Wrapping it up: 2021 politics with Stuart Shapiro

To close out this season’s podcasts, Amy Cobb returns to pose questions to Stuart Shapiro about the year in politics. They discuss President Biden’s achievements, including the Build Back Better framework, the administration’s more competent COVID response, and the relatively mundane nature of the administration. The pair also delve into the current administration’s woes, encompassing everything from inflation to gerrymandering and voters’ rights. Stuart forewarns about Trump’s expanding command over the Republican Party, how it complicates this administration’s policy agenda and is deeply worrisome for the country.

Stuart Shapiro
Welcome to EJBTalks. I’m Stuart Shapiro, the Associate Dean of Faculty at the Bloustein School, and the purpose of this podcast is to highlight the work my colleagues, and our alumni in the fields of policy, urban planning, and health are doing to make the world the country in New Jersey a better place.

Today, we wrap up season five of this podcast. And rather than have one of my esteemed colleagues as a guest, given that we are near the one year mark of the Biden administration, Amy Cobb is going to come across from the other side of the glass as she has done on occasion, and the two of us are going to talk about the first year of the Biden administration. Amy, welcome back.

Amy Cobb
It’s been a while, but I think you and I were saying…isn’t that exciting that it’s been a while since you and I have had to have a politics talk!

Stuart Shapiro
Yeah, no, during the Trump administration, there was something to say every week. There were major developments every week. And, you know, say what we will about Biden, and we’ll talk quite a bit about it, but, you know, he promised to return some calm to our political processes. And I think he succeeded in that.

Amy Cobb
Yeah, it’s exciting. But it’s also not exciting, because you’re not on as much so… ((laughing))

Stuart Shapiro
((laughing)) Well, we’ll let the viewers decide.

Amy Cobb
Yeah, that’s true.

All right. So, you spoke about it, we’re almost a year into the Biden administration. I can’t believe it. I’m gonna leave the general how are they doing to the end? I want to speak about a few general pieces. So the big elephant in the room right now, that’s been the elephant in the room for almost two years, COVID? How is the Biden administration doing in its response versus what it had promised? What do you think about the vaccine requirement… using the OSHA standard? We haven’t talked about it? Let me know what your opinions are on what they’re doing?

Stuart Shapiro
Sure. So the Biden administration, I think, you know, has obviously in rhetoric been a huge improvement on the Trump administration. We’re not hearing about quack cures anymore, we’re not hearing about, you know, it’s going away, it’s not a problem, any language like that. And that in and of itself is obviously a significant improvement. Yeah, here we are. But now 21 months into the pandemic, and…

Amy Cobb
Yes… believe it or not.

Stuart Shapiro
I know. And just last week, we have a new variant or two weeks ago, now we have a new variant come in the Omicron variant. And this points out a couple of things. I mean, first of all, and most importantly, it points out that at the end of the day, the control that the government and the political processes have here is not complete. It’s not as if Biden can wave his hands and make the virus go away. And then second, you know, there are some failings in the Biden administration. We don’t have nearly as much testing, as we should have. That in particular, I think has been a gap. It was a gap that obviously started under the Trump administration and has not been rectified. So that’s a challenge.

But there is a lot that’s out of Biden’s control, including the considerable anti-vaccination sentiment, which has left us more vulnerable to COVID than we should be at this point. I mean, I don’t think even under a best-case scenario COVID would be gone right now, but things would be a lot better if more people were vaccinated.

Now, you mentioned the OSHA vaccine mandate that’s in my wheelhouse, because that’s a regulation. And so the approach the Biden administration took, and it was, it had several components. There’s also a regulation from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services on the vaccination of health care workers. There are requirements that federal contractors be vaccinated and of course, is the most high profile the OSHA mandate, that employers with more than 100 employees require that their workers either be vaccinated or be tested regularly. We should be clear, it’s not really a vaccine mandate. It’s a vaccine or testing mandate.

The regulation is currently being held up in court. A court has stated pending legal arguments. And you know, I don’t know what’s going to happen. There are some legal vulnerabilities associated with the vaccine mandate. I don’t want to get too technical details but the decision to restrict it to employers of 100 people or more, it’s hard to argue it’s an emergency if you are excluding a significant portion of the workforce, and a few other issues along those lines. That said, there’s also a possibility that the court will defer to OSHA on the standard and let it go into effect.

