Reviews | Biden raced back to normal. Here’s how he can do it.
President Biden’s first year in office was frustrating for many of his supporters. He has disappointed his more left-leaning supporters by refusing to take aggressive unilateral action in some areas where he has discretion, and he has disappointed his more moderate supporters by choosing to take aggressive action in other areas.
This is doubly true for the group of young, college-educated, urban liberals who dominate the workforce of the media, progressive nonprofits, and much of the Democratic Party itself — people who likely didn’t support Mr. Biden in the main and always suspected he wouldn’t deliver enough change to their likings.
Yet these are the mundanely normal problems of a normal presidency. Even the midterm wipeout that seems to be looming for his party is, by historical standards, a normal course of events.
But if Mr. Biden and his team want to give Democrats a fighting chance and turn the tide before election disaster, they would do well to keep two slightly paradoxical thoughts in mind. First, Mr. Biden is governing in extraordinary times, but his presidency is still governed by the normal rules of American politics. Second, generating a sense of normalcy around American politics and everyday life — as he promised to do during the campaign — would in itself be transformative change.
The central contradiction of the Biden presidency is that he won the Democratic primary by running in the center, offering eligibility and normalcy rather than political revolution and great structural change. But just as he was emerging as the party’s candidate, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and we started hearing about plans to “a presidency the size of FDR” – that is, a big structural change. If the US economy had completely collapsed during 2020 as it did under Herbert Hoover, that might have been realistic.
But most of the time that was not the case. Timely action by the Federal Reserve and trillions in bipartisan relief credits kept the cohesion together. Not good enough to save the presidency of Donald Trump, but good enough to run the Electoral College like a razor and cost the Democrats several seats in the House of Representatives.
Yet even when the polls turned out to be wrong and his victory was much narrower than expected, Mr Biden never really gave up on the dream of a transformative 1930s-style presidency, even it clearly lacked large legislative majorities to materialize a New Deal or Great Society.
Will the Democrats face midterm annihilation?
The disappointment of this failed effort at transformational policy-making tends to mask the extent to which, in his first year, Mr. Biden has succeeded in some surprising ways in his ambitious promises to restore a climate of bipartisanship in the legislative process.
Many progressives believe Republicans voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill only as part of a ploy to thwart the Build Back Better agenda. But the Republicans never attempted such a move during the Obama years, and the fact that they agreed to anything was contrary to some very confidently asserted predictions of journalists (myself included) who made the teeth on the political fights of the Obama era and expected total intransigence. .
We also saw bipartisan legislation to expand US science funding and independent supply chain capacity – the US Innovation and Competition Act – passed the Senate with a substantial bipartisan majority. The House has passed similar legislation (in separate bills) and the two houses are trying to iron out differences in a conference committee, a venerable legislative institution that has largely fallen into disuse in recent years. hyper-partisanship.
But alongside these reassuring sources of normalcy, Mr. Biden has faced some unusually difficult situations. It is extraordinary that his administration has been stalked by the specter of a defeated predecessor who refuses to admit that he lost justly and squarely. Yet, as political scientist Sam Rosenfeld writes, the most striking feature of American politics in 2021 was the “continuing strength of electoral dynamics.“Swing voters reacted to the unified governance of the Democratic Party by swinging to the right and seeking to counterbalance.
Exacerbating this problem is perhaps the most normal political challenge of all – economic conditions deteriorated in the second half of the year, helping to lower Mr Biden’s approval ratings.
Inflation in 2021 is not specifically his fault. There is no way to suffer a pandemic without some economic cost, and bearing that cost in the form of inflation is superior to the alternative of stabilizing prices at lower levels of employment and real output.
But the nature of the White House is that even things that aren’t the president’s fault are the president’s fault. problem. The same goes for the virus. Mr Biden may have doomed himself by over-promising (a perfectly normal campaign sin) and hinting that he would be able to “stop the virus” and allow society to return to normal. It wasn’t true when he promised it, and variants made it even less feasible.
Vaccines greatly reduce the health risk associated with the virus, but they do not eliminate it. And that makes the trade-off between economic production and virus control more difficult than easier. Because so many Americans are vaccinated, the demand for goods and services is now much higher than it was during the Trump presidency. This means quarantine rules and other restrictions on business activity and public institutions To do incur real costs. This winter, with the surge of Omicron, we have more people who want to fly planes than pilots who are allowed to carry them.
The Biden administration and the executive branch have clearly taken steps to prioritize the economy more and public health less — for example, by shortening the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines on isolation time — but the president has been reluctant to explicitly say in public that is what is happening, perhaps for fear of sounding too much like his predecessor. And simply saying “follow the science” is not the answer: the scientific method does not answer questions about trade-offs.
Ultimately, the frustrations of Biden supporters who to want a return to normalcy are more politically significant than those of the more progressive crowd yearning for transformation.
This means focusing more on the short-term economic situation. The good news for inflation is that the 2021 gas price spike is unlikely to happen a second time, and the Federal Reserve should also shift into inflation-fighting mode. But there are also risks of economic disruption in China, and monetary policy efforts to rein in inflation could do too much to dampen real growth as well.
The fate of Mr. Biden’s presidency – and if you believe the dire warnings of many Democrats and academics, of the republic itself – depends less on the fate of legacy items like Build Back Better or a new law on voting rights than normal macroeconomic events. Unfortunately for Mr Biden, no president has full control over them – but pushing for a final version of the bipartisan US Innovation and Competition Act, which contains provisions aimed at strengthening the supply chain of semi- drivers, might be useful.
That means more attention to classic Biden themes of patriotism, bipartisanship and normality, and fewer headlines dominated by high-profile pressure plays against moderate senators.
Most of what happened to Mr. Biden was very normal. But if Democrats take their own fears about the opposition party seriously, they should be very concerned about the consequences of the normal cycle of excess and backlash, and try harder to surprise the country by doubling down on normality.