A Victory for Biden, and a Bet on America’s Future

Source: By Michael D. Shear and Zolan Kanno-Youngs, New York Times • Posted: Sunday, August 14, 2022

Congress gave final approval to the Inflation Reduction Act, which will lower the cost of prescription drugs, extend health care subsidies and invest billions into climate and energy programs.

Video player loading
House Democrats overcame Republican opposition to pass legislation that would cut prescription drug costs and invest billions in efforts to combat global warming.Anna Rose Layden for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — He promised a new social safety net. He pledged to develop a robust plan to fight global warming. He vowed to reduce the gap between rich and poor by making the wealthy “pay their fair share.”

And along the way, Joseph R. Biden Jr. often said as he battled Donald J. Trump for the White House in 2020, he would prove that democracy still works in America.

With final House passage of the Inflation Reduction Act on Friday, President Biden is poised to deliver the latest in a series of legislative victories that will ripple across the country for decades — lowering the cost of prescription drugs, extending subsidies to help people pay for health insurance, reducing the deficit and investing more than $370 billion into climate and energy programs.

“The choice we face as Americans is whether to protect the already-powerful or find the courage to build a future where everybody has a shot,” Mr. Biden said on Twitter. “Today, I proudly watched as House Democrats chose families over special interests.”

Even with the latest legislative triumph, the president’s accomplishments on Capitol Hill fall far short of the scale and ambition of F.D.R.’s New Deal or Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. And passage of Friday’s bill may say less about Mr. Biden’s ability to restore American bipartisanship than it does about the deep ideological breaches in his own party, which forced him to accept a much scaled-back version of his original legislative goals.

But taken together, the bills Mr. Biden has helped usher through a closely divided Congress since taking office 18 months ago touch many parts of American society.

There will be a vast new pot of money to combat climate change. Medicare will be free to negotiate for lower drug prices. The government will invest billions to help computer chip makers compete. Health care subsidies will be extended for years. Lead pipes will be replaced. Broadband internet will be built in poor and rural communities. Roads, bridges and tunnels will be restored. New gun safety measures will go into effect and background checks will be expanded. The nation’s budget deficit will be reduced.

To pay for some of it, investors will send more of their profits to the government, with a new tax on company stock buybacks and a 15 percent corporate minimum tax for wealthy companies.

Republicans immediately assailed passage of Friday’s bill.

“Can’t believe this has to be said again, but raising taxes during a recession is NOT a good idea,” Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, said on Twitter moments after the bill had enough Democratic votes for passage.

Since taking office, Mr. Biden has already signed a $1.9 trillion pandemic rescue plan, a $1 trillion infrastructure measure, a $280 billion chip manufacturing bill and bipartisan gun legislation intended to prevent dangerous people from accessing firearms. Along with Friday’s bill, the legislation passed thus far will most likely end up as the centerpiece of his legacy as the nation’s 46th president.

The bills Mr. Biden has helped usher through a closely divided Congress since taking office 18 months ago touch many parts of American society.
Pete Marovich for The New York Times

“It’s still consistent with what the president has always done which is keep his head down and do the necessary work,” said Cedric Richmond, a senior official at the Democratic National Committee who served as a senior adviser for Mr. Biden. “Families were feeling the effects of higher costs and the president wanted to keep his head down and address it. That until now has been the focus.”

The challenge now for Mr. Biden and his administration is to convince the American people of that after more than a year of griping and political hand-wringing among some in the Democratic Party.

What’s in the Inflation Reduction Act


Auto industry. Until now, taxpayers could get up to $7,500 in tax credits for purchasing an electric vehicle, but there was a cap on how many cars from each manufacturer were eligible. The new law would eliminate this cap and extend the tax credit until 2032; used cars will also qualify for a credit of up to $4,000.

For all his legislation will achieve, Mr. Biden fell into a kind of political trap, setting expectations at sky-high levels and allowing a sense of disappointment to harden among his closest allies as key priorities — once included in his Build Back Better agenda — had to be abandoned.

To the dismay of many of the president’s supporters, there will be no free community college, no federally paid family leave and no new climate enforcement measures. The nation’s young children will not go to preschool for free. Parents will not receive federal help with child care. Medicaid will not be expanded in a dozen states and undocumented immigrants will not be given legal status. There will not be a tax on the superrich, and no extra money will go toward creating affordable housing.

Mr. Biden has said that it is all about compromise. But the process of negotiating, which played out day after day on social media and in newspapers, left many people with the feeling that more was lost than gained.

