Joe Biden must be having flashbacks.
In early 2010, when Democrats lost a special election for the late Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat — and with it, their ability to overcome a Republican filibuster — Washington rose as one, an insistent chorus of grim reapers, reading last rites over the Affordable Care Act and Barack Obama’s presidency. By then, Mr. Obama had been through six fruitless months of negotiations with Republicans, followed by fierce internal battles between House and Senate Democrats over the details of the plan. The Massachusetts defeat seemed as if it would doom the A.C.A., the centerpiece of his legislative agenda.
Twelve years later, President Biden finds himself in a similar fix. Senator Joe Manchin’s sudden announcement that he would deny the president the critical 50th Democratic vote for his prized Build Back Better Act was a bitter blow. It came after months of politically costly, maddening negotiations, during which Mr. Manchin, of West Virginia, provoked a series of big concessions, only to present the president and his party with a lump of coal just before Christmas.
The potentially decisive rejection of Mr. Biden’s signature initiative by a member of his own party added to a perception of weakness the president can ill afford at a time when his ratings have fallen and so much seems out of his control.
While the American Rescue Plan Act and the bipartisan infrastructure bill the president signed were indisputably major achievements, Mr. Manchin’s defection on the Build Back Better Act caused doubters to ask whether the president had placed too much faith in the Senate as an institution, in his own negotiating skills and in his steadfast belief that he could cajole the West Virginian, one Old Bull to another. Or maybe he misread what the Covid crisis would allow him to accomplish legislatively, causing him to shoot for too much.
The question is, what now?
No historical parallel is perfect, but the near-death and revival of the A.C.A. is a parable that does offer a path forward for this president and his administration.
In early 2010, as Washington was hanging crepe on the White House, Mr. Obama was inside, regrouping. Two months later, the bill passed and became law, thanks to intense behind-the-scenes wrangling and a complex series of legislative maneuvers led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Yes, at the time Democrats enjoyed comparatively comfortable majorities in both chambers of Congress. But the strategy and tactics we used to resuscitate the A.C.A. still offer clues that may help revive not only the Build Back Better Act but also the president’s precarious standing.
Talk less about the Build Back Better Act and more about Covid and inflation:
While Mr. Obama quietly laid plans with congressional leaders to revive the A.C.A. in the weeks after the Massachusetts debacle, he largely stopped talking about it in public. Instead, he focused his appearances on two issues of immediate and urgent concern to Americans — jobs and the economic crisis.
Today, Americans are deeply concerned about the resurgent pandemic and the inflation that is eating away at their wage gains. Mr. Manchin captured the public mood when he said that these issues should be the center of attention in Washington. Voters, focused on the here and now, have begun to see the endless scrums over the size and scope of the Build Back Better Act as a distraction, even though the bill would substantially ease costs for families.
Fortunately, Mr. Biden already seems to understand that he needs to pivot. Judging from his recent comments, he and his team know they must do two things at once: communicate publicly and forcefully on the crises at hand, while discreetly exploring which pieces of the shattered Build Back Better package might be revived.
You can’t always get what you want, so get what you can:
In 2010, some voices on the left vigorously argued that an A.C.A. without a government-run option to compete with private insurers was not worth passing. Yet some Senate Democrats resisted the public option, so Mr. Obama passed the law he could, convinced it would still do enormous good.
For months, Mr. Biden has been trying to balance the expansive social and climate agendas of progressives with the reticence of Mr. Manchin, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and other moderate Democrats.
Mr. Biden and congressional leaders tried to thread the needle by halving the size of his Build Back Better proposal while including pieces of as many of his original plans as possible, funded in shorter increments. The theory was that the popularity of these programs would compel future Congresses to continue them.
Pointing to the national debt, Mr. Manchin has called this gimmickry and publicly insisted that to get his vote, the president and Democrats would have to choose fewer priorities, do more to focus benefits according to economic need and fund them for longer.
These demands have enraged progressives, who had hoped to seize this moment, when Democrats hold the White House and control of Congress, to address the urgent and growing challenges of income inequality and climate change while paying for those efforts by reversing Trump tax cuts that overwhelmingly favored the wealthy.
Failing to enact a package akin to the one he initially proposed might also disappoint the president, who hoped the gravity of these challenges and the trauma inflicted by the pandemic would create a rare opportunity to pass an agenda as bold in scope as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
But the math is the math. In a 50-50 Senate and an evenly divided House, there are obvious limits to what can be achieved. Even Roosevelt took years to enact the New Deal.
To paraphrase Roosevelt, it’s time for a rendezvous with reality and to fight for what is possible.
Mr. Manchin has said at various points that he could support a scaled-back bill that made long-term commitments to fewer priorities. If there is a chance to make prekindergarten the standard in America, with all that would mean for children today and in the future, it would be a remarkable achievement. Expanding and strengthening the A.C.A. or making permanent a more targeted child tax credit, dramatically reducing the number of children living in poverty in America, would mark monumental progress. Paying for it by offsetting or even partially repealing the Trump tax cuts of 2017 would be fair, equitable and a major step forward.
Focus on the parts, not the sum:
Americans are, at once, eager for solutions yet fundamentally suspicious of sweeping promises of government action. They are wary of words like “historic” and “transformative,” which speak more to the vanity of politicians than to the needs of people. The A.C.A. also set out to be transformative, but we were better able to sell it to the American people when we narrowed it down into a bill that offered practical answers for Americans who, say, got sick and, paradoxically, no longer qualified for health insurance when they most needed it.
Don’t win a victory and declare defeat:
Even after the passage of the A.C.A., some voices on the left called it a failure because it did not include the public option we could not win.
Tell that, today, to all the Americans with pre-existing conditions who can no longer be refused coverage or be gouged by insurance companies. Tell that to the people who have serious illnesses and no longer face lifetime insurance caps. Tell that to the tens of millions of Americans who have coverage, thanks to the A.C.A.
Despite relentless efforts by Donald Trump and Republicans to undermine and repeal the bill, Obamacare has proved durable and popular. This year, more Americans enrolled in its programs than ever before.
In his first year in office, Mr. Biden passed the Rescue Act, which jump-started the vital distribution of vaccines and helped families, businesses and the nation navigate the virus. He defied the skeptics and passed a bipartisan plan to rebuild the country’s fraying infrastructure, with enormous implications for America’s economic future. That alone is pretty good work.
If he can retool the Build Back Better Act to make it permanent, as the A.C.A. is, rather than piecing together a hodgepodge of temporary programs, it, too, may be able to stand the test of time, and a decade from now, be even more popular than it is today.
Given the makeup of the Congress and the frayed bonds of trust among his fractious caucuses, there is no assurance that Mr. Biden can revive the Build Back Better Act as Mr. Obama did the A.C.A. Nor would its revival necessarily help Democrats avoid a midterm wipeout next fall, given the continuing concerns over inflation and the fact that incumbent parties almost always suffer losses two years after winning the White House.
The A.C.A. was no shield for Mr. Obama and Democrats in 2010. But if, through a retooled Build Back Better Act, Mr. Biden can achieve significant and durable progress on some major priorities that will benefit children and families for generations, Democrats would be wise to celebrate and tout those gains instead of complaining about what wasn’t possible.
David Axelrod (@davidaxelrod) was a senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential campaigns.
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