Americas

Biden's lustre dims as stumbles and Congress's sniping take toll

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) – The weekly trip to the grocery store keeps getting more expensive.

Gas prices are rising and winter heating bills look ominous. Supply chain problems loom over the holidays. Covid-19 rages on.

Forests are burning in the West and people are drowning in basement apartments in the East.

How is Washington responding? Democratic progressives and moderates are sniping at each other over how big to go with a sprawling, multi-trillion-dollar economic plan.

President Joe Biden and his public health advisers can’t agree on who should get booster shots. And Uncle Sam is threatening to default on his debts.

Republicans on Tuesday (Sept 28) blocked a Democratic move in the Senate to raise the debt limit for the second time in as many days.

Across the Capitol, House progressives lined up to defy Speaker Nancy Pelosi by opposing a bipartisan infrastructure Bill scheduled for a vote on Thursday, potentially endangering Mr Biden’s economic agenda.

To cap off the day, the stock market’s benchmark S&P 500 closed down 2 per cent, its worst slide since May.

The longer the deadlock drags on, the greater the risk a narrative of a broken nation and hapless president takes hold.

Mr Biden, despite plenty of closed-door meetings and phone calls, has been largely absent from the public battle over his own economic plan.

Mr Biden and congressional Democrats have a plausible, even likely path past a perilous political moment.

In Congress, the shouting often gets loudest right before the deal, and no one is better at closing than Ms Pelosi.

Wall Street’s smart money is unfazed in its confidence in US creditworthiness. And the prospect vaccines may be expanded within weeks to millions more children could tamp down the pandemic, or at least the worries keeping many parents home from work and weakening the economic rebound.

On Wednesday, Senate Democrats are seeking a vote on a stopgap funding Bill to avert a government shutdown after the Sept 30 end of the federal fiscal year, though without a provision to increase the federal debt limit.

The White House dismisses any notion that Mr Biden is a bystander in the dramas.

Press Secretary Jen Psaki pointed to meetings he had on Tuesday with moderate Democratic senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and said his senior aides completed more than 260 “engagements” with lawmakers on the economic agenda.

Late on Tuesday, he cancelled a planned Wednesday trip to Chicago to focus on lobbying lawmakers.

“The President is just looking to unite the party to get across the finish line,” Ms Psaki said.

But Mr Biden already has taken damage.

His job approval in the Gallup Poll is down 13 points since June, setting a new low of 43 per cent in a survey ended Sept 17, as he fails to show the public the competence that helped distinguish him from his erratic predecessor.

At the same time, US consumer confidence dropped in September for a third straight month, suggesting concerns over the Delta variant of the virus and higher prices continue to dampen sentiment.

The economy is showing signs of a sharp slowdown over the past six weeks, with the Atlanta Federal Reserve’s GDPNow estimate of economic growth based on real-time data dropping from a 6.2 per cent annual pace in late August to 3.2 per cent as of Monday.

EERIE ECHO

The situation has eerie echoes of the malaise of the late 1970s.

It is playing out after a Trump presidency that sowed national division and undermined democratic values, a parallel to the period after Mr Richard Nixon’s presidency, the Vietnam War protests and the Watergate scandal.

Once again, the nation has just experienced an ignominious retreat from defeat abroad, albeit this time in a conflict that far fewer Americans cared about by the end.

Across the Atlantic, even Britain seems poised for a replay of its 1978-79 winter of discontent, with energy shortages brewing.

Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, whose political career traces back to that era – he was elected county executive in 1977 – is doing his best to stoke doubts about Democrats’ competence to govern.

He’s denied them any aid in raising the legal debt limit and is trying to force them into a convoluted two-week-long legislative morass in order to stave off a catastrophic US default.

“Our colleagues spend all their time in backroom talks over partisan plans while their basic duties sit here in limbo,” Mr McConnell chided from the Senate floor on Tuesday.

“So far, Democrats’ partisan ambitions have taken precedence over basic government.”

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned on Tuesday that the government would run out of cash by Oct 18 unless Congress acts, heightening the urgency of legislation.

‘POLITICAL STUNT’

Democratic congressional leaders have primarily countered Republicans by accusing the GOP of having “reckless” disregard for the economy.

With the federal government also facing a partial shutdown unless Congress passes stopgap funding by Thursday, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer accused the opposition party of manufacturing a crisis over a potential national default “all for a political stunt, a political gain”.

Republicans refused to back a debt ceiling suspension even though a major portion of the current debt accumulated under GOP control of Congress and the White House.

That’s a departure from the usual bipartisan votes on the matter.

The best thing Democratic leaders may now have going for them is the obvious danger ahead in next year’s congressional elections.

Midterms are always challenging for the President’s party, more so for Democrats with their slim majorities and Democratic-leaning states losing House seats in the Census reapportionment.

Moderates and progressives alike understand failure to deliver on Mr Biden’s economic agenda would sap supporters’ enthusiasm to turn out to vote.

If Mr Biden’s agenda passes, even trimmed down from its current scale, public memories of the squabbling along the way may fade.

The internal party fights have focused public attention on controversies over the size of the price tag, who gets hurt by potential tax increases and what priorities get short shrift.

CHANGING THE NARRATIVE?

A successful package would instead allow the White House to focus attention on a series of popular initiatives that appeal to crucial constituencies.

Among them are an expanded child tax credit, paid family leave, universal pre-kindergarten for three- and four-year-olds, two years of tuition-free community college, new Medicare benefits for the elderly and climate change initiatives.

Ms Pelosi, who had once said the House wouldn’t take up a bipartisan infrastructure favoured by moderates until the rest of Mr Biden’s economic plan passed, now plans to proceed with a vote on the public works plan.

But she projected confidence the entire agenda would be enacted, even as a compromise is worked out with moderates who want to trim the US$3.5 trillion (S$4.75 trillion) cost of social spending.

“Hopefully it will measure – it will reach the level that we need in order to pass both Bills,” Ms Pelosi said. “But we will pass both Bills.”

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