heads toward the 100th day of his presidency and prepares to address the nation, he has reason to feel good about his time in office so far. His job approval is holding steady in the mid-50s, and he is getting high marks for his character, leadership and demeanor. The public supports his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, especially his vaccine rollout. He quickly passed his first major initiative, the American Rescue Plan. His aides appear to be working well together, and for the most part internal conflicts have been kept off the front pages.
Mr. Biden has also done well in another important dimension of the presidency—his role as party leader. Surveys have shown nearly unanimous support for him among Democrats. This isn’t surprising, because his statements and proposals have reflected the center of gravity in the Democratic Party. Cynics dismissed the results of last year’s postprimary negotiations between progressives and the center left as a campaign truce that would give way to factional fighting after the election. Instead, these unity documents have turned out to be reliable predictors of the administration’s stances.
There is one conspicuous exception—the administration’s handling of refugees. Democrats criticized President Trump for lowering the annual cap on refugee admissions to 15,000. During his campaign, Mr. Biden promised to raise it to 125,000. After hesitating for several months, however, earlier this month he declined to increase it, provoking a backlash from his party that forced him to change course.
As the controversy unfolded, the press reported that the president had rebuffed a plea from Secretary of State
not to maintain Mr. Trump’s cap. This is a classic example of
John F. Kennedy’s
maxim that victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan. No administration is exempt from public discord when officials want to distance themselves from unpopular policies.
As the president looks beyond his first big proposal to two others—the recent American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan, which reportedly will be released ahead of his national address—he faces a choice: Will he try to pass initiatives totaling more than $4 trillion with the votes of Democrats only, or will he accept the compromises needed to bring some Republicans on board?
Mr. Biden campaigned on a pledge to mend the divisions that have disfigured the legislative process and threatened the stability of governing institutions. Making good on this pledge would require him to move away from the center of his party toward the center of the country—a shift that would anger many on his left flank. The flap over refugee policy offered a foretaste. Many Democrats believe that the quest for compromise is a fool’s errand in an era of polarized politics.
President Biden appears to have a more optimistic view. Three weeks ago he signaled his openness to negotiations on the jobs plan. “Compromise is inevitable,” he declared. “Changes to my plan are certain.”
If Mr. Biden wants broad support, he will have to give ground on the scope of the bill and how to pay for it. Republicans have indicated a willingness to proceed with the portions of the bill they regard as infrastructure investments (broadband, roads, bridges), but not the others. None will accept the administration’s proposal to increase the corporate tax rate to 28%.
Sen. Chris Coons,
a Democrat from the president’s home state of Delaware, has suggested dividing the jobs proposal into two bills. One would focus on infrastructure, the other on items such as housing and home healthcare. Democrats could work with Republicans to pass the first bill, and pass the latter through reconciliation if all Democrats support it.
Although it’s possible that some Republicans would back a more modest increase in the corporate tax rate, the bulk of the funding would have to come from other measures. As I argued last week, a multiyear commitment to improving tax collection could raise revenues by $1.5 trillion over the next decade. A broad-based minimum tax would ensure that every large corporation would pay something. User fees are off the table, because the president won’t break his pledge to increase taxes only on households making more than $400,000 annually.
Compromise is still possible. Both President Biden and Republicans must now decide whether they are prepared to take heat from their own ranks to pursue it.
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