Biden, Sinema, and the Supreme Court

President Joe Biden delivers remarks in the Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 6, 2022. (Greg Nash/Pool via Reuters)

On Thursday, President Biden suffered two additional defeats as the U.S. Supreme Court blocked his employer vaccine mandate and Senator Kyrsten Sinema restated that she would not blow up the filibuster to pass a voting bill. In both cases, the developments — which follow months of presidential political failures — were entirely predictable. And it’s that gets at the heart of Biden’s current political problems.

Looking back at Biden’s first year in office, his two biggest legislative accomplishments were: a sweeping, $1.9 trillion social welfare and “Covid-relief” plan and a $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure law. In both cases, the outcomes were within reach. It was clear that coming into office Biden would get one major domestic spending bill passed tied to the pandemic. And there was an interest in doing something on the infrastructure front.

However, his failures pursued the exact opposite approach. Instead of setting achievable goals, he set unrealistic expectations and in a number of cases, picked battles that he knew in advance he would lose.

When Senator Joe Manchin killed Build Back Better last month, he merely reiterated all of the points about its size and scope in a time of high debt and skyrocketing inflation that he had been making from the beginning. It’s quite possible that Manchin would have supported a reconciliation bill that scaled back some of the Trump tax cuts and was more targeted on the spending front. Instead, Biden wasted months of negotiations hoping that Manchin would suddenly change his mind on a kitchen sink bill.

The Supreme Court had telegraphed that it did not think Biden had the authority to extend a CDC eviction moratorium without Congressional action. Biden pursued that strategy anyway, and lost as expected. After that, he issued a sweeping OSHA mandate attempting to force all large employers to require vaccination or weekly testing and further tested justices who were likely to be skeptical. He lost that too.

It’s unclear why Biden would fly to Georgia this week to give a toxic speech that would convince nobody persuadable, get snubbed by Stacey Abrams, then pursue a voting bill push that he knew had zero chance of success given stated opposition by Sinema and Manchin of breaking the filibuster. Why set himself up for certain humiliation?

There is an alternate timeline of Biden’s presidency in which passing $2.5 trillion in Covid relief, social welfare, and infrastructure spending is seen as a decent success. But after the unrealistic expectations he set up of an FDR-sized presidency, those legislative accomplishments are barely remembered.

To be sure, not all outcomes were as entirely predictable as others. It was possible that Manchin was going to come around, for instance, whereas blowing up the filibuster this month was never going to happen. But clearly, Biden’s calculations on the art of the possible have been way off.