The Corner

Politics & Policy

Did the Historians Ignite Joe Biden’s Appetite for Big Risks?

President Joe Biden gives a statement about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., August 24, 2021. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

We will see how the seemingly endless vote-wrangling on Capitol Hill shakes out for President Biden and the Democratic Party. I think a failure to find enough votes in the House and Senate to pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework and the “Build Back Better” legislation would panic Democrats so much, that they are likely to quickly unify around some sort of face-saving smaller-scale version of these bills. But the president’s visit to Capitol Hill on Friday turned out particularly odd, with Biden effectively telling House Democrats not to vote for the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework until there was a deal on the other legislation, effectively “whipping against his own bill.”

Why would Biden not take the half-a-loaf that was on the table, and effectively go for double or nothing? I wonder if Biden’s early March meeting with Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jon Meacham, and other historians, discussing Biden’s potential to be an transformative, era-defining president, stirred up Biden’s ambitions and/or delusions of grandeur. Axios reported, “They talked a lot about the elasticity of presidential power, and the limits of going bigger or faster than the public might anticipate or stomach.”

Passing and enacting a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal would be, in the eyes of Democrats and presidential historians, a nice accomplishment. But passing and enacting a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal and a $3.5 trillion “Build Back Better” legislation would permanently expand the cost, size, and scope of the federal government in American life – along with flood the economy with $4.7 trillion in new spending over the coming years.

But the problem is, not every Democrat in the House and Senate was elected with a mandate to permanently expand the cost, size, and scope of the federal government in American life. Some were elected because they weren’t the party of President Trump. Opposing Trump was the only thing every Democrat could agree upon in 2020. And if Democratic primary voters had really wanted a president with ambitions like these, they could just as easily have voted to nominate Bernie Sanders.

But Biden wants to be remembered as a transformative president. Well, so far he’s managed to transform his once-high job approval rating.

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