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Rivals for Power: Biden’s Agenda in a Dysfunctional Congress

New book by SPA Professor Emeritus James Thurber grades President’s Biden’s legislative record at the midterm

The recent passage of President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, a scaled-back, hard-fought version of the Build Back Better Act, represents an important contract between U.S. presidents and their voters. Whether it is climate change mitigation policies or border walls, presidents in democratic societies have a mandate to push through legislation that satisfies their constituents. In the U.S., however, his or her legislative agenda is subject to the approval of Congress, creating conflict and competition.

SPA University Distinguished Professor Emeritus James Thurber, founding director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, looks to illuminate the complex dynamics between the president and Congress in the seventh edition of Rivals for Power: Presidential-Congressional Relations, published by Rowman and Littlefield in July. The popular textbook and essay collection, updated after the first year of each administration since 1996, contains chapters by both scholar-practitioners, such as former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and well-known academics (including fellow SPA faculty Ron Elving and David Barker), examining how well the executive and legislative branch worked together in President Biden’s first year in office.

Rivals for Power describes and analyzes the various forces that affect this relationship, particularly the impact of unified versus divided party government. For example, Obama was elected along with a unified government; i.e., the president and both chambers of Congress were Democratic. In his first two years, he was able to leverage this unity to forward legislation and deliver on his campaign promises, and his presidential support score hit 93%. When the Democrats lost the House in 2010, creating a divided government, his legislative priorities stalled, and his support score dropped to 38%.

“The ability to build coalitions and get things done depends, to a great extent, on whether or not you have a unified party government,” Thurber explained. “[Our current situation,] tied in the Senate with a narrow majority in the House, makes it very hard to make progress.”

Rivals for Power also covers additional drivers of function/dysfunction, including constituency makeup, constitutional design, varying terms of office, the political environment, political polarization, factionalism, the missing middle, the 24/7 media, the impact of elections, and the power of interest groups in a pluralist political system. In this context, the book argues, Biden’s record is mixed.

His successes include the stimulus package, investment in the infrastructure, and pandemic management, marked by falling COVID cases and rising vaccination rates. He has also worked to return civility to political dialogue and presided over record job growth. More recently, he garnered bipartisan support to pass the Chips and Science Act (semiconductors bill), which raises U.S. competitiveness with China and other foreign rivals. The gun safety bill, burn pits bill, NATO accession treaty for Sweden and Finland also passed with significant bipartisan support. Finally, the Inflation Reduction Act, a $740 billion package, passed using reconciliation in the Senate.

“President Biden’s knowledge of the Senate and his quiet negotiation style gave Majority Leader Chuck Schumer the lead in crafting the final deal,” Thurber said. “The act invested in climate change policy, healthcare, and tax reform by overcoming unanimous Republican opposition using reconciliation (50 Democratic votes plus Vice President Harris’s vote to break the tie), a major Biden win in a gridlocked, highly partisan Senate.” 

Similarly, Biden delivered historic financial and security assistance for Ukraine. Russian aggression against Ukraine, a clear external threat to NATO and the United States, united the American public and policymakers on both sides of the aisle, producing a rare moment of bipartisanship.

“This is a theme in the book,” said Thurber. “The nature of a policy drives different kinds of coalitions, with differing chances of success. We have strong support for Ukraine, producing a broad coalition, on account of the nature of that policy. If everybody agrees on the problem, then the mission can be more easily achieved. When you don't have public consensus about the problem, it's hard to build bipartisan solutions in government.”

By contrast, the public largely disagreed on issues related to global warming, the pandemic, the increasing gap between the wealthy and poor, racial justice, and inflation, Thurber said. Without consensus about these problems, Biden’s legislative agenda, and his approval rate, suffered.

“Inflation is a very difficult thing,” Thurber continued. “Biden can't just press one button, pass a bill, and solve the problem. Inflation and policy gridlock is dragging him down in the polls, which affects his perceived power. He inherited [a struggling economy], but he also helped create it, through spending in the stimulus package. But supply chain problems, the war, the world price of oil, and lots of other things contributed as well.”

Rivals for Power also looks at the unique elements of the current Congress, in which party gatekeepers implement agenda control to keep certain bills from reaching the floor, and the minority party, led by Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), uses various institutional levers to block Democratic proposals.

“Biden inherited a Congress that's somewhat dysfunctional, in the sense that it doesn't go through the regular [legislative] order,” Thurber noted. “It's highly centralized.”

Many of the book’s chapters cite the consequences of the filibuster, or the Senate rule maintaining that 60 votes are needed to end debate, which doomed major elements of Biden’s legislative agenda such as HR 1/S 1, major promised reforms to voting rights, election administration, campaign finance laws, lobbying, and bipartisan redistricting.

“There are over 400 bills in the House of Representatives, that passed in a bipartisan way, that have never been brought up in the Senate: the Senate Republican Party’s use of the filibuster is causing that,” said Thurber. “This is absolutely crippling for our democracy. We've got too many problems in society to deal with the Senate rule for a super majority. Let's get rid of the filibuster and allow elections to determine whether the direction of government is right or not.”

Meanwhile, Biden, a moderate, must build coalitions in an incredibly heterogeneous party; the more progressive wing criticizes him for what they consider his weak leadership on the infrastructure bill, climate change, abortion rights, abortion, and gun control. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), the crucial swing vote in that chamber, has refused to support many bills introduced from the left, citing deficit and inflation concerns.

Finally, low levels of trust in all branches of government caused backlash to Biden’s early promises of transformative change.

“Voters want change, but not too much,” Thurber said. “If you look at all the polls, people don't trust government. They don't trust the president. They don't trust Congress. They don't trust the Supreme Court because it seems so highly politicized now.”

Even so, Thurber maintains that President Biden is working hard to pass policies and build bipartisan coalitions, despite his particular rivals for power, intense polarization, and powerful social media misinformation campaigns.

“Biden has persistence and political wisdom,” he said. “He has continued to build bridges with Republicans and his party, allowing Congress to work its will. He seems to be doing the right things in a highly polarized Congress.”

Order Rivals for Power for yourself or your classroom here.