The passage of the American Rescue Plan –the coronavirus relief bill — comes less than two months after Joe Biden’s inauguration. How does this period compare to the similar period in Barack Obama’s first term?
In both cases, the Democratic Presidents had to deal with a grave national disaster. Obama had to deal with The Great Recession. He mobilized Congress to pass “The American Relief and Recovery Act” (ARRA), the stimulus bill. Biden had to deal with the Coronavirus Pandemic. He organized the vaccine delivery process and mobilized Congress to pass “The American Rescue Plan.”
Both Obama and Biden had to clean up messes created by their Republican predecessors. And, in both cases, the corrective legislation passed with little or no Republican support — In 2009, in the Senate, ARRA passed with only 3 Republican votes; in 2921, in the Senate, the Rescue Plan passed with 0 GOP votes.
In 2009, because of the objections of conservative Democrats, Obama’s ARRA was smaller than he wanted ($787B). During his first term, Obama did not prove to be adept at managing congressional Democrats. In 2021, Biden’s Rescue Plan was what he wanted ($1.9T) — although Biden did not get an increase in the minimum wage he wanted.
In both cases, the Democratic Presidents had to deal with adamant Republican opposition. In retrospect, Obama seems to be have been ill-prepared for this. Part of the reason that Democrats lost the House, in 2010, was the fact that Obama let the healthcare discussion be dragged down by Republican Senators. Perhaps it’s too soon to tell, but Biden seems to be better prepared to deal with Republican intransigence.
(In a recent CNN interview (https://www.alternet.org/2021/03/obama-mistakes/?utm_source=&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=6756 ), Senate Majority Leader Schumer was asked if he thought Democrats should have done more to secure the votes of moderate Republicans such as Susan Collins. Schumer replied: “No… We made a big mistake in 2009 and ’10’… Susan Collins was part of that mistake. We cut back on the stimulus dramatically, and we stayed in recession for five years. And what was offered by the Republicans was so far away from what’s needed, so far away from what Biden proposed, that he thought that they were not being serious in wanting to really negotiate.”)
Obama had a full plate but Biden’s is fuller. Obama had to worry about the economy, healthcare, and divided government. Biden has to worry about the pandemic, the economy, the aftermath of Trump (extreme polarization), climate change, and racial strife.
Early in his first term, Obama made two big mistakes: he took a “hands-off” attitude towards getting his healthcare plan through Congress and he was largely uninvolved in the Democratic Party preparation for the 2010 midterms. (Obama also made a mistake having Tim Geithner be his Treasury Secretary, which led to the “too big to fail” treatment of big banks.)
Biden has a bigger problem with Republicans. In 2009, Obama faced a united GOP, inhabited by members that a) thought he had not been born in the US and b) was a muslim terrorist. In 2010, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said that the top GOP priority was “to make Obama a one-term President.”
Biden has a more complicated problem. First, two-thirds of the Republican base feel that Biden “stole” the election. (https://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/540508-majority-of-republicans-say-2020-election-was-invalid-poll) Second, because of gerrymandering, most of the Republican members of Congress come from deeply “Red” districts; their constituents don’t want them to cooperate. Third, Republicans aren’t responding appropriately to the Coronavirus pandemic.
The Biden administration inherited a pandemic mess: while vaccines had been developed — thanks to “operation warp speed” — the vaccine-delivery system was in shambles, and the White House message incoherent. The Biden White House has done a good job fixing the delivery system — at the moment, more than 2 million Americans are being vaccinated each day — and delivering a coherent message: “Wear a mask, socially distance, and get vaccinated.” Nonetheless, the Republican electorate is resistant. Many Trump supporters refuse to wear masks and about half of GOP men refuse to get vaccinated. (https://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/542814-49-percent-of-gop-men-say-they-wont-get-vaccinated-pbs-poll)
Biden is doing a better job preparing for the 2022 midterms: So far, Biden seems to be working hand-in-hand with Democratic congressional leadership (Pelosi and Schumer). It appears that, in 2021, communication is much improved over what it was in 2009.
In 2009, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine was (part-time) leader of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). For a variety of reasons, Democrats lacked energy in 2010 and suffered devastating losses: six Senate seats, 63 House seats (and control of the chamber), and six governorships. In 2021, Jamie Harrison is leader of the DNC and Democrats appear to be better prepared than they were in 2009.
In the coming weeks, Biden plans to tour the nation, speaking about pandemic progress and the virtues of the American Rescue Plan. The Administration must continue to sell their plans to the American people.
Joe Biden is doing a good job. Democrats can’t let up.