There’s not much question where the Biden administration’s domestic priorities lie. Getting the pandemic health crisis under control and moving past its attendant economic crisis were always going to be the first order of business for the new White House. It’s what comes afterward—where the administration wants to head, how the American people respond, and what Capitol Hill does with it all—that will give us a sense of whether the country is ready for the kind of change Biden is signaling he wants to bring.
To be sure, some of that change has just been enacted into law. The stimulus package that made it through Congress a few weeks ago was an abrupt shift in tone from Washington. Beginning with Ronald Reagan and lasting to some extent even through Democratic administrations, the prevailing view valued limited government action on the economy, tax breaks for businesses and wealthy Americans—on the theory that their investments would ultimately help everyone else—and at best a wary view of the public sector. The stimulus bill heads the opposite direction, taking the attitude that forceful government action is needed in this moment and that the way to prosperity lies in helping poor, working-class, and middle-class Americans.
I suspect that a lot of Americans won’t care much about the ideology behind the stimulus bill. They’ll just judge it on whether it works, and in particular on whether the economy recovers and produces jobs—especially jobs that pay decently. Right on the heels of the stimulus bill, though, will come a host of issues that test both the administration and Congress.
One of them has already begun making headlines, as young migrants and migrant families show up in rising numbers at the southern border and federal officials scramble to shelter and process them—and in many cases, expel them under a Trump administration public health order that Biden is under pressure to drop. This all comes after a flurry of early executive actions aimed at developing a more generous immigration stance and talking up a “path to citizenship” for people in the country illegally and is a reminder that shifts in policy can produce results that overwhelm the best intentions. My sense is that many Americans would welcome a reasoned and humane approach to immigration—but not if it produces chaos.
And just as Republicans on Capitol Hill are seizing on events at the border to raise the heat on immigration reform efforts, so the other big item on the administration’s agenda—infrastructure—may also fall prey to intense partisanship. If ever there was an issue on which Democrats and Republicans ought to be able to carve out agreement, it’s spending money to bring roads, highways, bridges, public water systems, and other basics necessary to modern life up to snuff. So far, the two parties continue to insist they intend to work together, and the Biden administration says that bipartisanship is a priority. But as Democrats push for an expansive view of infrastructure—including cyber-security, public transit, and shifting spending priorities toward cleaner energy—and Republicans insist that they will not back any move to raise taxes to fund infrastructure improvements, the stage is set for a classic Washington face-off.
Beyond that, of course, any number of exceedingly complex issues await action. There’s the pressure to raise the minimum wage, policing reform, climate change, a set of issues around racial equity, and any number of hot-button cultural issues that the wings of both political parties would like to push but the administration so far has shown little interest in addressing.
But what may be the biggest test of all has less to do with policy priorities and the specifics of legislation than with whether Washington can move forward on challenges that matter to the American people. We have had many years now of Washington, collectively, struggling to advance on issues of importance to the day-to-day lives of Americans. Our political leaders have a chance to reset our expectations of what they can accomplish. Here’s hoping they take the opportunity to do so.