Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 30 September 2021

 Will Biden’s Fall Be Worse Than His Summer?

From the Afghan debacle to his economic overreach, the White House has ample reason for alarm.


Sept. 30, 2021 6:43 pm ET

The White House should be feeling alarm. It hasn’t been a good summer for the president, and it isn’t looking to be a good fall. The manner and timing of the withdrawal from Afghanistan was a catastrophe that left Americans infuriated and ashamed. The president’s statements and interviews in the aftermath were highly unsuccessful. The testimony of his top military leaders that they advised him to leave 2,500 troops to keep the process safe made him look dodgy. The whole thing was a botch from beginning to end, and it will stick in history. The images it yielded (kids running to the planes, 13 Americans killed as they tried to bring order) seemed to sum up the political moment, making this seem not like merely a bad event for the president but a definitional one.

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The White House pandemic response has been uneven to the point of baffling. Inflation is going up (in June the Federal Reserve estimated it at 3.4% for the year; by September, 4.2%.) Immigration is not a problem but a crisis, and there appears to be no administration plan to deal with the reality that those from other countries who want to come here approach our border as if there is no border. What the crisis requires, at a bare minimum, is a sense of urgency, of something being done. There is no such sense. Their only plan seems to be hoping Border Patrol agents will do something wrong, or at least something that looks bad, so White House officials can lay blame with indignation and performative compassion.

On Capitol Hill, months of fighting in the Democratic caucus, with liberal moderates versus progressives, has gone on just long enough that it looks not like the inevitable jostling in a divided party but like disarray and an absence of leadership.

All this makes Mr. Biden look unimpressive. And eight months is long enough for an impression to take hold. If I were a Democrat I would be starting to think Joe Biden’s historical purpose was to get rid of Donald Trump, but beyond that he is the answer to no political question.

SUBSCRIBE’s tracking poll has Mr. Biden underwater (49% disapprove, 45% approve). The Gallup poll has his approval down 13 points since June. An ABC News/Ipsos poll out this week shows his support eroding on a range of issues, most of the decline fueled by independents and Republicans but with numbers down among Democrats too.

This White House has been pretty good at keeping its secrets. The public has heard very little of what used to be called “Who shot John?”—details about what was said in the Oval Office when the decision got made, who made what argument, who steered things, whose view was decisive. That will come—it always does.

For now, some essentials seem obvious. The sheer size and scope of Mr. Biden’s economic proposals show he is operating with a certain daring. His bills are mandate-size. But he didn’t have a mandate-size victory in 2020 when he was up against the most divisive and controversial president in modern history. Donald Trump got more votes than any Republican ever had. Mr. Biden in turn received more votes than any Democrat. He won by seven million of 159 million votes cast. A good solid win (51.3% to 46.9%), but not a mandate. His party won the House but only by a handful of seats. The Senate is 50-50.

The country is closely split. Mr. Biden’s governing margin is precarious. Yet his economic proposals are quite sweeping, as if he’d won the Great Society mandate of 1964. Lyndon Johnson’s landslide was huge—61% to Barry Goldwater’s 38.5%. Johnson came in with 68 Democratic senators and a 295-140 House majority.

At the same time Mr. Biden acts as if he has a mandate, he seems strangely absent from Hill negotiations. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D., Mich.) said Wednesday on MSNBC that Democratic members “need to know exactly where the president stands and what the president wants them to do, and they’re getting mixed signals depending on who you talk to.” They are told they have to be with the president, but “what is it that the president wants?”

He is letting progressives play the part of conscience of the party. They appear to be calling the shots, and he’s ceding to them the idea they’re not part of the party; they’re the heart of the party. But Mr. Biden didn’t run as a progressive—he beat the progressives in the primaries. In a party going left, he played the role of the middle’s man. What happened to politics as the art of the possible?

This looks like a late-life conversion to progressivism. Maybe that’s what the abrupt and decisive withdrawal from Afghanistan was about, doing what others had failed to do, Barack Obama had failed to do—and what progressives wanted. Show them who their real hero is. The economic part of his agenda would be of a piece with that—show them what Mr. Obama, with his distance from the more progressive wing of his party, refused to show.

I’ve got a feeling there’s more to the Obama competition angle than we understand.

There’s already been a lot of spending since the pandemic began. Mr. Trump was a high spender. Mr. Biden is a high spender. But when the federal government, which is far away from life on the ground in America, creates mammoth spending bills, a sense of targeting gets lost, of workability and intention, of trade-offs and long-term implications. It all gets lost unless you’re careful. We spend so much as a country now, we’re starting to make some workers believe they don’t really have to work. Some renters would be starting to think they don’t necessarily have to write the monthly check.

Does the spending in the big reconciliation bill look careful? It is almost 2,500 pages long, it’s not clear anyone has read it, and no one seems precisely sure what’s in it. It is simply understood as a bill that while not necessarily pertinent to current crises provides the societal changes progressives wish to see in such areas as climate and taxation and beefing up the Internal Revenue Service and free community college.

I think the common wisdom on the right that if this economic program passes it will be bad for the Democrats (huge, messy, inflationary) and if it fails it will be bad for the president (he’s hapless, they don’t have their legislative act together) is correct.

I think Mr. Biden got himself in a fix. The past eight months he could have been gradual and incremental in his approach—a few months slower with a lot more planning in Afghanistan, less appetite and maximalist in economic matters. Old fashioned, undramatic, stable governance from a longtime liberal Democrat.

Not everything has to be big, bold and transformational. Especially when you don’t have a mandate for those things. In political figures it is often vanity and ego that make them insist on being transformational.

Or competitiveness.

Or ideology. But ol’ Joe from Delaware didn’t use to have all that much ideology, and wasn’t chosen to have it.

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