ST. CROIX, V.I. — President Biden briefly interrupted a holiday island vacation last week to sign into law a $1.7 trillion government spending bill, capping a two-year rush of legislative activity that has the potential to reshape the American economy and place Mr. Biden among the most economically consequential presidents of the last century.
But as he flew home to Washington on Monday he was headed toward challenges that could threaten that legacy, including the possibility of a global recession and the high likelihood of legislative gridlock in a newly divided federal government now that Republicans are assuming control of the House.
One vital test Mr. Biden faces is making all his new economic laws work as intended. Much of his economic legacy will depend on how effectively his administration allocates trillions of dollars in spending and tax incentives contained in the economic bills that Mr. Biden signed into law during his first two years in office.
Across the White House and several agencies, officials are trying to stretch dollars to meet Mr. Biden’s ambitious goals, including making high-speed internet available to everyone in the country, replacing all lead pipes that carry drinking water and building out a nationwide network of electric vehicle charging stations. In those cases and many others, officials are working with far less money than the president had initially proposed, a side effect of the compromises he accepted to win bipartisan support to enact his agenda.
Federal officials are already at times butting heads with state and local leaders, who control some of the spending from a sweeping infrastructure law and what remains of a huge pandemic rescue plan, and who do not always share the administration’s priorities.
“We’ll have arguments — governors saying: ‘Well, I don’t want to fix a bridge. I want to build a new road,’” said Mitch Landrieu, the former New Orleans mayor who was tapped by Mr. Biden to oversee implementation of the infrastructure law. “We have to fight about that stuff. That’s all fine and dandy, but we’re well on our way, and I feel really good about it.”
“This is going to be a hands-on, elbow-grease thing today,” Mr. Landrieu added, “and into the next three, five, seven years.”
The Biden Presidency
Here’s where the president stands after the midterm elections.
- A New Primary Calendar: President Biden’s push to reorder the early presidential nominating states is likely to reward candidates who connect with the party’s most loyal voters.
- A Defining Issue: The shape of Russia’s war in Ukraine, and its effects on global markets, in the months and years to come could determine Mr. Biden’s political fate.
- Beating the Odds: Mr. Biden had the best midterms of any president in 20 years, but he still faces the sobering reality of a Republican-controlled House for the next two years.
- 2024 Questions: Mr. Biden feels buoyant after the better-than-expected midterms, but as he turns 80, he confronts a decision on whether to run again that has some Democrats uncomfortable.
Mr. Biden must also sell his accomplishments to voters ahead of what he says will be an announcement early this year that he will seek re-election in 2024. The president is set to start this week with an event in Kentucky that seeks to make the case that he is uniquely able to bridge partisan divides in order to strengthen the American economy.
“While we have more work to do, and we may see setbacks along the way,” Brian Deese, the National Economic Council director, and Anita Dunn, a top adviser to Mr. Biden, wrote in a memo to reporters last week, “we end the year with clear evidence that President Biden’s economic strategy of growing the economy from the bottom up and the middle out is working.”
Mr. Biden finished 2022 in a celebratory mood, vacationing with his wife, Jill, daughter Ashley and grandchildren Hunter and Natalie in the Virgin Islands. Aides described him as being in good spirits all week, a mood echoed by Mr. Biden in the few brief public appearances he made in St. Croix.
“Good year next year,” he told reporters after emerging from church on New Year’s Day. “Looking forward to it.”
He gave a thumbs up.
Mr. Biden has emphasized the positives in the economic recovery since he took office less than a year after the swiftly descending pandemic recession. He has stressed strong job growth, especially in manufacturing, and called the United States better positioned than its peers to endure any difficulties in the years ahead for the global economy.
Economic events have hampered that message, particularly fast-rising consumer prices. Inflation hit a 40-year high last year under Mr. Biden. It is beginning to improve but remains well above historical norms. Forecasters expect economic growth to slow significantly this year as the Federal Reserve continues to aggressively raise interest rates, along with other central banks around the world, in an effort to tame price growth.
Those rate increases, along with continuing fallout from the war in Ukraine, threaten a spreading recession that could consume the United States. Several major economies, including England and parts of continental Europe, have already fallen into downturns. In the event of a contraction in America, Mr. Biden will most likely find Congress unwilling to spend money to try to revive growth.
“For most of the world economy, this is going to be a tough year, tougher than the year we leave behind,” Kristalina Georgieva, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, told CBS News’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. But, she added: “The U.S. is most resilient. The U.S. may avoid recession.”
Mr. Biden’s economic team contends that resilience is a direct consequence of the series of laws he steered through Congress in his first two years, which delivered large swaths of the economic agenda he laid out in the 2020 campaign and early in his term.
The bills include the $1.9 trillion pandemic rescue package passed along party lines in spring 2021 and the bipartisan infrastructure law later that year. Last summer, Mr. Biden signed a bipartisan bill to invest in semiconductor manufacturing, research and development, and other elements of an industrial policy to counter China on the global stage.
He then signed the so-called Inflation Reduction Act, passed along party lines after more than a year of negotiations with holdout centrist Democrats in the Senate. It raises taxes on corporations and cracks down on wealthy tax cheats, seeks to reduce prescription drug costs for seniors on Medicare and spends $370 billion to accelerate a transition to low-emission sources of energy — the most expensive effort to fight climate change in American history.
Economists say the rescue plan accelerated the nation’s economic rebound and job growth and helped strengthen consumer finances. It also helped stoke inflation, though economists disagree on how much. A focus on ports has helped to unclog global supply chains that were snarled as the economy reopened from the pandemic. Mr. Biden’s decision to release millions of barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve helped to some extent to bring down gasoline prices that spiked after Russia invaded Ukraine.
Mr. Deese and Ms. Dunn’s memo notes that the administration has announced $185 billion in new infrastructure projects and that companies have announced $200 billion in new manufacturing investments linked to the semiconductor law. They estimate that the full package of new laws will drive $3.5 trillion in public and private investment over the next decade.
But much work remains to carry out Mr. Biden’s legislation — and his vision for the American economy.
Administration officials have sped up that work in recent months, writing new regulations to govern tax incentives, like for cars powered by electricity and fuel cells, and selecting infrastructure projects to fund, like road and bridge repairs. The Treasury and Commerce Departments are beefing up their staffs to fulfill crucial provisions of the climate and manufacturing laws.
Other White House officials are candid about the challenges of longer-term efforts like shifting the nation away from fossil fuels. “This transition that we need to make to clean energy is complicated and will take time,” Heather Boushey, a member of Mr. Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, said in an interview last year. “And it requires changing some of the biggest, most expensive things that people buy: a boiler, a car, how they cool their home, what kinds of transportation they drive.”
Mr. Biden will not hesitate to celebrate progress on carrying out the laws. On Wednesday, he will fly to the Cincinnati area to celebrate the infrastructure law’s investment in revamping an outdated bridge between Kentucky and Ohio that has become a choke point for regional and national commerce. He is expected to preach cooperation across party lines to solve big problems, appearing alongside the governors of both states, one Democrat and one Republican, as well as Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader.
Some White House officials remain hopeful that, even with the House under Republican control, the president can find more deals to cut to advance other parts of his agenda that he failed to push through in his first two years, including paid leave for all workers, universal prekindergarten and tuition-free community college.
Most experts believe that will not be the case. House Republicans have made clear they want to cut spending, and they oppose tax increases.
Mr. Biden has seen what losing the House can do to a president’s economic ambitions: It happened when he was vice president in the Obama administration, which saw much of its legislative agenda wither after Democrats lost the House majority in the midterm election of 2010.