I recently finished grading papers for my fall classes. Unlike most years, all my students managed to finish their work on time, so there was no need to give any of them an incomplete grade. The same cannot be said for that much larger project we call American democracy.
Back in April, I published a list of several outcomes I felt need to be in place by next year in order to bolster the chances of preserving democracy against the determined efforts of Donald Trump and his partisan enablers to undermine it. I argued that in order to maximize the chances of surviving this extraordinarily precarious moment, Biden and his party need to facilitate a return to normal life; share wealth more broadly; reform the filibuster; undo efforts to make voting difficult; and broadly restore voting rights. (A sixth objective, reforming the courts, is also essential in the long term but beyond the reach of what can be accomplished with this Congress.)
I revisited the list in June and found that some progress had been made on the first two items through the administration’s handling of vaccinations and Covid relief aid. But the picture is more mixed at year’s end, owing in part to backsliding on pandemic conditions and the stubborn inability of Democrats to overcome dissension in their Senate ranks.
This is not the outcome I expected last spring, when it looked like a return to normal life was just over the horizon and momentum was building for what would later be called the Build Back Better bill. As we approach 2022 and prepare for the midterms, everything on the list remains a work in progress with much less time on the clock.
1. Return Life to Normal. As I have said many times, this is the primary reason why Biden was elected. He promised to return competence to the White House and use it to put an end to the pandemic while rebooting the economy. You need not look further than Biden’s middling approval ratings for a sense of how the country feels he is doing. Six months ago, Biden was getting high marks for his pandemic response as people were preparing to shed their masks for good. Then came Delta, Omicron, and a protracted cold war over vaccines. While the administration’s response to the pandemic in the second half of the year has not been flawless (most notably, they waited too long to prioritize home testing), vaccine resistance is the main reason why we are still in such bad shape. Biden isn’t the reason for that, but he’s the president so he’s going to be blamed for Covid fatigue.
Ditto the economy. While traditional economic indicators like stock market performance and the unemployment rate are robust, inflation and supply chain interruptions have overshadowed what could rightfully be characterized as one of the strongest economic performances in generations. And while you might not know it from press coverage, the administration intervened quickly to combat price gouging at the gas pump and to address supply issues in time for deliveries to flow freely by Christmas. Life may not be back to normal, but Biden is doing what he can to get it there. GRADE: Incomplete
2. Share the Wealth. Pigs were seen flying when Congress approved an infrastructure bill with bipartisan support this fall, demonstrating against all odds and expectations (including my own) that it was possible to get Democrats and Republicans to agree on substantive and meaningful legislation. The measure is significant. It spends over $1.2 trillion, with $550 billion in new investments in a wide range of projects from highways to bridges to broadband.
Still, it is worthwhile to remember how it happened. Terms of the measure were negotiated by a small subset of the least progressive Democrats and the least doctrinaire Republicans. To get everyone else on board, a $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” bill was written alongside it, with the expectation that Democrats would pass it alone through the reconciliation process while both measures moved in tandem through Congress. Well, we know what happened. The “human infrastructure” initiative—rebranded the “Build Back Better” bill—was chopped to $1.75 trillion, decoupled from the bipartisan proposal, and still lingers unfinished in the Senate, where Joe Manchin is holding it hostage.
As important as the infrastructure bill may be, Build Back Better is where the administration hopes to make its lasting imprint on economic and social policy by expanding the social safety net, addressing the climate crisis, and having those at the top of the economic ladder pay for it. Through Build Back Better, Biden can demonstrate his commitment to rewriting economic rules that have skewed heavily against working class Americans and show the country that government can work for them. Passage is essential to the Democrats’ 2022 messaging. And passage is still possible in some form. But as the year ends, Build Back Better remains a work in progress. GRADE: Incomplete
3. Reform the Filibuster. In June, Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema were adamantly opposed to filibuster reform. They remained opposed in December. However, there has been movement in the Senate toward some form of limited filibuster modification to address voting rights (see below), with senators like Mark Warner of Virginia, Angus King of Maine and Tom Carper of Delaware reversing their prior opposition to changing the rules. Then, last week, Biden himself went on record for the first time in support of a filibuster carve-out that would enable passage of voting rights legislation. Anyone who remembers Biden’s resistance to filibuster reform during the 2020 primaries understands why his evolution on the matter is highly significant. None of this means the filibuster will be altered when the Senate reconvenes in January. But after a year with little movement, the possibility of doing something remains. GRADE: Incomplete
4. Restore Voting Rights—Part I. A summer of activism by voting rights groups has come and gone, but efforts to pass voting rights legislation has taken a back seat to negotiating the Build Back Better bill. Until now. Toward the end of December, the White House and Democratic congressional leadership began prioritizing voting rights over domestic policy. This was around the time it was becoming clear that too much remained to negotiate to get Build Back Better through the Senate by Christmas recess, and when we began seeing movement on the filibuster. The bill in question is called the Freedom to Vote Act. It started out as the more comprehensive For the People Act but was slenderized in order to get the support of Joe Manchin (of course). In practice, it remains a sweeping and vitally important measure designed to combat or reverse the many ballot-restricting and election-subverting measures put in place by Republican state legislatures across the country this year. And unlike Build Back Better, it has the support of fifty Democrats. However, it can’t go through reconciliation because it’s not a budget bill, so its prospects depend entirely on what happens with the filibuster. GRADE: Incomplete
5. Restore Voting Rights—Part II. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act is the companion measure to the Freedom to Vote Act. It would restore provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act that have been gutted by the Supreme Court, making it harder for states to selectively restrict the right to vote. The bill has been in a holding pattern all year, having passed the House but unable to overcome a Senate filibuster. If the Senate finds a way to pass the Freedom to Vote Act with a simple majority, it will just as certainly pass this important and consequential measure. Otherwise, it will languish in the Senate until the end of the term and disappear. GRADE: Incomplete
We end the year, then, with much to be accomplished and little time to get it done. If democracy is to have a chance against those who wish to overturn it, it is vital for Democrats—as the only remaining major party committed to the rule of law as historically practiced—to convince voters that they have made their lives better while securing everyone’s ability to participate in the next election and have their votes accurately recorded.
Despite the frustrations of the past year, despite the persistence of the pandemic, despite the proven difficulties of legislating with a paper thin majority, I remain optimistic that things can come together in the months ahead in a way that will have a positive and meaningful impact next November. There is no guarantee, of course, but it is possible to see a path forward for each of these incomplete items, in which case the political climate next summer will be nothing like the doldrums of the past half year.
I speculate about what 2022 could look like in my final Daybook of 2021 on the Wolves and Sheep Patreon site. For those interested in why I have a cautious sense of hope for the future, you can find it here.