Where is the Democratic agenda headed?

Fourth, everyone’s assessment of Joe Biden has diminished. The White House has been strangely absent from the intra-party negotiations until quite recently, which was not at all the case on the infrastructure bill. But the bigger worry for Democrats is the sense that Biden doesn’t have the juice to speak for them if things get rough. If you’re going to come close to a government shutdown, let alone hitting the debt ceiling, you need the president to think on his feet, make a strong case to the public, and stand up for your position against the other party. It seems increasingly evident that President Biden won’t be up to that. His performance as a spokesman for his administration’s policies on the COVID response and the Afghanistan withdrawal have been abysmal, his public statements reek of sad exhaustion, and his staff seems afraid to put him out in public. This can’t help but influence the Democrats’ sense of what sorts of risks they want to take this fall.

And finally, fifth, what’s going on at this point is that the Democrats are being forced to confront the reality of their extremely narrow congressional majority. There has pretty much never been a narrower one. They have about three votes to spare in the House. They don’t have a Senate majority at all, and have to count on the vice president’s vote to get party-line measures through. The president’s public approval is around the 50 percent mark on a great day for him, and a bit lower most of the time now. Of course they’re not just going to pass the second Great Society in this situation. They’re going to pass narrow, modest measures, and they’re going to have to work with some Republicans to get most of them through. The infrastructure bill is an example of the kind of legislative measure that a period like this might be expected to produce under the best of circumstances. The reconciliation bill is not. It is an example of self-delusion.

That self-delusion has been evident from the outset of the Biden administration, in all kinds of talk about how a new progressive era had been inaugurated, and how the COVID-response bill was the most dramatic leftward step our society had seen in generations. Remember when the relief checks were going to change our politics? That talk has abated some, but the underlying attitude is powerfully evident in the very idea of the reconciliation bill the Democrats are now advancing.