Here’s the speech the president should have given before he even started negotiating with Joe Manchin on the Build Back Better plan.
Is there a candid message the president could send to his battered party and to a disaffected populous? | Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo
Opinion by Jeff Greenfield
12/20/2021 02:30 PM EST
Jeff Greenfield is a five-time Emmy-winning network television analyst and author.
As President Joe Biden prepares to give a speech Tuesday on the perils of the new Covid variant, he does so at a time of his own political peril. His ambitious Build Back Better bill is on life-support at best, with progressives (and the White House) accusing Sen. Joe Manchin of a breach of faith in rejecting the bill after months of negotiation. Spikes in inflation and crime have helped keep his approval ratings under water. Those numbers, as well as historical precedent and Republican effort to take control of the election machinery in state after state, make the 2022 midterm prospects for Democrats something close to frightening.
Some of what now confronts Democrats was unavoidable. But could today’s political climate have been different if Biden had, in his first address to the Congress last April, offered something presidents rarely deliver in such a setting: an honest political assessment of the terrain. Here’s part of what he might have said back then.
There is much work to be done to make this country better, safer, fairer, healthier. To see what should be done is to understand what one of my predecessors meant when he talked of “the fierce urgency of now.”
But this work must be done in the framework of a political system that often means delay, compromise, frustration. It is rare when a president comes into office with a mandate strong enough to overcome those conditions. Consider what happened last November: We won a clear plurality of 7 million votes; but thanks to the workings of the Electoral College, only 42,000 votes out of more than 150 million would have thrown the election into the House, where under the one-state-one-vote rules, my opponent might well have prevailed.
My party held the House, but barely; our margin is only a few votes. We took the Senate, but with no margin for error at all. This means that, if those on the other side of the aisle decide to present lockstep opposition to my proposals, a single Democratic defection will mean defeat.
I want to be frank with you: I would have greatly preferred to have the congressional majorities that Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson had.
But I don’t.
What this means is that I, and my party, must choose our battles wisely. It took every vote on my side of the aisle to enact the American Rescue Plan into law, which is already getting vaccines into arms and checks into pockets. While I hope and believe I will have considerable Republican support for the bipartisan infrastructure bill, it is clear to me that we will need to have a clear set of priorities for our more ambitious goals.
I hear and empathize with the idea that it will be a “false choice” between free community college, free pre-K, massive resources to fight climate change, paid parental leave. But if we do not recognize the world as it is, if we do not understand that we must play the hand we are dealt, what we may well end up with is disillusion even in the face of significant success. When the Affordable Care Act was passed, some in my party spent so much time bemoaning what was not in the bill that they failed to celebrate what is now recognized as a huge step toward better and more accessible health care. If we can put some of what we want to do in place this year, it will provide support for the more ambitious work we want to do in the years ahead.
Let me speak bluntly to my fellow Democrats: Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. And do not let the differing views within our party — legitimate disagreement over the size and scope of what we can do — stop us from taking every step we can to make this country better, safer, fairer. I wasn’t exactly an ally of Ronald Reagan, but he spoke well when he said: “My 80 percent friend is not my 20 percent enemy.”
Biden did not say those words last April. Now, in the wake of a serious, if not fatal setback for his domestic agenda, with angry words of betrayal and broken promises coming from the circular firing squad, is there a candid message the president could send to his battered party and to a disaffected populous? Maybe something like this.
I’m obviously disappointed in Sen. Manchin’s decision. I think his opposition to the Build Back Better plan is a mistake. If I could step into a time machine and change the outcome of four or five Senate races over the last three cycles, we would not be in this position. But I can’t, and we are where we are. Simply put, the needs of this country are too great; hurt feelings and sharp disagreements will get us nowhere. We need Sen. Manchin’s voice and, most importantly, his vote. So, we’re going to sit down together again and find common ground.
I can’t promise we will find it. If we do, it will look different than what I first proposed; maybe a lot different. But it will mean something better for millions of us. And I still have hope — challenging though it is to hold to it — that at least some Republicans are prepared to join in the effort. We saw what can happen if partisan politics can be put aside, and what happens if they are not. The infrastructure bill passed the Senate with 19 Republican votes — almost 40 percent of the caucus. When it got to the House, barely five percent of Republicans supported it. This is no way to govern a country already facing the challenge of a virulent virus — and a virulent effort to undermine the foundations of a genuine democracy.
Even with the setbacks of the last few days, we should not ignore what has been done. The American Rescue Plan is cutting the child poverty rate in half and kept millions in their homes and businesses in the face of a global pandemic. The infrastructure bill will ease the frustrations that afflict businesses, commuters, those in rural America still deprived of full access to the web. To have turned these pledges into realty in the first year with a Congress split down the middle is a pretty good first step.
Now it’s time to see if we can take the next steps. Will it be easy? No. But the only Rose Garden I was promised is the one outside my office.
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