Biden Needs to Use His Political Capital

Joe Biden’s national address Thursday night can be read as a victory lap for the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan he signed into law. It can also be seen as marking the somber one year anniversary since COVID-19 lockdowns began last March. In reality, it was probably a little bit of both. But Biden’s address also signaled something much more valuable, at least in a political sense: popularity.

The president has never had more political capital than he has right now. That’s almost always true for presidents early in their first term, since they’re still riding high off the wave that got them into office. But passing the latest COVID relief bill is an enormous win. It may not go as far as it should and employs temporary measures that should probably be made permanent (*cough* expanded child tax credits *cough*), but what’s actually in there is solid. It’s huge bill aimed at getting relief to most Americans, helping devastated sectors and industries, and ending the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now that it’s passed, Biden is poised to become one of the most popular presidents in recent memory simply through baseline competence and some timing luck.

Good timing is nothing to feel bad about. Biden’s current popularity is earned to some degree, even it’s just through not being Donald Trump. His speech Thursday night was perhaps his starkest contrast to the former president yet, showing how a chief executive with Congressional majorities can actually work to help people in times of crisis rather than sow hatred and stoke division. Political Erin Gloria Ryan dubbed it “competence porn.” After four years of Trump, listening to Biden set ambitious goals for vaccinations and renewed calls for caution underscores just how little the former president did during the pandemic. (It also sure seems like Trump knows it.)

Popularity doesn’t mean much if you don’t wield it, though. The key for Biden now is to keep pushing. Older Democratic administrations might’ve sat on their hands after a victory like this, perfectly satisfied taking in heaps of media praise. But America still faces a number of major crises that need to be dealt with. If the U.S. manages to reach Biden’s stated goal of vaccinating all adults by the beginning of May, he’ll have more political capital than he’ll know what to do with. That’s the kind of popularity that will come in handy when it comes to passing major student debt relief, renewing and strengthening voting rights legislation, rebuilding America’s crumbling healthcare system, and moving toward green energy. Tackling any one of those issues head on would only compound Biden’s popularity, which in turn would give Democrats a much needed leg up in the 2022 midterms. Winning big again in two years (or at the very least maintaining their current majorities) could pave the way for bigger and bolder legislation as Biden’s presidency rolls on.

Fortunately it seems like several major Democratic pols realize the opportunity. Even as Biden has expressed hesitance, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has maintained pressure about canceling up to $50,000 of student debt. South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, who effectively won Biden the Democratic nomination more than a year ago, said he expects voting rights legislation on the president’s desk by summer. Even West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin has hinted he’d be willing to work around the filibuster. These are old time Democrats, the kind usually content with maintaining the status quo. But perhaps after all this time they realize the gravity of the moment and the political victories that can be won if they can get out of their own way, promote positive policies and keep the momentum going. For now, at least, we can hope so.