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How Biden can salvage his agenda without Manchin | Will Bunch Newsletter

Plus, a low moment in U.S. history finally comes undone as a leftist takes control in Chile

One thing I’ve learned about Americans in nearly 63 years of observation is that we hate uncertainty. Yes, Christmas 2020 was awful but at least in that first COVID-19 holiday season you knew where you were supposed to go: Nowhere. In the omicron Yuletide of 2021, should I stay or should go is no longer a question only posed by The Clash. But I sincerely hope you’ll all have a happy holiday...somewhere.

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Biden needs to re-invent his presidency after Dems lose their shaky grip on Capitol

It’s very easy to imagine a totally different Joe Biden presidency — the one that most savvy pundits expected after the election was called for the Democrat on Nov. 7, 2020, yet before the earthshaking events of Jan. 5 and 6, 2021, when Biden’s party narrowly captured two upset Senate runoff wins in Georgia and thus nominal control of that body, hours ahead of a deadly insurrection.

Had Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock lost that election, as predicted, then Mitch McConnell would still be Senate majority leader. The 46th president would have been forced to bargain with Republicans for just the crumbs of an ambitious agenda. Instead of a potential Franklin Roosevelt restoring a powerful welfare state, Biden would have to brand his new administration as the last line of defense against the barbarians who’d stormed the U.S. Capitol.

» READ MORE: A broken America should build a monument to Joe Manchin’s massive ego | Will Bunch

Instead, the shock of controlling both houses of Congress — albeit only by a vice presidential tiebreaker in the Senate, and less than a handful of House votes — sparked fever dreams of a second New Deal. That euphoria has slowly dissipated until it died in the quiet of the Sunday morning before Christmas, when West Virginia’s nominally Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin announced that he couldn’t support the once ambitious social spending and climate bill he’d already slashed in half through his escalating campaign of political extortion.

Amid the bitterness, it’s tempting to lash out one last time at the greedy and self-important Manchin — not to mention his coal-fired millions that bought him a Maserati and a yacht — especially after a new report that he told colleagues he believes child-welfare dollars would probably be spent on illegal drugs. But Manchin is what he is. The way forward from here starts with accepting a harsh reality: The Democrats — at least as the soul of a progressive party — never controlled Capitol Hill after all. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Exxon-Mobil have always owned 52 seats.

It could have been worse. Even as terrible as Manchin and his doppelgänger, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, have been on critical issues like social spending and busting the filibuster to preserve voting rights, they have at least taken part in a coalition that passed much more aggressive COVID-19 relief than the Republicans would have, while confirming Biden’s cabinet and 40 new federal judges, a record for a first-year president. But going forward, POTUS 46 is going to have to lead much as the last two Democrats — Barack Obama and Bill Clinton — did for most of their presidencies, with the power of the pen.

Although clearly Biden can’t attack all of the nation’s multiple, overlapping problems by issuing executive orders, most legal and political scholars believe there are a number of ways he can harness the power of the White House without waiting for a piece of legislation that clearly is not coming.

The best place to start — and I hate to sound like a broken record, since it’s been raised in this space several times — would be for Team Biden to rethink what’s arguably been the worst mistake of his 11 months in office so far. That would be his failure to keep his campaign promises about eliminating college debt — at least $10,000 per individual, perhaps more for those who attended public universities or HBCUs.

Student debt cancellation would achieve the same kind of goals as his thwarted agenda on Capitol Hill — boosting the economy, by liberating young adults to spend money on new homes or other deferred purchases, and promoting racial equity since the debt burden has fallen much more heavily on Black and brown students. It would also probably stop and partially reverse Biden’s steep drop in approval from voters under age 30.

Writing this week in the Guardian in the wake of the Manchin debacle, Ross Barkan also makes a compelling argument that Biden has the executive authority to lower prescription drugs prices, by using powers granted to the White House in an obscure 1910 law that arguably gives him the ability to seize patents and thus open up competition among different pharmaceutical firms.

Then there is the problem of climate change. Although Biden offered a glimpse into his Oval Office authority early in his presidency with moves like the blocking of the plan for a Keystone XL oil pipeline, there is much more that could wean the United States off fossil fuels, such as shutting down new oil and gas leases on federal lands or at offshore sites.

Some of these moves would be challenged in the courts, and on some of them — including a student debt cancellation — Biden could ultimately lose, but at least his voters would see the president fighting, instead of dithering with the likes of Manchin. In battling the forces allied against him — including the obstructionist Republicans as well as Manchin — the president would at least become the man brawling in the ring for his people. Given the likely new disclosures in 2022 about the perfidy of Donald Trump on Jan. 6 and beyond, Biden could again look like the reason that some of us voted for him in the first place — as the last, best hope for American democracy.

