This is the third in a series on Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office
After Joe Biden delivers his first major speech to lawmakers in a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, Americans will hear a rebuttal from Republican senator Tim Scott.
Scott said last week that he intends to share “Republicans’ optimistic vision for expanding opportunity and empowering working families”. But he will probably have a tough act to follow.
Biden, who this week marks his first 100 days in office, is expected to use his address to take a victory lap for his administration’s achievements, which have proved to be broadly popular with the American public. Chief among these are the stimulus cheques included in his $1.9tn economic relief package and the rapid rollout of Covid-19 vaccines to the point where every American aged over 16 is now eligible for a jab.
Republicans say that Scott, the only black Republican senator, is the right person to deliver their message at a time when the party is plagued with infighting over how to move forward from the Trump era and win back seats in next year’s midterm elections.
“He is what the Republican party should be all about,” said Doug Heye, a political strategist and former spokesperson for the Republican National Committee. “You can’t question his conservative credentials, but he is somebody who can help you put Trump in the rear-view mirror.”
Scott, who was first elected to Congress in 2010 as part of the Tea Party movement, is a rare example of a politician who appeals to Trumpian Republicans while commanding the respect of Democrats. He has been endorsed by Trump’s Save America PAC, but is also in negotiations with Democrats over a possible bipartisan compromise on federal policing reform legislation.
The latest polling from Gallup shows Biden’s job approval rating is 57 per cent, higher than 41 per cent for Donald Trump at the same point in his presidency but below the comparable levels enjoyed by Barack Obama and George W Bush.
Democrats attribute Biden’s popularity to his handling of the pandemic and large investments to jump-start the economic recovery — actions that have been largely welcomed by a broad cross-section of Americans and made it difficult for Republicans to land meaningful blows.
“There has been nothing for them to direct their fire at,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of the centrist Democratic think-tank Third Way. “He has made almost no serious mistakes. He has had absolutely no scandals, and he has done things that people like.”
But Republicans argue that political parties often struggle to form a cohesive counter-attack without the power of the presidency’s “bully pulpit” — and have so far focused their attacks on issues like immigration, rising crime rates in some US cities, and so-called cancel culture.
“A party without an incumbent president always finds it challenging to create a unifying message, because there are so many different messengers,” said veteran Republican pollster Whit Ayres.
Antonia Ferrier, a former senior aide to Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s top Republican, agreed. “There are always struggles when you are the minority party . . . you can’t ever really truly compete with the White House,” she said.
Republicans nevertheless say there are cracks in the foundation of the Biden presidency that they can exploit in the months to come, particularly if the president pushes ahead with a more progressive policy agenda on everything from immigration reform and tighter gun laws to tax rises for the wealthy.
Analysts say bold policy moves, implemented either through executive order or legislation, risk alienating independents and centrist Republicans who supported Biden in last year’s presidential election.
“There are numerous issues lingering beneath the surface, not the least of which is that President Biden ran as a unifying candidate who would govern on a bipartisan basis, and thus far, he has governed in a purely partisan manner, with the narrowest of majorities in Congress,” said Ayres. Biden’s signature policy achievement — his sweeping economic relief package — was pushed through without the support of a single Republican lawmaker, Ayres added.
Democrats control the Senate by the slimmest of margins, with vice-president Kamala Harris able to cast a decisive tiebreaking vote, while the party’s majority in the House shrunk after November despite Biden winning the White House.
Ayres said administrations that enacted policies without bipartisan support tended to “create a backlash that puts the other party in charge at the next midterm election”. In the “Republican revolution” of 1994, Bill Clinton’s party lost control of both chambers of Congress at the midterm elections. And in 2010, voters rejected Barack Obama’s healthcare plans by delivering the House to Republicans.
Ferrier argued that rather than present a cohesive alternative policy platform, Republicans at this stage merely needed to poke holes in the White House’s plans heading into next year, when the onus will be on the Biden administration and Democratic legislators to spell out their achievements.
“Because the Republicans are in the minority, they can really spend time critiquing the president’s policies,” she said. “The burden is not on Republicans to come up with a broad policy answer to everything.”
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