Go big. Go fast. And, if need be, go without the GOP.
Since assuming office two weeks ago, President Joe Biden has made this his credo while instituting a record 45 executive actions that fulfill campaign promises on everything from climate change to racial equity to immigration, that undo a number of Donald Trump’s policies, and that have shaped the news cycle along the way.
And while the carefully calibrated policy rollout can’t, on its own, juice the economy or ramp up the Covid-19 response on the scale that’s needed, White House aides believe it has helped build momentum for the president as he tries to sell a historic $1.9 trillion “rescue” package.
Their belief in that is so strong, in fact, that Biden officials and allies are now practically daring Republicans to fight them, convinced that the public is firmly on the side of quick action.
“It will save our majority if he takes that approach with everything that he does,” said House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), one of Biden’s closest allies in the House. “Don’t try to go around them. But if they refuse to do it, use his executive powers and do it. And let them take you to court.”
It’s a remarkable turn from the Trump years, when Democrats were the ones doing the suing. And it’s a notable shift from Barack Obama’s era, when, only late in his time in office, the president adopted his now-infamous pen-and-phone approach. But Biden and his team say they took lessons from both periods. The key, a top White House official said, is to keep the pressure on, executing and proposing new, major policies every day that touch on nearly every aspect of American life and culture.
“If you turned on cable news last Wednesday, it was basically C-SPAN,” the White House official said, describing the wall-to-wall coverage of Biden’s newly-signed executive orders. “After the last four years, I think Americans are OK with that.”
There are concerns on the left, however, that he has resisted taking action on forgiving student loan debt and has not gone far enough to reverse Trump’s immigration policies.
And Republicans are raising objections about the scope of Biden’s early actions and the cost of his plans, saying he’s overreaching and his proposals cost too much money.
There’s a broad sense among Republicans that Biden and Democrats will fall out of favor with voters. Some Republicans are already savoring the prospect of a 2022 campaign that attempts to paint Biden as campaigning as a moderate while taking a hard left turn through executive actions, pointing principally to an executive order concerning transgender rights.
“Anti-energy, anti-growth, extreme wokeness,” former Trump 2016 adviser Sam Nunberg said of Biden’s spate of executive actions. “This is candy for Republicans, conservatives and independents.”
Democrats, however, believe that if Republicans are viewed as gumming up the works, it will backfire on them, especially if the economy begins to recover and the coronavirus pandemic recedes.
“I think the Republicans better be very, very cautious,” said former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, warning that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell “better come up with another name for himself besides ‘the grim reaper.’ Because I think the American people are going to focus blame on the Republicans if we can’t get things done.”
Biden’s team has been in a similar situation before, albeit a dozen years ago.
In 2009, Biden was a newly inaugurated vice president negotiating with a GOP minority in Congress resisting a rescue plan necessitated by yet another economic crisis from another prior administration. The Obama White House, including Biden and his then-chief of staff Ron Klain, proposed and passed a stimulus package far smaller than they wanted.
The White House expected to get a second shot at passing more stimulus if needed. But they never got the chance.
“Joe Biden and Ron Klain aren’t going to make that mistake twice,” said a Biden adviser. “This isn’t the time for small solutions.”
Obama’s former White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, said 2009 and 2021 aren’t identical situations because the economy was crashing just as Obama took office. Because of the severity of the crisis, Obama did not want negotiations to drag on, he said. Instead, he quickly pushed forward a plan to stabilize the economy with an emergency injection of money. Consideration of a much larger stimulus bill was shelved because some top advisers thought it would make the political lift much harder and the process of passing any measure much longer, if not outright impossible.
By contrast, Emanuel said Biden “had made a decision to use overwhelming force and fast.” By signing executive orders on a range of issues, Emanuel said, Biden is taking those items off the table and imploring Congress to focus on the stimulus proposal.
“Don’t try to do 10 things — do one thing and do it well — and that is exactly what he’s doing,” Emanuel said of Biden. “That is very smart, keep everybody laser-focused on a singular task.”
On Monday, Biden met with 10 GOP senators who offered a drastically smaller plan. But White House press secretary Jen Psaki emphasized that the meeting was a discussion and not a negotiation. And she stressed that the president is not entertaining offers to go small.
Biden already believes that his $1.9 trillion proposal “is too small,” Psaki noted.
Recent polls show a majority of Americans are on board with the size of Biden’s rescue package — and with the aggressive policy steps he’s taken since Inauguration Day.
A Monmouth University poll last week showed 54 percent approved and only 30 percent disapproved of Biden’s job performance thus far — numbers which were buoyed by his recent actions, according to Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray.
“The flurry of activity has shown there’s a president on the job. What’s important is getting something done and you get credit for succeeding,” Murray said.
“If he gets Republican support for what appears to be a big package and he moves them in his direction, that’s a big win,” Murray said. “If he doesn’t get Republican support, he needs to go big or go home.”
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