Biden needs to invoke his inner LBJ to Build Back Better

BY JOEL BALDWIN

President Joe Biden pictured visiting the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Arvada, Colorado to promote his Build Back Better agenda.


The Biden Presidency has had an eventful beginning with dramatic domestic and international policy changes from withdrawal of military operations in Afghanistan to the passing of the $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill. The Biden administration has willingly abrogated the preconceived notion of moderate centrist governance for a new image of radical change.


Although the withdrawal in Afghanistan caused international outcry and the covid relief bill required complete partisan unity and constant negotiations with Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, they were both implemented without legislative obstruction. This political theme fails to extend to Biden’s next legislative plan. The administration’s plan to pass the $3.5 trillion social infrastructure bill partnered with the $1 trillion bipartisan physical infrastructure bill is experiencing difficulty in both the House and the Senate from different factions of the Democratic party.


Within the Senate, the maverick from the Mountain state Joe Manchin and the freshman Senator from Arizona Krysten Sinema have been particular obstacles for Biden. Manchin has continuously been a thorn in the side of the Democratic party, famously being the soul Democratic Senator to vote against the Obama administration’s cap and trade bill. The West Virginian’s independent nature has continued under Biden with the Senator demanding a reduction of expenditure within the social infrastructure bill to between $1.5-$2 trillion. The Blue Dog Democrat has pledged to vote against the bill unless significant changes are made, potentially removing certain climate spending provisions and free college tuition.


Sinema has shared the Manchin line on the $3.5 trillion human infrastructure bill. Although beginning in the Green party, Sinema has become a truly conservative Democratic with a similarly differentiated personal image on Capitol Hill. She believes the bill to be excessive, viewing fiscal prudence to obtain a continued pre-eminence unbefitting of this moment of American political choosing. Arizona’s newest Senator has a dedication to bipartisanship that is equally unbefitting of this bifurcated Trumpian political age, continuing to ingratiate herself to Mitch McConnell with him describing her as brave for defying the party line.


Conservative Democratic influence within the Senate will undoubtedly be an impediment to the actualisation of the Biden agenda. Biden publicised his frustrations with the two senators by stating “They ask why Biden doesn’t get more done, because we effectively have a tie in the Senate and a majority of 4 in the House, with 2 senators who vote more with my Republican friends”. Biden’s frustrations are compounded by the aforementioned Democratic representation in the Senate, a 50/50 tie, enforcing the administration to use Reconciliation bills limited to budgetary and judicial matters to avoid the filibuster and implement his radical agenda, which require Manchin and Sinema’s support.


The administration does not have it plain sailing with the 438 members of the House. Within the House, the legislative obstacle for the Biden agenda comes from a newer breed of Democrat. Throughout the last 3 years, progressives within the Democratic party organised and began to win primaries with the astounding victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez followed by Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar and Pramilla Jayapal to form the now famous Squad. The group influences a range of House members, enough to torpedo Biden’s plans. The House Progressives have demanded the passing of both the social infrastructure bill and the bipartisan infrastructure bill together, fearing that if the smaller physical infrastructure bill is passed first, then the Manchin veto will likely kill the social infrastructure bill and forfeit the most revolutionary American policy plan since the New Deal.


The House progressives have formed a legislative plan to ensure both bills are passed, threaten to vote against the bipartisan physical infrastructure unless the social infrastructure bill is passed through budget reconciliation first, enforcing Manchin and Sinema to show their hand. The House progressives have pressured Nancy Pelosi into this legislative ordering to ensure their dreams of a Rooseveltian transformation in the role of American government is solidified for a generation, an opportunity they believe was missed by the cautiousness of the Obama administration.


With a divided party in both the House and the Senate and no chance of bipartisan support on the social infrastructure bill, the logical question is, how should the Biden administration approach this seemingly insurmountable challenge to pass an agenda to change America. The answer lies 55 years ago with a transformational Texan President whose legislative accomplishments have been largely forgotten: Lyndon Baines Johnson or LBJ.


LBJ passed revolutionary policies to enact a truly Great Society with Medicare, Medicaid, federal aid to education, the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. Johnson went further visiting Appalachia to begin a War on Poverty, halving poverty across the nation. However, Johnson greatest achievements remain the completion of Lincoln’s ideal by passing three bills: the Civil Rights Act 1964, the Voting Rights Act 1965 and the Civil Rights Act 1968, finally ending Jim Crow segregation and giving the black Southern citizenry a stake in their society, a truly inspiring legacy.


Johnson achieved these great legislative achievements through his famous Johnson Treatment, a mixture of physical intimidation, joviality and localised budgetary offers (port barrel politics) all in order to secure legislative support. The Texan Ranger used his knowledge of Capitol Hill from his time as Senate Majority Leader and his friendship with House Majority Leader McCormick to ensure the Great Society became reality. A transactional dealmaking style with a tough leadership style is frowned upon in contemporary progressive politics as overtly macho and unnecessary. The Johnson case study undermines this point, when fighting the Dixiecrats Southern filibuster led by Senator Richard Russell, Johnson could have backed down and been another president ready to acquiesce to the segregationists, but his steel changed the lives of millions across America and many like recently deceased Congressman John Lewis shed tears listening to Johnson’s civil rights message.


The lesson for Biden is to embrace the Johnson treatment to achieve substantive change. Bring Sinema and Manchin into the Oval office and negotiate. Speak to the House progressives and solidify their votes by whatever means necessary. Biden has 38 years of Senate experience and 8 years as VP, making him the perfect candidate to pick up LBJ’s Great Society legislative mantle and actualise the Build Back Better agenda.


Image - Flickr (National Renewable Energy Lab)