At 78, Joe Biden is the oldest President ever to sit in the Oval Office. At 81, Nancy Pelosi is the oldest to wield the House speaker’s gavel.
The youngster of the trio, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, is 70. But he’ll lean for help on 80-year-old Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, as Pelosi will draw upon 82-year-old House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and 81-year-old Whip James Clyburn.
All three top leaders have faced intra-party complaints that 21st-century politics have passed them by. If they can unite Democratic factions to pass anything resembling the administration’s $4 trillion economic package, they will stamp their answer in history books.
Biden has been on the national political stage for fully one-fifth of US history. In his 2020 campaign, Democratic rivals cast his views on achieving social and economic progress as outdated; in the presidency, Republicans and conservative media have portrayed him as doddering and feeble.
Three years ago, Pelosi fended off challenges from younger Democrats by promising the current term of Congress would be her last as speaker. Restive Democratic constituencies want Schumer and Biden alike to pressure colleagues to erase old-school filibuster rules that let Republicans block priorities such as voting rights protections and gun control.
Yet each of the three brings notable skills to the task of shoving a large agenda through the narrow funnel that the barest of House and Senate majorities allow.
Pelosi has demonstrated exceptional command of the job over seven years as speaker in two separate stints. Her signature achievement was passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, which she shepherded to President Barack Obama’s desk through complex political and legislative maneuvers bridging the same Democratic divides that confront her now.
“In the five-plus decades I’ve been around Congress, I’ve never seen a stronger and more effective leader than Nancy Pelosi,” said Norman Ornstein, a leading expert on Congress at the American Enterprise Institute. “She has a great feel for what it takes to move votes when you need them.”
Schumer, who has spent 40 years on Capitol Hill, is in his first year as majority leader. During his first three months, he united all 50 Senate Democrats behind Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill — a feat he must repeat to pass the administration’s economic package.
“He’s really good at taking the temperature of the caucus,” said Adam Jentleson, a top aide to Schumer’s predecessor, Harry Reid. Schumer will need to gauge the temperature of holdouts Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona with extreme precision.
Biden can draw upon traits that have marked his lengthy career: identification with the blue-collar Americans his plan aims to help, an understanding of the pressures lawmakers face, an instinct for identifying common ground. Those helped him buck skepticism within his own staff to achieve the infrastructure compromise that attracted support from 19 Republican senators and every Democrat last month.
Struggles with the pandemic and exit from Afghanistan have since dragged his popularity below 50%. But a recent Gallup Poll showed the President retains 90% approval among Democrats, which helps him provide political cover to members of his party anxious about voting for big tax increases or spending proposals.
“Anything that reduces fear is conducive to negotiations,” observed Sarah Binder, a political scientist at George Washington University.
Success or failure will turn on the three leaders’ ability to finesse standoffs over voting schedules as well as the contours of the package. Last week the President tried the rhetorical device of asserting that because he has proposed enough tax hikes to finance his spending plans, the true cost of his package is zero.
“I think we’re going to land the plane,” predicted Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, reflecting the cautious optimism of Democratic leaders. Another harrowing flight away from financial crisis by raising the federal debt limit will follow soon.
Victory would only temporarily quiet younger Democrats seeking more aggressive attempts to dilute Republican power by ending the filibuster, expanding the Supreme Court and adding Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia as new states.
“This generation may possess the ability to get out of the box,” Jentleson said. “It’s up to the next generation to build a better box.”