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Analysis | Biden’s successes were made possible by Obama


It’s a safe bet that President Joe Biden will use next week’s State of the Union address to boast about his many policy accomplishments over the past two years — and that Democrats in the audience will respond with cheers. Many of Biden’s supporters argue that he can lay claim to a truly exceptional degree of legislative success. However, according to the historical records, that is rather exaggerated.

Biden can be justifiably pleased with the cooperation he received from Congress before the Republican Party took control of the House of Representatives last year, foreshadowing an even more turbulent relationship to come. Democrats used both of their annual opportunities to sidestep the Senate filibuster through the budget reconciliation process, passing economic stimulus legislation in early 2021, and a sweeping climate and healthcare reform bill last summer. Biden also signed laws addressing a range of other issues (infrastructure, gun safety, same-sex marriage protections) with varying degrees of bipartisan support.

There is nothing wrong with Democrats taking pride in this steady stream of policy making. But their boasting has sometimes gone too far.

Representative Joe Neguse of Colorado, a member of the House Democratic leadership, claimed last August that this was “perhaps the most productive Congress since the Great Society in the 1960s.” Veteran Democratic strategist Bob Shrum called Biden “the most successful president since LBJ.” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer got even more carried away by bragging in December that “the only dispute” is whether the last session of Congress will be “the most productive two years in [the] 50 years since the Great Society, or the most prolific in [the] 100 years since the New Deal.”

This rhetoric is not borne out by the evidence. David Mayhew, a political scientist at Yale, maintains a dataset of all major federal legislation since the end of World War II. By his count, the 2021-2022 Congress passed 13 major bills — a perfectly respectable number (since 1981 the average has been 11) but hardly a historic high. The 2019-2020 Congress was even slightly more prolific, passing 15 major bills, though five of those were emergency measures in response to the pandemic.

Of course, the triumphant stance of the Democrats reflects not only the sheer volume of legislation, but also the array of liberal concerns it addressed. Indeed, according to Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State University, the number of legislative acts that shifted national policy to the ideological left in 2021 and 2022 was unusually high compared to most sessions of Congress since the 1990s, though it lagged far behind at the peak. of liberal policy-making in the age of the Great Society. Claims that Biden compares himself to Lyndon Johnson or Franklin D. Roosevelt as a transformative figure remain exercises of exaggeration.

Curiously, all this “not since LBJ” talk also ignores the magnitude of legislative productivity during the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency. The data collected by Mayhew and Grossmann ranks the 2009-2010 Congress above its 2021-2022 counterpart, both in the total number of major bills passed and the number of measures that moved federal policy to the left. And it is difficult to demonstrate convincingly that Biden signed a bill that approaches the substantive and political importance of the Affordable Care Act.

In fact, the ACA’s endorsement is itself responsible for Biden’s ability to fulfill many Democrats’ hopes for his presidency. Had Congress failed to pass Obamacare, Biden would have faced pressing demands to accomplish what would surely have remained his party’s top domestic priority. Tackling health care reform would have required a great deal of energy, attention and political capital, but his chances of success would have been rather slim given narrow partisan margins in Congress.

By removing the biggest and most difficult item from the perpetual Democratic legislative agenda, Obama freed Biden to focus on other goals that were both easier to achieve and less politically explosive. This performance also enabled Biden to avoid the devastating backlash in the midterms of 2022 that Obama suffered in 2010.

Democrats today certainly have good reasons to be in a cheerful mood. But they have to be careful about expressing their feelings without subjecting the rest of us to rewriting history.

More from Bloomberg’s opinion:

• Biden’s economy is second only to one mid-term: Matthew Winkler

• Biden keeps his bipartisan promise: Matthew Yglesias

• Democrats show Republicans how legislation is made: Jonathan Bernstein

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This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

David A. Hopkins is an associate professor of political science at Boston College and the author of “Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics.”

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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