With a hint of confusion in his eyes and a whiff of failure in the air around him, Joe Biden is watching his approval ratings continue to plummet to the point where just 42 percent of Americans approve of his job performance.
Which makes sense, since at least so far Biden really doesn’t seem very good at this whole being president thing despite dreaming of and preparing for it for decades. With his staff trying to hide him from the press, and his penchant for saying confusing things, Biden isn’t rhetorically equipped to talk himself out of this mess. He was elected on a simple mandate to not be Trump, but after promising not to do Trump things, doing his own thing has proven more difficult.
To some degree, he put himself in this corner. By governing as he campaigned (as a competent centrist), Biden might have locked in a governing majority of alienated center-right Americans along with his extant Democratic coalition. However, Biden chose to abandon efforts to transcend the current political paradigm, choosing instead to appease his base. Talk about a tragic plot twist.
His deference to progressives was foreshadowed early on: first when he flip-flopped on taxpayer funding of abortion during the campaign, and then with the partisan passage of his COVID-relief bill in February. But real trouble arrived this summer, when he prematurely declared “independence” from the virus (followed by mixed messaging over boosters), and his Afghanistan withdrawal went dangerously sideways. Then it became clear that allowing progressives to hold his bipartisan infrastructure bill hostage would result in more than just a temporary delay.
One could argue that Biden’s decision to pander to the leftward flank of the Democratic Party caused or exacerbated the various crises he now confronts—ranging from the border crisis (his “compassionate” policies and rhetoric served as a magnet) to violent crime (it’s hard to blame Biden for this, though his party’s “defund the police” rhetoric didn’t help) to inflation, which is now tied with COVID as Americans’ biggest concern (Biden ignored Larry Summers’ warnings about overheating the economy). The current stalemate over his legislative agenda is the clearest example of this deference to progressives. And since his stalled legislative agenda feels especially like a self-inflicted wound, it’s worth spending a little additional time here.
Had Biden aggressively moved to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill, he would likely have garnered dozens of Republican votes, and progressives would have likely either caved to his will or been shown to be impotent. This is my counterfactual analysis, at least.
Instead, though, Biden let progressives press him into (sort of) linking passage of the bipartisan bill with a $3.5 trillion social welfare reconciliation package. By trying to have it all, there’s now a chance that he could get neither.
Why would an experienced former senator and vice president—who spent his career working across the aisle—make this mistake? Here’s one hypothesis: Ideas have consequences. And the assertion has taken root that Americans are so polarized and ideologically sorted that persuasion is a fool’s errand.
Since Bill Clinton, every U.S. president has essentially bought into this premise, despite all of them except Trump having explicitly campaigned as game-changing uniters. Bush and Obama won re-election with this formula, which probably explains why it isn’t easily abandoned, even as the trajectory of America this time at least feels like it has been headed downard. Biden had a fresh opportunity to break the cycle, but he has instead followed the path of his predecessors.
That aside, his even more fundamental problem is a lack of competence. We saw this in Afghanistan, where the dubious decision to withdraw all U.S. troops was compounded by the hamfisted manner in which the withdrawal was executed. And this same lack of competence is evident when it comes to Biden’s stalled legislative agenda.
If Biden was going to make the foolish decision to link the bipartisan infrastructure bill with the reconciliation bill, he could have first made sure he had all 50 Democratic Senators on board.
It’s no surprise that Manchin, who hails from West Virginia, would pose a roadblock when it comes to passing the Democrats’ “green” agenda items, so discussions with him should have begun on day one. Instead, Biden and the Democrats tried to jam their own framework through—and retroactively sell it to him.
Of course, it’s even more complicated, since Arizona Sen. Krysten Sinema is the other holdout. Unlike previous examples where duos like recalcitrant Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine could be won over simultaneously, Manchin’s problems with the bill (mainly climate related) are entirely different from Sinema’s (generally having to do with taxes). And don’t forget the fact that appeasing them too much could alienate other, more progressive, Democratic votes. This is just one big mess.
And the problem for Biden (and America) is that the problems keep piling up. China is menacing Taiwan and testing hypersonic weapons (Biden says we will defend Taiwan if they are attacked). Gas prices are up, with Biden admitting they’re not coming down any time soon. And then there is the ongoing supply chain crisis.
Biden’s problems are piling up so fast that it reminds me of lyrics from Hank Williams, Jr., “The interest is up and the stock market’s down. And you only get mugged if you go downtown.”
Those lyrics, recorded in 1981, reflected those dark times. It’s worth noting that Ronald Reagan went on to win 49 states, three years later.
Joe Biden better hope for a similar turnaround.