A popular joke among leftists on the internet is that Republicans like to put white heterosexual men in power to bomb foreign countries while Democrats like to put people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and women in power to bomb foreign countries. Despite their differences on social and cultural issues, the two major political parties have had a nearly unified foreign policy since the Cold War era. The Trump administration, which found that the president has latitude in foreign policy that he doesn’t have in other areas of policy, was the first major departure from this common policy. The Biden administration, which without congressional support can only undo what Trump accomplished by executive fiat, has been working diligently to return to it.
Hampered by a Republican congress after his first midterm, President Obama’s few opportunities to lead were on the world stage. This was not what he wanted; Obama had plans to make domestic changes, but could only shepherd two through Congress: the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Act. To say that Obama was hampered and could only redesign the health insurance and financial systems of the United States might seem like its shortchanging his accomplishments, but (a) those redesigns were narrow in scope, mostly building in new protections and access and eliminating the most egregious problems of the pre-Obama health and finance markets, and (b) Obama also wanted immigration and lobbying reform, neither of which happened during either of his terms.
President Trump was similarly constrained, both by a Democratic Congress that effectively blocked him in ways that showed they were taking a page out of the Republican playbook for how to annoy the president but also by Republicans who felt they had to constrain the worst impulses of the president and their own party. The late John McCain’s infamous thumbs down that saved the Affordable Care Act in 2017 shattered the hopes of right wing politicians that the Trump era would usher in the conservative golden age. Trump walked away from domestic policy altogether after that, pitching a non-starter “peace plan” for Israel and Palestine and showboating at a high-level summit between the U.S. and Russia that made him look like the Russian-controlled crony his enemies painted him as.
President Biden took office at a time when there was no doubt what his first year as president would look like. The COVID-19 pandemic ebbed somewhat, but its fiery return took no one but the White House by surprise. Yet again, the president and his allies are unable to move the needle in Congress, so yet again, the president’s big moments are saved for foreign policy, like a (medium) hardline speech against escalation in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War.
COVID-19, though, is something that doesn’t require a supermajority legislative response. First, COVID rules could be implemented by a suspension of the filibuster, something Congress does frequently to move emergency legislation through the Senate, like it did when it raised the debt ceiling at the end of 2021. Moreover, a lot of the response is coming from the executive branch. And that response ranges from decent, like outreach efforts by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, to appalling, like this comment from the vice president:
Craig Melvin, NBC News: “We’re two years into this. Why didn’t the administration just go out and secure more at-home tests after the delta surge in the fall? Why are we at a point now where folks still can’t get tests?”
Vice President Kamala Harris: “We just ordered, I don’t have the number in front of me but millions of tests. We have 20,000 sites where people can go, and I urge people to – you can Google it or go on to any search engine and find out where free testing and a free testing site is available.”
Craig Melvin, NBC News: “But Madam Vice President, the fact that we’re still telling people to Google where they can get a test – “
Harris: “But come on now, really, if you want to figure out how to get across town to some restaurant that is great, you usually do Google to figure out where it is, so that’s simply about giving people, right, a mechanism by which they can locate something that they need, something that can help them.”
Harris’ comment is brutal for Americans who can’t access at-home tests, which is most Americans. But moreover, its an absurd answer. The question was: if you knew that variants could cause surges, why didn’t you get more tests? The answer Harris gave was if you can’t find a test, that’s a failing on your part, not ours. You can find a restaurant, can’t you?
The Biden administration has a unique opportunity: a domestic issue for which a strong executive response is an option. Yes, the Supreme Court has struck down some of Biden’s efforts. You don’t need Pyramid to tell you that Biden’s predecessor did not let a little thing like the Supreme Court striking down his executive orders stop him from dreaming up new ones.
Hell, tell Joe Manchin to block free at-home COVID tests for West Virginians if he dares. Stick it in a new bill, the Healthy & Strong America Act, that also includes parts of the dead Build Back Better bill. There are so many roads available to the Biden administration but they don’t want them. They just want to live in the big house and to say that they won, they beat Donald Trump, they’re the victors and they get the spoils.
The rest of us can Google it.