This article has been updated to reflect overnight developments, namely the House ratification of President Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure proposal.
WASHINGTON — “It’s been a long week guys,” principal deputy White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre joked as she took to the podium at the White House briefing room on Friday afternoon. “It’s been a long week.”
It would get longer yet, but that was just fine with the White House. A week that began with unwelcome political developments for President Biden, namely Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s loss in the Virginia governor’s race, ended with what White House chief-of-staff Ron Klain deemed “Fabulous Friday.” That day held numerous encouraging developments, including the House’s ratification of a $1.2 trillion spending package that one Democratic strategist called, not inaccurately, “the biggest infrastructure investment since the Great Depression.”
The late night vote brought to dramatic conclusion a day full of good news for a White House that, since the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the arrival of the Delta variant, has been in something of a funk. Friday also saw more than half a million people entering the workforce and the announcement, from Pfizer, of a highly effective new coronavirus treatment.
“Finally, infrastructure week,” Biden joked in remarks from the White House on Saturday morning, referencing the Trump-era meme whose darker implication was that Washington was so broken, it couldn’t repair a pothole. Even through her mask, Vice President Harris could be seen laughing and smiling, a break from her usually serious demeanor at such events.
“Folks, yesterday, I dont think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that we took a monumental step forward as a nation,” the president said, referencing the recent job gains, which have driven the unemployment rate of 4.6 percent, before moving on to celebrate the House vote that had given him the biggest victory of his presidency.
Celebrations are bound to be short lived. Now, the president and congressional leaders must also pass his domestic social spending plan, known as Build Back Better. Moderates have complained about its cost, somewhat lower than $2 trillion, is too high, but some progressives only voted for the infrastructure bill with the expectation that Build Back Better would enjoy similar passage.
“Let me be clear,” Biden said Saturday. “We will pass this in the House, and we will pass it in the Senate.”
If the president’s prediction holds, Democrats will have injected more than $5 trillion into the economy since the president’s term began in January, spending they say is necessary to keep the U.S. competitive with China, forestall climate change and fight income inequality as well as racial disparities. (Democrats passed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package in February without any Republican support.)
Whether Biden’s presidency can genuinely rival the scope of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s — whose New Deal helped save the nation from economic collapse — or that of Lyndon B. Johnson, whose Great Society programs greatly expanded the government’s role in American life, has been one of the overarching questions of his administration.
Lately, political observers had started to worry that a malaise worthy of Jimmy Carter had crept back into Washington. Members of Biden’s own party urged him to think smaller. “Nobody elected him to be F.D.R., they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos,” lamented Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat from Virginia who watched in dismay as Republican Glenn Youngkin was elected the state’s governor on Tuesday, in what some saw as a repudiation of both Biden’s agenda and his approach.
Her district was one of several across the state to swing from blue to red, in what could be an ominous development for centrists ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
Before leaving the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow on Tuesday, Biden predicted that he would arrive back in Washington to news of McAuliffe’s victory. Instead, victory was in Youngkin’s hands while the president was on Air Force One somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean.
The loss was widely seen as a referendum on Biden, who campaigned with McAuliffe. Democrats were doing too much. Or not enough. They were moving too far left. Or staying too close to the center.
“The Biden regime is effectively over,” Peter Navarro, former top economic adviser to President Trump, told Yahoo News as Washington digested the result from the far bank of the Potomac.
That appeared to be a premature assessment, however, even before Friday night’s vote. Some twelve hours before that, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that the economy had added 531,000 jobs, causing the unemployment rate to fall to 4.6 percent. Economists also issued stark upward revisions of what had initially been sluggish gains for August and September.
In a Friday morning speech from the White House, Biden said that “this recovery is faster, stronger, fairer and wider than almost anyone could have predicted.” But he said the economy would stall out unless Democrats injected more money into sectors still reeling from the pandemic. Some economists have warned that the president’s spending is irresponsible and will lead to inflation, but the White House is willing to take that risk.
There was also more good news Friday on the pandemic front, where the battle against the coronavirus has gone on much longer than Biden had hoped. Pfizer announced that its new coronavirus treatment reduced incidence of severe COVID-19 illness by 89 percent. The drug, administered in pill form, could soon be on the market alongside one from Merck called molnupiravir that is also highly effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19.
And the effectiveness of the new Pfizer drug was so apparent, the clinical trial was stopped prematurely.
“The bottom line is we have an overwhelming toolbox right now to combat COVID,” said former Food and Drug Administration head Dr. Scott Gottlieb on Friday, adding a little later that “the end of the pandemic at least as it relates to the United States is in sight right now.”
Childhood vaccinations began this week, meaning that millions of children between the ages of 5 and 11 could be immunized. Once they are, school closures — which seem to have infuriated suburban voters, driving them to Republican candidates like Youngkin — should be relegated to history, except in extreme cases.
The White House knows that Americans are exhausted by the pandemic—and by the endless squabbling in Washington over the president’s domestic agenda, with debates descending into parliamentary minutiae unlikely to play well with voters in exurban Phoenix or suburban Cleveland. It has cautioned Democrats that the longer they argue in public, the more public opinion will turn against them.
The loss in Virginia may have proven that point. “They want us to move forward and actually deliver,” said White House spokeswoman Jean-Pierre said on Friday in an attempt to portray Tuesday’s defeat as a potential motivator to members of Congress. “They felt we haven’t moved quickly enough.”
As it were, things didn’t get moving in Washington until after dusk. In anticipated voting on the infrastructure bill, Biden cancelled plans to spend the weekend at his Delaware beach house, huddling with aides in the White House, as a key aspect of his domestic agenda see-sawed between victory and demise. Aides on Capitol Hill furiously tweeted and text message developments that were quickly contradicted, then contradicted again.
Finally, right before midnight, definitive news came. The House had passed the infrastructure bill, with 13 Republicans voting, surprisingly, in favor and six progressive Democrats voting against. Even if much else about Biden’s domestic agenda remains uncertain, he has done what the two presidents before him (including his former boss Barack Obama) failed to do, investing funds that elected officials, civil engineers and community activists have long clamored for.
The infrastructure bill, which was already passed by the Senate and now only needs presidential signature, includes $73 billion for clean energy projects, $40 billion for bridge repairs and $55 billion for new, safer water pipes. There is money for ports, electrical vehicles and, yes, the high-speed trains that will replace the clattering Amtrak cars Biden used to regularly ride as a Senator from Delaware.
Of course, much is still unsettled for both Biden and the contentious, divided nation he leads. Build Back Better remains a confusing amalgam of competing priorities, and Friday’s successful vote is unlikely to blast through the hardening animosities that have developed on Capitol Hill in recent weeks.
“The disarray was damaging,” one senior staffer to a progressive House member told Yahoo News.
Then there’s the coronavirus, which could be readying for a winter surge. Few have successfully predicted the course of a pandemic that seems to feature more twists and turns than a second-rate Hollywood thriller. Still, for a president who has seen his approval ratings sinking and allies in Congress grow anxious, who watched a close ally defeated in Virginia, Friday was, all in all, a pretty good day.
Explore how the Delta variant correlates with the national political landscape in this 3D experience from the Yahoo immersive team.