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WASHINGTON — On July 17, a Sunday, President Biden returned to Washington, D.C., from a trip to the Middle East. The nation’s capital was on the cusp of its most brutal heat wave in years. The president's political realities were also stifling, with polls showing cratering approval from the public and Democrats as eager as Republicans to take him on in 2024.
Then, the following Thursday, the president tested positive for the coronavirus. His health, which had already been a touchy subject, came to dominate the news. A raspy-voiced Biden tried to work through his cold-like symptoms, only to face additional criticism that he should have been resting instead.
But following several surprising developments, the president has ended this week with his political fortunes seemingly revived. He is about to sign a $52 billion bill, the CHIPS Act, to galvanize the nation’s semiconductor industry. Early next month, Congress is likely to pass what is being hailed as a transformative $700 billion spending package, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, more than half of which is devoted to reorienting the economy toward renewable energy. There are also provisions to reduce health care costs, including the cost of prescription drugs, and to trim the federal deficit.
Biden, meanwhile, had fully recovered from COVID-19 by midweek, his symptoms obliterated by the powerful therapeutic Paxlovid. At a Thursday meeting with top administration economic advisers, he removed his face mask in defiance of guidance he was supposed to follow. A few minutes later, a staffer handed him a note saying that the CHIPS Act had passed the House, and a wide grin spread across the president’s unmasked face as the auditorium filled with applause.
“The week was triumphant,” says Celinda Lake, a top Biden adviser who conducted polling for his 2020 campaign.
Centrists, in particular, saw Biden’s efforts as a vindication of his patient, unshowy approach, forged during three decades in the Senate. They have also pointed to the first gun control legislation passed by Congress in nearly three decades, and the confirmation of Steven Dettelbach to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The important agency, which enforces existing gun laws, has not had a Senate-confirmed head since 2015.
“If you add it all up, it’s a big fricking deal,” Jon Cowan of the centrist think tank Third Way told Yahoo News, invoking Biden’s famous description of the Affordable Care Act, passed when he was vice president in the administration of President Barack Obama.
To be sure, the recent triumphs could easily curdle into defeats. Although the IRA seems headed for passage, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema could scuttle the tenuous deal. And while $52 billion for semiconductors is significant, even Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, a supporter of the measure, acknowledged it would amount to a “drop in the bucket” when it comes to competition with China and especially Taiwan.
Meanwhile, the administration continues to struggle with violent crime, rising prices and new waves of the coronavirus that could disrupt business and commerce. This week’s news that the economy had contracted by 0.9% in the second quarter of the fiscal year was a reminder that even as inflation persists, recession looms.
Republicans, meanwhile, have discovered headwinds of their own. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader of the House, saw 24 fellow members of the GOP vote in favor of the CHIPS Act, a telling rebuke in a Congress where party-line votes have become the norm.
After Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., announced a deal on the climate change and health care package, Senate Republicans blocked legislation on toxic burn pits that were used to incinerate garbage in Iraq and Afghanistan by the U.S. military. Service members suffered serious illnesses as a result of breathing the chemicals those pits released; Biden believes that his son Beau, who served in Iraq, may have been exposed to burn pits. He died from brain cancer in 2015.
The apparent maneuver from Republicans on burn pits seemed to backfire after the comedian Jon Stewart, a supporter of the measure, denounced the GOP in a withering speech on Capitol Hill on Wednesday that instantly went viral.
“If this is America First, then America is f***ed,” Stewart said at one point, criticizing what he described as Republican cruelty and hypocrisy.
This week also brought news that the Republicans’ vaunted fundraising machine is slowing down. Several GOP candidates for the U.S. Senate, including Herschel Walker in Georgia and J.D. Vance in Ohio, could lose in close races that Republicans had assumed would go their way.
Former President Donald Trump returned to Washington this week for the first time since leaving office, but his standing with conservatives has diminished, and the Jan. 6 hearings have potently reminded Americans of his apparent involvement in the storming of the U.S. Capitol by his supporters. The speech he delivered did little to re-enchant the Republican base.
Another likely contender for the Republican nomination in 2024, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, was criticized this week for declining to condemn neo-Nazis who showed up in front of a conservative conference he was headlining in Tampa. “DeSantis Country,” read a flag carried by one of the demonstrators.
All this amounted to what one Democratic Party official told Yahoo News was “probably the worst week for Republicans in a long time.”
For Democrats, however, the good news was like an oasis in the middle of the Sahara. The coronavirus is still here, war still rages in Ukraine, and many families cannot afford household staples because prices have risen so much. But it seemed, this week, that Washington did not have to accept gridlock and recrimination as its forever mood.
“The rumors of our demise,” a Democratic staffer who works on Capitol Hill told Yahoo News, “have been greatly exaggerated.”