Yo, do this

  1. Are you ready for some FOOTBALL! And by that I mean COVID-19-fried, Tuesday night football. The big game between the playoff-possible Eagles and the Washington Football Team was pushed back because of a locker room outbreak among the D.C. squad — giving the Birds’ starting quarterback Jalen Hurts more time to recover from an ankle injury and making them slight favorites. The Eagles have been here before — a Tuesday night loss in 2010 after a (sort of) blizzard postponement ruined that season; let’s hope history doesn’t repeat at 7 p.m., on Fox in the local markets.

  2. Even though I’ve become a podcast fanatic, I’ve tried hard to avoid the addictive candy of its most popular true-crime genre — until a family drive to Pittsburgh brought me into contact with Season 1 of veteran journalist Dana Goodyear’s newish Lost Hills, which exposes Southern California’s wealthy beach haven of Malibu as a land of quirky millionaires, dubious sheriff’s deputies, and a mysterious murder. The PGH trip is over but now I’m going to have to keep listening (and apparently there’s already a Season 2).

Ask me anything

Question: How many criminal referrals do you think the Jan. 6 committee will give DOJ? Are they only looking at Trump or going further — Via CrankyBanker (@MarthaPaschal6) on Twitter

Answer: Martha is asking about the explosive report from the New York Times Monday night that the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection and attempted coup is considering the rare step of referring any criminal activity it uncovers to a so-far reluctant Attorney General Merrick Garland and his Justice Department. That could both include the 45th president but also go well beyond him. Two areas are said to be of interest: Millions of dollars in dubious fundraising, as well as the role of Trump and his inner circle in seeking to disrupt Congress and the certification of President Biden’s election victory. That second piece could include a dozen or more people, including key insiders like Steve Bannon and Rudy Giuliani. Stay tuned for a long, hot summer.

History lesson on the U.S., Chile and the ghosts of 1973

Rarely has a wheel come full circle as it did this weekend in Chile, where a 35-year-old leftist former student activist named Gabriel Boric shocked the world by capturing the presidency of the South American nation, defeating an acolyte of that country’s long-time, murderous military dictator, the late Augusto Pinochet. The contest had not been watched very closely here in the United States — yet maybe it should have been. It was secret intervention and encouragement by then-president Richard Nixon and his top foreign policy aide, Henry Kissinger, that fomented the Sept. 11, 1973 coup that ousted Chile’s last leftist leader, a Marxist named Salvador Allende, and installed the bloody regime of Pinochet, who tortured and even murdered his political enemies by the thousands.

» READ MORE: A revolution in Chile sparked by U.S.-style economics. Our billionaires should be very worried | Will Bunch

Overthrowing a democratically elected leader for a right-wing dictator would have been bad enough, but some of America’s best and brightest conservatives, including a batch of Nobel Prize-winning economists, overlooked the regime’s brutality to make Pinochet’s Chile into a laboratory for neoliberalism — such as privatizing government services — that tested out some of the worst ideas later tried here in America and other developed economies. It took decades of organizing for young rebels like Boric — who led a student movement seeking free college tuition (partially successful) in the early 2010s — to unravel the framework of income inequality imposed with American aid. Declared Boric on the 2021 campaign trail: “Chile was the birthplace of neoliberalism, and it shall also be its grave!” But a 35-year-old leftist winning a presidential election? Could that also be the cure for U.S. neoliberalism? Are you watching this...AOC?

Inquirer reading list

  1. The story of Jan. 6 is fast becoming THE story of the 2020s, and in my latest Sunday column I took my deepest dive yet into understanding what really happened that day — and what was supposed to have happened but did not. The biggest dog-that-did-not-bark on the day of the pro-Trump insurrection was the success of leftist counter-protesters in staying home, which prevented street clashes in which the then-president’s inner circle wanted the National Guard to intervene in favor of the insurrectionists. The role of the Guard and its Pentagon commanders is becoming a focal point for House investigators trying to unravel the conspiracy.

  2. Meanwhile, Democrats’ efforts to put the Jan. 6 insurrection front-and-center in early 2022 may struggle if the party can’t deliver on basic bread-and-butter programs sought by their party’s core supporters. The backstabbing announcement of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s opposition to the central Build Back Better bill came right as I was writing my weekend piece, which urged Biden and lawmakers to find a path forward to act on student debt and voting rights.

  3. In the early days of the pandemic in 2020, a couple in Mt, Airy received a shocking call from Temple University’s Episcopal hospital that their 28-year-old daughter, who’d been brought there in mental-health crisis, was now near death. The parents were shocked to learn their daughter’s eventual loss was by suicide, and then Aubrey Whelan and Marina Affo took up the case for The Inquirer — and uncovered even deeper problems at the Episcopal campus. It takes time and resources to tell an important story like this — something not every newsroom has in these difficult times. You can support this journalism by subscribing to The Inquirer.