But timing is obviously important. If this drags on in the court for nine months, which it very well might, and the mandate is stayed for that entire time, then by the time we hit nine months from now, you know, things will be very different. Vaccination rates will be higher, maybe the virus will be, certainly at least in the developed portion of the world, less lethal. And who knows, you know, by that time, whether or not a mandate will even be needed, and the court may use that. If we could get it into effect now, it would have a real difference. It would be… it would save lives and keep people healthier. But the legal process has to play out first.

Amy Cobb
Okay, that’s an “eh” for the Biden administration?

Stuart Shapiro
Yeah, I mean, I think you give them an “eh,” but an “eh” understanding that, you know, not everything’s their fault.

Amy Cobb
So if you were grading them, it would be C on a curve.

Stuart Shapiro
Yeah, you know, it’s graduate school, so a B. But it’s… you know Biden has a dilemma here. And yes, Trump faced it, too, although he obviously handled it badly. He’s going to be held responsible for whatever happens with the virus, whether or not he does anything about it. You know, and so, if things get better a year from now, people are going to give Biden credit, even if he doesn’t deserve credit. If things get worse, they’re going to blame him, even if he doesn’t deserve blame.

Amy Cobb
That’s the problem when you’re the chief.

Stuart Shapiro
That’s exactly right.

Amy Cobb
Okay, so we’ll walk away from COVID for a little bit…

Stuart Shapiro
If only we could…

Amy Cobb
I know, well, well, we’ll think about it less. How about that?

Stuart Shapiro
There we go.

Amy Cobb
I’d like to move a little bit to the economy. One piece that I saw as a potential big win for the Biden administration, and I think you probably do, too, is the infrastructure investment JOBS Act was a win. And although it didn’t include the build back, better framework, which I think they had really touted for a while as the two pieces that went along. Um, how do you feel about that? Do you think it was the right thing to kind of back off on the second piece? And what other pieces of the economy and the outlook are you feeling are good or bad for the Biden administration?

Stuart Shapiro
Well, let’s be clear, I don’t think they backed off on build back better. I mean, it passed the house, it’s going to come up for a vote in the Senate soon. The Senate will pass a different package than the House passed, and then they will go to conference, they will reconcile it, and something will eventually be passed. And really, I think in everyone’s mind, even though they’re in separate bills, those two pieces of legislation, the infrastructure bill and the build back better bill will together be the Biden legacy of this the first year of this administration. I don’t know what build back better will look like when it’s finished. It will look like less than the House passed, but certainly a very, still very significant piece of legislation in all likelihood.

And both bills, I think together, you know, a good thing. They address needs in the economy, the need for infrastructure, the need for broadband, the need to fix roads and tunnels, universal pre-K, child care, tax credits, child tax credits. All of these things fill significant needs in the current policy landscape in this country, and so all great. The idea, however, that they will make major differences in the economy in the short term is a mirage, though. You know, you pass a bill, everyone’s like, Oh, great! But you know, and you’ve mentioned this on occasion, implementation has to happen after the bill passes. And in the case of infrastructure, that takes years, right? And that will be…

Amy Cobb
Yes. I was working on this 20 years ago.

Stuart Shapiro
That’s right. And there will be cost overruns, there will be scandals, there will be all sorts of stuff that come out of that we should just steel ourselves for that and prepare for that. And then something like the child tax credit works faster. If and when you know, obviously that’s in place right now and the build back better bill, I believe extends it. That has a quicker impact, but even that it’s not immediate. So I think the Biden administration is focusing on these long-run needs is doing the right thing from a policy standpoint.

But it’s not doing something that sort of is necessarily politically successful for it. Because the economy, like COVID, runs on its own timeframe. And people vastly overestimate the amount of power that the government has to change that. Indeed, unemployment has come down to 4.2%, as of last week. A huge drop from the previous year. Did Biden to that? Well, most of that’s recovery from the pandemic, right?

Amy Cobb
But we’re not gonna complain if that is a positive.

Stuart Shapiro
No, that’s absolutely right. But the other problem is, you know, if you’re going to give Biden credit for that, which I don’t think he deserves, you’re gonna give him blame for inflation, which I don’t think he deserves either. And so, you know, right now, the economy is a net negative for the President. And it’s a net negative because when you drive down the road, the biggest thing that you see is gas prices, right? They’re in big neon letters, you know, every five miles or so you see three or four gas stations all next to each other. And you see $3.50 a gallon or $3.70 a gallon. I was out in Arizona last weekend it was over $4 a gallon. And inflation, you know, is a political nightmare for an administration.

