By ZEKE MILLER, JONATHAN LEMIRE and JOSH BOAK, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) – When President Joe Biden proposed a massive expansion of federal services for Americans this year, he laid out great stakes – not just for his own presidential legacy but far beyond.
The imperative, he said in a speech to Congress in April, is to show “that our government is still working – and can serve the people.”
It was a fitting argument for the government’s long-held Democratic view as a force for good, and for the idea that Washington has an obligation to improve the lot of Americans who are detained.
But five months later, the capital is stuck in an intra-party showdown on the president’s agenda that highlights the larger question of whether Democrats can deliver on their pledge to make the government make things better for people. .
“Over the past few decades, the country has seen the government struggle to act in ways that affect their lives,” said Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson, who advises groups that support elements of Biden’s agenda. “We need to show that government has a role to play in providing services to people who work for a living. “
That’s the fundamental question as Democrats fight to unite behind a $ 1.5 trillion to $ 3.5 trillion package that would raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and use that money to expand government care initiatives. health, education and the fight against climate change. The debate has also delayed action on a $ 1,000 billion public works bill that has proven to be one of the few bright spots of two-party politics in Washington.
In Friday’s closed-door meeting with House Democrats, Biden attempted to rally his party to a common strategy, warning them not to waste the opportunity of the legislation and reminding them that the world is watching to see if the democracy can work, according to a person familiar with his words who was not authorized to speak about it publicly.
White House officials have claimed the disparate Democratic coalition – which holds the weakest majorities in Congress – is closer than ever to reaching a deal, after successive rounds of closed-door talks and public statements by lawmakers . And they argued that the American public will judge the results not by the mess of legislative sausage-making, but by the possible benefits once new government programs are enacted.
In public and in his private conversations with lawmakers, Biden has presented the passage of the two bills as the best chance for his party to advocate for government action as a positive force in the lives of Americans. To prove that he can still do great things.
Granted, Biden has already managed to push through an economic relief bill of $ 1.9 trillion and leveraged all the strength of the federal government to distribute COVID-19 vaccines in a bid to bring the coronavirus pandemic under control.
But the country remains in a “difficult situation,” in the words of former secretary of state and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Biden “is really trying to sort of fight all of these trends, you know, to come up with legislation that will make a difference in the country, to show people that our government can actually work again, instead of being in a constant state. paralysis and an absolute, you know, nothing to show for that, ”she said Thursday at a conference hosted by The Atlantic.
In his private talks with lawmakers, Biden suggested that a Democratic defeat on current bills would be a gift to Republicans, empowering a party he saw as a threat to democracy itself. Defeat, he warned, would embolden the same forces that tacitly blessed the origins of the Jan.6 uprising and are now reluctant to help raise the national debt ceiling to avoid a government default.
The ramifications are likely to filter through the ballot box for years to come – during the Virginia gubernatorial race this fall, where Democrat Terry McAuliffe is largely aligned with Biden’s platform in his race against Republican Glenn Youngkin. In next year’s midterm election, where Democrats will defend their narrow margins in the House and Senate. In 2024, when the country decides whether to ratify the Democrats’ approach or turn right again in the presidential race.
Beyond politics, Biden described the success or failure of his program as an inflection point for the United States, determining whether it has the investments and policies to remain the leading economic and military power. of the world.
According to Biden and his team, the big safety net bill is a watershed moment for the country:
If that fails, America’s child poverty doubles. Expanded health care, education and other federal programs affecting the lives of millions of people are at risk. Efforts to tackle the threatening climate change are limited. The IRS continues to lack the money to provide basic customer service and enforce the tax laws on the wealthy. Internationally, the government lacks foreign investment, which allows China to become a dominant world power.
“People want to see their government do things,” said Representative Danny Davis, D-Ill. “And I think if they are going to vote in the midterm elections, thinking that the government has done things for them that are beneficial to them, then I think they will respond in favor of the policies and practices of this government. . “
Republicans, unsurprisingly, put the question in a whole new light.
“There’s no question the government can do things,” said Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla. “But can they do it better than you can do with your money or I can do with my money?” It’s a time when the government tells the American people, “You do more with less. And we will do less with more.
The debate over what government should and should not do is not new.
Biden was born while the New Deal was bearing fruit under Franklin Roosevelt, and he was a young adult when the Great Society took shape under Lyndon Johnson. As vice president, he whispered in President Barack Obama’s ear that his big new health care bill was big business, albeit in more colorful language.
Confidence in the government has nonetheless weakened.
In an April survey by the Pew Research Center, only about a quarter of Americans said they trust the federal government to do what’s right at least most of the time. That’s up from last year, thanks to an increase in confidence among Democrats following the presidential election, but it still remains low.
About three-quarters of Americans trusted the government to do the right thing at least most of the time in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But that confidence has not exceeded 30% for 15 years.
Still, the poll showed that a majority of Americans say the government should be doing more, not less, to fix the problems.
“We’ve had decades and decades of inaction on things that are really, really important,” says Senator Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Recalling Ronald Reagan’s message in the 1980s that government is the problem. “And so we’re in a situation now, what we’re doing is really trying to tackle these things that have been overlooked for a long time.”
The gravity of this message has so far failed to unify the diverse coalition of Congressional Democrats who have shown themselves to be prone to internal wrangling and demagoguery, raising particular concerns that could make an electoral cycle even more difficult. difficult midterm.
“Getting into a tough mid-term without sticking to a schedule would be like stepping into battle and willingly leaving your best weapons at home,” Democratic strategist Ferguson said. “We know the public supports this program and we know people are looking to Democrats to keep their promises. “
AP writers Hannah Fingerhut, Brian Slodysko and Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington and Steve Peoples in New York contributed.
EDITOR’S NOTE – Zeke Miller has covered the White House since 2012. Jonathan Lemire has covered the White House since 2017. Josh Boak has covered the White House and the economy for the PA since 2013.
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