Democrats facing a legislative logjam and divisions over their strategy are confronting a new problem: the worry that they over-promised supporters when they won back the White House and both chambers of Congress.
The victories in the presidential race and in two run-off Senate races in January were met with elation in Democratic circles, as it gave the party full control of the legislative and executive branches for the first time since 2009.
The possibility of passing sweeping legislation to tackle inequality and climate change, improve the healthcare system and secure the right to vote in the face of state measures imposing new restrictions seemed to be within the grasp.
But just six months into Joe Biden’s presidency, many of those plans look unwinnable.
Democrats don’t have the votes to end the legislative filibuster, and they haven’t been able to get all 50 of their Democratic senators behind a $6 trillion spending bill, the For the People voting rights act or even a significant increase in the federal minimum wage.
The failures illustrate the shortcomings of having just a 50-seat majority in the Senate, especially for a party that still counts centrists from red states among its members.
The predicatment also sparks some fears: that voters might stay home during the 2022 midterms and punish Democrats for not delivering on their promises. That could hand Republicans majorities in Congress for the final two years of Biden’s first term.
That fear is particularly daunting after the battle to beat former President Trump brought scores of first time and inconsistent voters to the polls.
“Voters sent President Biden to the White House and gave Democrats control of both houses of Congress with a mandate,” a frustrated Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) said.
“If we deliver, we will maintain power in 2022,” he predicted. “If we don’t, and we show the inability to deliver, then we risk losing power.”
Biden and Democrats do have one big victory in the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package approved earlier this year.
And there are still hopes for the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress to notch some move legislative wins.
Democrats want to use budget reconciliation, the tool used to bypass a Senate filibuster and GOP opposition to make the relief bill law, on a larger package of liberal priorities.
Yet there is no consensus within the party on the size of that package, with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, pushing for a $6 trillion measure and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va) saying he is opposed to a package of that size.
Robert Reich, a prominent liberal voice who served as labor secretary under former President Clinton, said it is natural for some people to feel down on what Democrats have done so far.
“Biden was fast out of the gate with a bunch of executive orders, plus the American Rescue Plan, that he heightened the expectations of many progressives and others of doing even more. So disappointment is inevitable,” he said.
“But my guess is that between now and the midterms, Republicans will have shown themselves to be so negative about everything, and Trump will have whipped them into a fervor of hatefulness, that Democrats have a good chance of remaining in control of the House and a fair chance of maintaining control over the Senate.”
Not all Democrats are so optimistic.
“They’ve got the White House and Congress and [if] they can’t deliver, why would anyone vote to re-elect these folks?” said Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of Our Revolution, which helped organize voters for Sanders’ presidential campaigns.
“The number one job of any politician is to raise the standard of living for their constituents. To improve the material conditions. Biden made a set of concrete promises to do so,” he added. “Failing to deliver would have a pretty significant effect.”
Natalia Salgado, who oversees federal affairs for the Working Families Party, said that she and other advocates ran persuasion campaigns with reluctant voters during the 2020 election with the explicit pledge that Democrats would seize on Biden’s agenda if they retook Washington.
“If we’re not able to govern in the bold way on the platform that Joe Biden ran on, then absolutely our communities are going to come back to us and say: ‘this is why we don’t trust them. They’ve commodified us before. They commodified us again. And they do not deliver on what they promise,’” Salgado said.
“It will 100 percent validate all of the pessimism that we have warded off from our base during this last election.”
A chorus of more moderate Democrats say liberals can’t be too greedy.
One Democratic strategist called some progressives who expected more “delusional.”
“Biden inherited a shitstorm in the middle of a pandemic with hundreds of thousands of people dying and a struggling economy. Anyone who thought he’d be able to get more done is dreaming,” the strategist said.
“It’s just not how it works, particularly in such a polarizing environment. And progressives should be pleased with all the promises he did make and did keep, not to mention moving us back to normal after four years of hell.”
A second operative said Biden had over-promised to win last year’s election and to motivate progressives, including those who had stayed home in 2016.
“Of course he did,” the source said. “But this is the problem with politics today with both sides. Think about the world we live in where multi-trillion dollar bills are not enough. That tells you how far out of whack we’ve gone. It’s f*cking insane.”
Sanders and progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the source argued, should not have such sway over the ideological direction of the party during the Biden administration.
“You have Bernie Sanders and AOC dictating how the party should go? Democrats should be embarrassed. The only way this is going to change is if the midterms are an absolute shellacking for Dems. Maybe then we’ll wake up as a party,” the operative added.
Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have irked progressives who see them as holding top Democratic priorities ahead of the midterms by opposing an end to the filibuster. Some believe they can make headway through public advocacy work, rallies and ads.
Fix Our Senate is unveiling a six-figure television and digital ad roll out in Arizona, D.C., Illinois, New Jersey and Vermont with that in mind. One 30-second spot titled “Undone,” shared exclusively with The Hill, warns that Democrats’ recent gains could be reversed if the filibuster continues to prevent major legislation from passing.
But others simply believe Biden has already given enough to the party’s left flank and that as a moderate traditionalist, he’s come a long way. They point to early wins like protecting the Affordable Care Act, reinvigorating the economy, and a successful mitigation of coronavirus as signature achievements. Some even contend if the filibuster were eliminated, Biden would face additional pressure to enact more divisive progressive policies that could end up costing candidates in conservative-leaning districts their seats.