On November 19, Joe Biden pushed his expansive, unapologetically progressive domestic agenda through the House on a party line vote.
By Christmas, universal pre-K, price controls for prescription drugs and an unprecedented investment in renewable energy are likely to be signed into law, along with new funding for child care, elderly care and affordable housing. Nancy Pelosi hailed the initiative as “historic, transformative and larger than anything we have ever done before.”
So why does it still feel like there’s so little to celebrate? Because Biden’s achievement is contextualized in what I will refer to as “Broken America.”
Believers in “Broken America” see collapsed supply chains and runaway inflation driving the economy into freefall. Democrats look hopelessly out of touch, disorganized and unable to win a single election. Hordes of maskless anti-vaxxers clash violently with sanctimonious liberals on a daily basis in schools, planes and public gathering spaces. As billionaire pundit Ray Dalio ominously noted in November, “there’s a 30 percent chance the U.S. will enter into a major civil-war-type conflict within the next five years.”
Meanwhile, Biden, busy nudging a multi-trillion dollar progressive wishlist through Congress, is asleep at the wheel. The United States seems to be crashing and burning, and our phantom leader can’t or won’t pull the levers necessary to save it.
Many Americans believe this is the best explanation for why Biden’s approval rating has plummeted and Congressional Democrats are preparing for a midterm pummeling. The most frustrating part of all? “Broken America” doesn’t exist.
For starters, the supply chain is already recovering from a COVID-induced peak strain in October. The number of lingering containers at the Port of Los Angeles has dropped significantly, and leading companies are stockpiling sufficient goods to meet holiday demand. Biden’s trillion dollar infrastructure bill will alleviate many of the more systemic problems, such as aging ports and outdated inspection facilities. As for inflation, it’s nowhere close to spiraling. Compared to the 1970s, the recent increase in consumer prices is small. It is also driven by spikes in highly specific sectors such as groceries and new vehicles, rather than the economy at large. As several experts have noted, this means the Federal Reserve is unlikely to slow the economy to stop inflation, which was the underlying cause of the economic slump during the last crisis.
Now that the economy’s out of the way, let’s talk politics. While anti-mask passengers being pulled from planes makes for great TV, Ray Dalio is going to have to wait for his civil war. 70 percent of Americans are at least partially vaccinated, indicating broad, if gradual, acceptance of the CDC’s public health paradigm. And if Democrats “can’t win,” it’s pretty strange that we control both chambers of Congress and the Presidency.
All of this being said, we still absolutely live in a state of emergency.
More than one in five American adults can’t afford prescription drugs. Homelessness is rising again, and childcare costs are soaring. Elderly care infrastructure is poised to collapse under the weight of the baby boomer generation. All of this comes with an apocalyptic flourish—nearly one in three Americans experienced a weather disaster this summer, due to storm patterns and conditions exacerbated by climate change.
Luckily for the country, Build Back Better is poised to mitigate all these problems. Unfortunately for Biden, most Americans are far more concerned with “Broken America.”
According to a Fox News poll, 87 percent of registered voters are “very” or “extremely” concerned about inflation and higher prices. 62 percent of voters said the administration’s policies were “somewhat responsible.” Gallup found that 45 percent of Americans identify either “economic problems” or “the government/poor leadership” as “the most important problem facing the country today.” Recent elections in Virginia and Biden’s ever plummeting approval rating reaffirm that most Americans consider Biden’s priorities to be off the mark.
This underscores the Biden administration’s fundamental messaging failure: Build Back Better isn’t about preparation for problems to come, or a reflection of America’s proud legacy of public spending. It is a solution for now.
Lauding the measure as “historic,” or pledging to build “a stronger industrial and innovation base so the future is made in America”’ is a mistake in the current political climate—as is using the bully pulpit to explain why Build Back Better doesn’t make inflation worse.
The Administration needs to go on the offense. Biden must do the hard work to convince Americans that the crises Build Back Better targets should be our first priority, during one of America’s most challenging times, at one America’s most important junctures. Otherwise, he capitulates to the myth of Broken America and a phantom presidency.