And as long as we continue to see prices going up, and I saw it with my grocery bill this weekend too, not just gas prices As long as people see that they are going to feel economically uncomfortable. Even as unemployment goes down, even as the labor market continues to improve. The supply chain issues, which are largely driving inflation, along with an increase in demand for goods, are going to keep prices up. Now, that will probably change. The Fed in particular has signaled that it’s going to likely increase interest rates, and that will curb inflation. But that’s going to take time. And as long as that’s a problem, the grade for the Biden administration, even more unfair than the grade on COVID, is going to have to be mixed because people do not feel economically confident or secure right now.

Amy Cobb
Yeah, I can tell you that the grocery bill every week keeps going up. And that’s a tight squeeze. And at this time of the year, you can really feel it even more. So. Oh, so that’s a… that’s a low C. Okay. ((laughing))

Stuart Shapiro
((Laughing)) Again, graduate school, I think we got to go with the B there.

Amy Cobb
So this has been all over the news, especially the last few days. They were specifically talking about Texas, but, this is a federal Federal issue. The voting rights bills that are going through and a lot of the gerrymandering of districts… although Texas doesn’t want me to say it that way. The RE conceiving of voting districts across the country and the Biden administration, you know, part of their policy agenda is equity, and one of their big pieces of it is voting rights and the voting rights bill. And I haven’t really heard a lot about what they’re doing right now. I know everybody has really been focusing on the economy and on COVID. But this was a big promise and a big part of their policy agenda. What’s going on with this with the Biden administration?

Stuart Shapiro
No, I mean in the long run, this is probably one of the most important things that are going on right now. And we’ll get to where the GOP is in a minute, which is one of the reasons it is one of the most important things going on right now. Throughout the country, states particularly those under unified Republican control are doing everything they can to maximize their chances of victories and elections throughout the decade. That includes gerrymandering, which you refer to. By and large, gerrymandering is now illegal under the Supreme Court decisions of the past decade. And so I would not hold out much optimism there. There are a few cases, Texas may indeed be one of them, North Carolina also a significant possibility, where gerrymandering will be found to be too extreme along racial lines. That is the one ground on which you can overturn a districting plan by a legislator.

But political gerrymandering, the Supreme Court’s not going to interfere with. And so where you have states like Wisconsin and Ohio, where the parties are relatively closely divided, yet the representation in the state legislature and the state’s congressional delegations are very lopsided, that’s going to continue. That said, there are pieces that we could theoretically deal with on the federal level. Most importantly, our changes to the electoral Count Act. If you remember, January 6, and that’s still less than a year ago, and so I don’t think any of us have forgotten it yet. The hope among the Trump supporters was that the Vice President would halt the count in Congress and return it to the states. Reforms to the Electoral Count Act, that would make that clearer, the process clearer that the Vice President doesn’t have that power that Congress doesn’t really have that power is very, very important.

Reforms that ensure that states cannot ignore the will of the voters by staffing offices, like the secretary of state within states and other positions like that, and giving them the power to overturn elections, also critically important as we head into 2024, in particular, but even some of the gubernatorial and senatorial elections in 2022 could be affected. So I don’t think we’re gonna see fixes on gerrymandering, at least until the court changes, which is a long, long time away. But that doesn’t mean there is important stuff to do.

Now, Congress is considering measures along these lines. But right now, there’s no GOP support for those measures, which means it comes down to the filibuster in the Senate. So any changes along these lines are going to have to require a change in rules in the Senate. And can you get Joe Manchin and Kristen Sinema to agree to that? You might. Actually, for those limited cases, you might be able to get that support. But I don’t know. That will linger into 2022. That’s not getting resolved this month. But it’s one of the most important policy questions out there as we headed to the New Year.

Amy Cobb
And boy that just heads into this next part of our discussion. I hate saying it, we’re back to Trump. Look, here we are. It’s like full circle. What do you think? How do you think the Biden administration is handling Trump and the GOP? And what do you see on the horizon with them?

Stuart Shapiro
Well, the Biden administration can’t do anything about Trump for the most part,

Amy Cobb
I don’t know if the Republican Party can do anything about Trump either.

Stuart Shapiro
Yeah, that’s the more, maybe the most important political development of 2021. There were those, and I don’t think I count myself among them, but there were those that hope that Trump would lose, and then he goes away, and the Republican Party could go back to being the Republican Party, that it was pre-Trump. Which, depending on your views was either a good thing or a bad thing anyway, you know, obviously, many people have different feelings about that. But the reality is, that has not at all been the case.

