I never write anything I don’t believe — at least at the time I wrote it. But sometimes I like to go against the grain, to be contrary not just for the joy of being obstinate (though there is considerable fun in that), but as a way to think through a situation. Sometimes it’s helpful not to take the conventional view and see how the reverse argument comes out.
One thing I truly detest is opinion writers who just pander to their base and never miss a chance to validate the common wisdom in their tribe, those who see a parade and run to catch up and lead it. When I see a parade, I go the other way. It’s less crowded and more peaceful over there. You can hear yourself think.
So, now with his favorability ratings at an all time low, with the number of Americans who think we’re headed in the right direction able to meet in a phone booth (if they could find one or, for that matter, knew what one was) and two-thirds of even Democrats saying they don’t want him to run again, let me rush to the defense of Joe Biden.
Let’s start with his accomplishments, which are significant.
As I wrote the other day in defending another wildly popular Democrat, Joe Manchin, the country has made great progress in the last 18 months. We’ve finally passed a huge infrastructure repair bill after a decade or more of trying. This will make our roads safer, our whole transportation network more efficient (and with it our economy), our broadband broader and faster and it will put a lot of Americans to work in well-paying, family-supporting jobs. It’s especially good for blue collar workers without a college degree, people who have been ignored for too long.
Another big package was the American Rescue Plan. I can quibble that it was bigger than needed and probably contributed some (but not much) to our current inflationary pressures, but it did a lot of good stuff. The best thing, in my view, was the refundable child tax credit, which made direct monthly payments to parents. It was projected to reduce child poverty by about half. Yes, it went away at the end of last year, but it served as proof of concept. Even some Republicans, like Mitt Romney, liked it. It’ll be back.
Next, there’s restoring balance to our courts. As of last fall, Biden had had more federal judges confirmed than any president since Richard Nixon through the first several months of his term.
Speaking of judges, Biden appointed the first Black woman to the Supreme Court. Ketanji Brown Jackson is only 51-years old. She could serve for three decades.
Those are some of the specifics, but the less tangible stuff is even more important. Biden observes norms. He speaks like a president. He doesn’t Tweet out sophomoric, barely literate insults and nonsense. He observes decorum and the informal, but vital, rules of the game. He’s trying to bolster our institutions, not undermine them. He’s as much of a gentleman as any pol can be. We — even Democrats — are taking this for granted. Don’t. Remember what it was like to have a lying, corrupt buffoon in the White House.
And Biden has restored our credibility abroad. America once again speaks the language of classic liberalism, not the quasi-fascism we had for four years. This is another thing too many of us are just taking for granted.
Biden’s numbers are bad now because of two categories of things — those he can’t control and those he can, and it’s the things out of his reach that are costing him the most support. Aside from the relatively minor effects of the American Rescue Plan, inflation is raging mostly because of pent up demand, supply chain issues and Putin’s war in the Ukraine. Crime started back up again under Trump and has been exasperated by the social effects of COVID.
As for his mistakes, he’s made about as many as any president through this part of his term. Things started going south for him with the withdrawal from Afghanistan. I agree with the majority of Americans who think that his administration botched the withdrawal and I’m in a tiny minority who think we should not have left in the first place.
But his main problem was a fundamental miscalculation about domestic issues. He swung for the fences and struck out when he should have been playing small ball and taking the bases that were given him.
As one moderate Dem House member famously said, “he was elected to be normal.” But he tried to be FDR and LBJ rolled into one. With no room to spare he tried to squeeze through a huge spending package called Build Back Better and spent enormous political capital on a voting rights bill. In retrospect neither had much of a chance from the start because only one senator could derail anything. That senator was Manchin though Kirsten Sinema joined in sometimes and it’s possible there were others hiding behind them.
I think I understand why Biden thought he had to do this. He’s straddling the divide between progressive (I would say “hard-left”) Democrats and moderate Democrats, like me. But even I liked most of what was in Build Back Better and the voting rights bill. These were things that I thought would unite Democrats and, when in place, be popular with the public as a whole. But what Biden should have appreciated, with all his service in DC, was that he wasn’t going to get every vote in the Senate. He was promising things he couldn’t deliver.
And the costs of failure were high. Instead of focussing on the big accomplishments I’ve listed above, the narrative of his presidency became that of what didn’t get done. Progressives are frustrated that they didn’t get things they had no realistic chance of ever getting and they’re blaming Biden.
The desire to hold the coalition together also forced him into doing unwise things. For example, on the eve of the voting rights bill being voted down, he went to Georgia to make an over-the-top speech intended to show progressives that he was fighting as hard as he could. But that only made the inevitable failure that much worse. Most politicians don’t want to be anywhere near failure, but Biden rushed into the burning building.
So, like Bill Clinton in 1994, Biden needs to reset. Make no more grand proposals. Get what you can before Democrats lose their House majority for sure, and probably their Senate majority as well, in January. Manchin has said he’s still open to something on prescription drug costs and Obamacare subsidies. Good. Take that and add it to the list of accomplishments. And just spend the rest of the term acting decent and normal and dignified and see what happens.
Big picture, here’s my theory of the race in ’24. Inflation will let up and the strong employment economy will continue. Some peace agreement will take hold in Ukraine. Because his party will no longer control Congress, there will be no pressure from the left to do anything dramatic. Meanwhile, Trump will keep being Trump. Voters will have daily reminders of what it was like to have him in the White House. Biden’s approval ratings will improve very slowly but also steadily.
And, frankly folks, who else you got? Kamala Harris and Gavin Newsom would lose badly, while Biden, for all his troubles, still beats Trump 44%-41% in a head-to-head matchup. Right now I don’t see another horse any prettier than the one I’ve got.
Get me a bumper sticker. Joe in ’24!
And on another matter… Every few years somebody proposes that the Madison City Council should be reduced in size and go full time. The only other “professional” council in Wisconsin is in Milwaukee. The Journal Sentinel reports that in the last two decades alone — and most recently just this week — no fewer then six Milwaukee alders have been convicted and removed from office on various corruption charges. Really think you’d get better representation from full time alders?