“My instinct is that these don’t add up to transformative matters on the scale of Social Security, Securities Exchange Act, Federal Housing Administration, Civil Rights Act of ’64,” said David M. Kennedy, a historian at Stanford University and the author of “Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945.”

“They’re just not in that league,” he said.

Mr. Kennedy noted that Mr. Roosevelt had a wide majority in Congress, while Mr. Biden’s party is barely in control — and with deep disagreements internally.

“Today’s Democratic Party is far more fractionated with all kinds of divisions,” Mr. Kennedy said. “It’s proving very, very difficult to get that body of Democrats in both chambers to legislate coherently.”

“The package is much smaller, more modest and that was to be expected,” he added.

Mr. Biden’s achievements — even shrunken in the eyes of some — may also prove to be his legislative high-water mark. After the final votes were tallied, Mr. Biden made a video call to his longtime adviser, Steve Ricchetti, to congratulate a couple dozen staffers in the Roosevelt Room.

The president, who is vacationing in South Carolina, told them they had changed the world and made a difference for American families, according to an administration official.

But even as the White House celebrated the legislation on Friday, the final deal was largely inked by Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, and two centrist Democrats who were holdouts, Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. In an emailed statement, Mr. Manchin’s office on Friday pointedly took credit for the legislative win, heralding the House passage of “Manchin’s Inflation Reduction Act.”

Congressional elections are around the corner, a time when there is typically little appetite for high-profile lawmaking. Democratic majorities in both chambers may slip away in the elections, and even if they don’t, the president may not be able to use the same legislative tactics he did this year to get around Republican opposition. Few people in Washington expect Democrats to end the filibuster so they can pass the parts of his agenda that ended up on the cutting room floor.

Despite the moment of real euphoria inside the West Wing and among Democrats on Capitol Hill about likely passage of the spending bills, it will take an enormous amount of effort for Mr. Biden and his party to capitalize politically on their legislative success. The president’s signing of a bipartisan infrastructure package last year did little to improve his approval rating among voters frustrated with soaring inflation. Passing a bill is the hard part — but convincing Americans that it was a victory could be harder still.

Few people know better than Mr. Biden how tricky the post-victory period can be.

He was standing next to former President Barack Obama late on a Sunday night in 2010 when Mr. Obama hailed passage of the Affordable Care Act. Speaking to the public from the ornate East Room of the White House, Mr. Obama declared that passage of Obamacare proved that “we are still a people capable of doing big things and tackling our biggest challenges.”

“This is what change looks like,” he said with Mr. Biden looking on, smiling broadly.

The years that followed were hardly ones to smile about for Democrats. By 2012, as Mr. Obama was standing for re-election, just 34 percent of the public approved of the law, which had been the focus of a rocky rollout, vitriolic Republican attacks and a lengthy legal battle. Promises by the Obama White House for a robust public relations blitz never really bore fruit.

President Barack Obama signing the Affordable Care Act in 2010 at the White House.
Doug Mills/The New York Times

“We never had a really effective strategy around communicating to the public the benefits and the rationale behind health care reform,” Ezekiel J. Emanuel, a physician and University of Pennsylvania vice provost who was a top White House adviser involved in developing the program, said in 2012. “We never had a spokesman, and the public never really understood what we were doing.”

The people around Mr. Biden, many of whom worked in the Obama White House after passage of the Affordable Care Act, say they have learned some lessons. In a briefing for reporters this week, top White House strategists said Mr. Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and members of the cabinet will spend the next several months traveling the country to talk about the legislative victories with voters.

The main message, the strategists said, will be that Mr. Biden and his Democratic allies have successfully defeated the special interests in Washington who for decades had tried to stand in the way of similar legislation.

They said Mr. Biden will remind voters that pharmaceutical lobbyists have for years tried to block Medicare from negotiating drug prices. Oil and gas executives have fought climate change provisions. Corporate interests have tried to keep Congress from instituting a minimum tax. Conservatives have fought the subsidies in the Affordable Care Act. Gun rights groups stopped new legislation for years.

The president and his aides will tell voters that “those tables have been turned,” one of the strategists said.

Mr. Richmond said the Democratic National Committee is already planning to include the Inflation Reduction Act in an advertising blitz ahead of the November elections.

“This will be all hands on deck,” he said. “It will also be telling people: Elections have consequences, and this is what happens when you win an election. You get those accomplishments.”

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.