And it’s not because of the politicians, it’s because of the voters. It’s because of the people. Trump still maintains a huge base of support within the Republican Party. And it has become clear that you cannot win a Republican Party primary and defy the former president. And that influences the behavior of the vast majority of those in the House and Senate in the Republican Party. Not all of them. There are courageous people like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, and occasionally, a few others. But by and large, if you want to stay in power, you have to kiss Trump’s ring. That has not changed in the Republican Party, and it’s become worse. And that’s critically important as we head into 2024, which we’re not heading into yet. It’s a little early to start to think about 2024.

Amy Cobb
We still have to get through mid-terms.

Stuart Shapiro
Let’s get through the mid-terms.

Amy Cobb
Which is already giving me palpitations because that’s not that far away.

Stuart Shapiro
That’s right. And it means as far as the midterms are concerned, it means that Republican candidates are far more likely to be Trumpist than they are to be never Trumpers. And so that’s what the midterms will hold at stake. And some degree that improves the chances for Democrats, particularly in some key Senate races like Ohio and Georgia where Democrats might have trouble against a traditional Republican in what’s going to be a very difficult midterm for them. But they may have a chance against a Josh Mandell in Ohio or Herschel Walker in Georgia.

Obviously, then it has implications for the presidential primaries in 2024. But the fact of the matter is the Republican Party even more than it was a year ago, stunningly is the Trump Party right now. And those that hope that that would not be the case, I think, have been seriously disappointed. It also points to the importance of getting these reforms in place to make sure that the 2024 election and the 2022 elections are fair, and the will of the voters is reflected.

Amy Cobb
So that’s a good turn into what you’re hoping that Congress can do before they adjourn right now. To get that started or done.

Stuart Shapiro
So I mean, I think, you know, there’s not much Congress can do for the short term. But like I said, the big thing for the long term is to pass the Build Back Better bill. And or at least make significant progress towards passing it so that it can be taken care of. They’re also going to have to deal with the debt ceiling likely before they recess. There was a two-month extension on it in October that will run out the middle to the end of this month. And that’s always a circus. I don’t think there’s any chance that it will not be passed. Not passing it would indeed, crater, the economy. But it will take up bandwidth. It’ll take up media time, it’ll take up all of those things in the halls of Congress.

So dealing with that, and moving on … Build Back… Better…. ((laughing))

Amy Cobb
It’s hard to say it.

Stuart Shapiro
Yeah, it is…say it five times fast there… Build Back Better are the key priorities for Congress before they adjourn. And then when they come back dealing with some of these voting rights issues, if we get that, that’s a reasonable record for the first year of the Biden administration. It’s not like I said, it’s not going to change COVID. It’s not going to change the economy in any short-term way. But it’s good policy,

Amy Cobb
Just as a concluding minute or two. How do you think the Biden administration is doing what pratfalls do you think stick out the most? And how do you think they’ve recovered from those and are moving on?

Stuart Shapiro
So I think President Biden would be the first to say that he’s a workhorse, not a show horse. And we are in an era when show horsing is important. And so when things happen, like 5% inflation, when the new variant of the virus comes out, the Biden administration just plods along. And that’s probably what they should do. I think from a policy standpoint, the administration has been largely fine this year. Exceptional, no, but fine. And they will be largely fine next year.

But in difficult times, fine doesn’t win you elections, and particularly midterm elections. And so, you know, I don’t want Biden to be more like Trump by any means. And the Democrats were likely going to lose if, you know, some hybrid of John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama was president. And so I don’t pin that on Biden. But to a fair degree, I think next year, the candidates and races for the House and the Senate and governorships are on their own. And they’re going to have to win their elections with hard-fought battles, because the conditions aren’t there for anything else right now?

Amy Cobb
Well, that…yay.

Stuart Shapiro
((laughing))

Amy Cobb
Maybe this is why we stopped doing these Stuart.

Stuart Shapiro
((laughing)) Come on, it wasn’t that bad.

Amy Cobb
I know. I think I like the fact that we haven’t had to talk about this because it’s made a lot of sense to me, what’s going on and how they’re plodding along. But you know, I’m an implementation person. You’re a regulation person. We love this stuff. And I think it doesn’t always make great sound bites for television. So…

Stuart Shapiro
That’s for sure. So I will I’ll wrap up here by thanking Amy for asking excellent questions today.

Amy Cobb
Ah, you’re welcome!

Stuart Shapiro
And thanking Karyn Olsen behind the scenes for helping out there. We are going to take the winter break off right now. We’ll be back in January with season six ….

Amy Cobb
…2022 Stuart!

Stuart Shapiro
2022! The EJB talks podcast will return then. Until then, I hope everyone listening has a wonderful holiday season and a happy new year and we can’t wait to talk to you in the new year.