Democrats haven’t done much of anything other than headbutt brick walls these past several months. The party spent half a year trying to square the circle on the Build Back Better Act, their catch-all social spending and climate legislation, before Sen. Joe Manchin unceremoniously pulled the plug on it in December. Afterwards, Democrats turned to the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. These had even less chance of passing, since the Democrats would have needed to carve out an exception to the Senate filibuster in order to enact them with a simple majority. Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema could not have said more clearly or more often that they would never change the sixty-vote threshold, no matter how many Jim Crow references their colleagues lobbed around. Trying to corner and isolate them may have been Democratic leaders’ best strategy for changing their minds, but it didn’t work.
These exercises in unproductivity have come at a cost. Pick your favorite polling average, and Biden’s net approval at an all-time low. While Democrats have fumbled around kicking the tires on an agenda with ambition that exceeds their narrow majorities, Biden’s marks for handling the economy and COVID—the top two issues among voters—have only gotten poorer.
As Biden and the unified Democratic Congress begins its second year, the question is whether it can move on from this cycle of embarrassment.