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One year in, Biden confronts the limits of his power

Democratic euphoria has faded as the president's ambitious goals have run headlong into the harsh realities of a 50-50 Senate, GOP opposition and a conservative Supreme Court.
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WASHINGTON — One year ago, President Joe Biden took office with his party in full control of Congress after historic victories in the Georgia Senate runoffs.

The possibilities for change seemed limitless, with Biden pursuing a multitrillion-dollar agenda to tackle a host of economic problems and progressives looking to abolish the Senate's 60-vote filibuster to make Washington, D.C., a state, expand the Supreme Court, bolster voting rights and pass gun control measures.

Now that euphoria has turned to dread as the pursuit of "bold" change runs headlong into harsh realities.

The latest setback arrived Wednesday, the final day of Biden's first year in office, as Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona joined every Republican senator in voting to block a rules change needed to pass two major election overhaul bills that Biden had said last week were essential to saving democracy.

The same two senators also sharply curtailed Biden's original Build Back Better package, the centerpiece of his domestic agenda, from $3.5 trillion to about $1.7 trillion. And Manchin's late resistance has put the bill on ice, forcing the White House to further shrink it or concede defeat.

For Democrats, the current moment feels light years away from the 2020 primaries, when Biden and rival Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, were jousting over how aggressively to transform the country's economy and social fabric.

"It's dispiriting," said Stephanie Kelton, a professor of economics and public policy at Stony Brook University in New York, who served on the Biden-Sanders unity task force ahead of the election. "There was a real opportunity, at least in theory, with the way the Georgia election turned out. A lot of Democrats ran on doing some ambitious things and making bold investments in child care and education and health care and elder care. It was there for the taking but for, really, a couple of holdouts in the Senate.

"It's tough with a razor-thin margin. The math is the math. You need every single one," Kelton said, predicting that it would be "a very long time" before Democrats return to full power and have another chance to pass the shelved Biden priorities.

An 'epiphany' that wasn't

Biden's national approval rating has slipped to 43 percent in a new NBC News poll released Thursday, as he faces a wave of challenges, from rising inflation and disruptions created by the omicron variant of the coronavirus to Russian aggression in Ukraine.

"Our work's not done," Biden said at a news conference Wednesday, touting progress on Covid vaccinations, the infrastructure law and selling Build Back Better as a way to cut families' child care and prescription drug costs.

"I didn't overpromise. I have probably outperformed what anybody thought would happen," he said, adding that he can still get "big chunks" of Build Back Better passed.

But the post-Trump Republican "epiphany" that Biden predicted in 2019 has not materialized, and the GOP has mounted unrelenting opposition to most of his domestic agenda. Former President Donald Trump has maintained his clout with GOP voters, using it to purge foes in the party and exact revenge on those who push back against his lies that the 2020 election was stolen.

Biden and top Democrats portrayed a rules change as necessary to combat state voting limits inspired by Trump's conspiracy theories and to prevent election subversion. But Sinema and Manchin joined all 50 Republicans to block the rule change, although they said they support the two bills.

"We've tried our best," Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters. "But we've got to be honest with the American people."

The failed vote of 48-52 on a "talking filibuster" dooms not only the voting rights legislation but also other Biden campaign promises, like equal pay legislation, the Dream Act and background checks for most gun transfers, which can reach majorities in the Senate but not 60 votes.

Preservation of the 60-vote rule in the 50-50 Senate is likely to stymie Democrats' goals on all but a few issues with broad bipartisan support, like infrastructure.

"Although most of the things that we're proposing are popular with most Americans, we've got to talk about the reality of the Senate and the 50-50 status and what we can truly achieve," Durbin said. "We have to have an agenda that is not only appealing to the voters, but is realistic on Capitol Hill."

'We promise anything'

Democratic strategist Ben LaBolt, a former aide to President Barack Obama, said the sky-high expectations have masked the substantial successes of Biden's first year.

"I worry about that in just about every Democratic primary we have," he said. "We promise anything voters in our party might want. They believe us, and then they're disappointed when it doesn't get done. That happened to Obama, too."

LaBolt said Biden has a chance to build on his achievements so far — the Covid relief package, the infrastructure law and historically high job creation — with a narrower Build Back Better bill, a U.S.-China competition package and executive actions.

He said the White House's recent focus on promoting deliverables — like new infrastructure projects and free at-home Covid tests and N95 masks — is a way to show results, even if they are modest.

"Democrats believe that government can do good," he said. "So we have to be the people that make it work."

But when it comes to executive actions, the new 6-3 majority of Republican appointees on the Supreme Court — the most conservative bench in nearly a century — has already blocked Biden's initiatives on immigration and vaccination requirements for businesses.

Kelton warned that if the goal is to showcase wins, Biden may need to be careful.

"It would be similarly a bad look to pursue things through executive action if they also ended up hitting a brick wall with the Supreme Court," she said. "You'd want to be certain that you're on very solid footing with anything you do."