Joe Biden’s springtime of discontent «

Joe Biden’s springtime of discontent


– Elizabeth Drew
WASHINGTON, DC – Poor Joe Biden. Even when, according to most opinion-makers, he’s been doing things right, he cannot get a break in the public’s opinion. Despite the fact that Biden pulled NATO out of the ditch into which Donald Trump had kicked it (in order to destroy the alliance, something Russian President Vladimir Putin desired), restored America’s global leadership, and made more progress in reviving the economy in 15 months than almost anyone thought possible, his poll numbers remain abysmally low.

At Biden’s urging, Congress passed legislation, which had been hanging about for years, to make big investments in America’s deteriorating infrastructure. Unusually in the current hyper-partisan climate, Republicans in both chambers backed the infrastructure bill (their constituents also don’t want their bridges to collapse). Biden improved the government’s response to the ravages of a pandemic, including passage of a $1.9 trillion rescue plan to help individuals and the economy. He also salvaged the US Postal Service, something Trump had politicized almost beyond recognition.

Yet, Biden’s poll numbers have dropped to a dismal 40% approval rating. At the same time, large majorities seem to feel that the country is headed in the wrong direction – the measurement to which some political strategists pay the most attention. Even his winning Senate confirmation of a historic figure, the first black woman to sit on the Supreme Court, did little to improve his overall political situation. Blacks and their allies have a much larger agenda, especially the effort to restore voting rights that the Republicans have been curtailing, something which Biden hasn’t been able to deliver on because of the filibuster.

There are numerous reasons why Biden can’t get a break. The highest inflation in 40 years agitates the public daily. In the week leading up to the Easter and Passover holidays, the inflation rate hit 8.5%.

There isn’t much the president can do about inflation. He can hope for a further unfreezing of supply chains, with more container ships able to dock at US ports. He can open the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to try to lower gasoline prices, and can promote clean energy. Biden has done these things – to limited effect so far. Gasoline prices are now the highest in US history. Their rise has been exacerbated by the war between Russia and Ukraine.

One reason Biden receives little credit for his accomplishments is that he wildly overpromised at his presidency’s onset. He approached his legislative agenda as if he had more than 50 votes in the Senate (with vice president Kamala Harris to break a tie), and a margin of five in the House. Indeed, Biden seemed to assume that all Senate Democrats would support whatever he proposed. When this didn’t work out, he came across as a plaintiff in a negotiation in which he often failed. A summons to the Biden White House apparently inspired no awe.

Moreover, a group of progressive Democrats in the House have acted almost as an independent party. They appear to feel that they owe Biden nothing; if their actions weaken him and the Democratic party, so be it. They even insisted on their own response to Biden’s State of the Union address, heretofore unheard of. Some progressive positions, or presumed ones (such as “defund the police” whatever that means) have driven away moderates. This has helped Republicans continue to exploit race and crime. Biden’s unwillingness to side openly with or against the left in his party leaves open the question of what he stands for.

But Biden’s problems with the public are more fundamental and are ingrained in Biden’s persona: he lacks what can be called “presidentialness.” The ostensibly easy-going pol (he has a temper that his staff knows well) too often fails to come across publicly as a commanding figure. Biden has a stature gap. Moreover, unlike his two predecessors, Trump and Barack Obama, Biden has no cult following to fall back on.

Biden was elected essentially as a decent man who knows his way around politics – and wasn’t Trump – which hasn’t been enough to carry him over the rough spots as president. On occasion, Biden’s lack of self-discipline created those very spots. His presumed skill in handling foreign policy took a big hit with the US exit from Afghanistan, which was widely deemed (I think unfairly) a “debacle.” And in late March of this year, at just the moment that majorities of the public (up to 70%) were expressing doubt of his ability to handle challenges produced by Russia’s brutal attack on Ukraine, Biden undermined his thoughtful speech in Warsaw about the struggle between authoritarianism and democracy by ad-libbing that Putin “cannot remain in power.”

This inflamed opinion around the world and obliterated attention to the substance of the speech. Biden’s aides quickly spread the word that Biden wasn’t seeking “regime change,” but that did little to undo the damage.

At the moment, the prevailing mood on Capitol Hill is the fear Democrats have of losing control of both houses of Congress in this November’s midterm elections. History suggests that a loss by the party controlling the White House is almost inevitable. But with over six months to go before the election, the matter isn’t settled. A number of deeply flawed Republican candidates (wife-beaters and the like) are running. Some potentially strong Republican Senate candidates looked at what it’s like to serve in today’s bitterly riven Congress and have passed on running.

Biden needs a dramatic change of fortunes, plus luck, if he is to avoid facing a Republican-controlled Congress, one bent on revenge and reversing his achievements, as well as shutting down the inquiry into what happened when the Capitol was stormed on January 6, 2021. If Republican majorities are elected this fall, Biden’s flaws as a political figure will have much to do with that and will render him the weakest president in a very long time.

(Elizabeth Drew is a Washington-based journalist and the author, most recently, of Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022. )