including former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, have concluded that those investments wouldn’t increase inflation because the package is designed to increase productivity. Others in the caucus support the bill. Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders, Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, punted the concern about the IRS’ ability to raise enough revenue down the road. “Well, let’s not speculate,” he told TIME. “Okay?”
However, some Democrats remind that Biden is not the only President who would spend deficit money if it were up to him. Donald Trump’s Tax Cut and Jobs Act—which slashed individual rates and lowered the top corporate tax rate—was estimated to add $1.4 trillion to the deficit over a decade when it was passed in 2017. “Republicans want to blame Biden for everything,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, says. “Republicans are the ones that drove the deficit into the hole with this trillion-and-a-half dollar Trump tax giveaway to rich people. We’re fixing some of that. Not enough of that, but some of that.”
Passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill and nearly $2 trillion in stimulus funding earlier this year means that Congress has now approved two out of three of Biden’s major spending proposals. Those actions have been broadly popular with voters, but that popularity hasn’t rubbed off on Biden. That’s left a gap between the low public ratings for Biden and the popularity of the actions he and the Democrats have ushered through so far.
Biden’s popularity began to sink in the summer as infections from the COVID-19 Delta variant spiked across the country and Biden presided over a chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The last few months have seen Democratic quarrels about the size of the Social Spending Bill and whether it should include an increase in corporate taxes as part of its financing. Jen Psaki, White House Press Secretary acknowledged Monday that Democrats’ haggling has had an impact on perceptions. “I’ve been doing press and communications for some time—I will tell you that you don’t design a communication strategy around infighting within the Democratic Party in Washington,” Psaki told reporters. “That has been a necessity in order to get this legislation done.”
In the interim, though the U.S. economic recovery has been rapid, there has been a rise in American unemployment. However, this has also led to a decrease in the number of jobs. This has caused a surge for goods and triggered supply chain bottlenecks that have resulted in an increase in costs. Voters lay those problems at Biden’s feet: 49% of Americans disapprove of Biden’s handling of the pandemic, according to recent polling by Washington Post-ABC News. This same poll found that nearly half of Americans blame Biden in record inflation.
In the Senate halls on Tuesday, Sen. John Hickenlooper, a moderate Colorado Democrat, argued the President’s poor polling isn’t his fault, but the result of long-standing supply chain issues that preceded Biden’s presidency. They are “a reflection of the transitory inflation caused by the bottlenecks in the supply chain and then OPEC oil producers holding back supply, trying to cause mischief,” Hickenlooper said, referring to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, a consortium of 13 countries that controls more than 35% of the world’s oil exports.
Biden’s closest associates agree that these disruptions can be temporary and believe the only way to get out of them is by passing the Build back Better package. “We’ve got to get this bill done,” says a Democratic strategist with ties to the White House. “We have a good way out of this. Some of it is going to happen organically on its own, like COVID, the supply chain, and some of it we have to take control of.”
Voters eagerly await to find out how much Biden is able to control.