While Biden has made mistakes, his biggest obstacles – such as electoral biases built into the US system – are not his doing
A year into his term, the Biden administration is in shambles. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema’s support for the legislative filibuster has killed the Democratic voting rights push. Biden’s Build Back Better plan, a massive reconciliation package containing initiatives on issues from climate change to childcare is, for now, dead in the water; Manchin and Sinema will determine whether any of its provisions survive in attenuated form.
Immigration reform and healthcare reform, both central to Democratic intra-party debates during the 2020 primaries, have fallen entirely off the radar. The US supreme court may overturn Roe v Wade in the coming months. The latest wave of the coronavirus pandemic is still ravaging the country thanks not only to Covid denialists and vaccine skeptics on the right, but an administration that has struggled to keep its pledges on easy access to tests. Abroad, Biden’s courageous withdrawal from Afghanistan – a kept promise even the president’s harshest critics on the left were willing to give him credit for – has been marred by economic sanctions that have left 23 million Afghans without enough to eat, and the media is already itching to blame Biden for a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
None of this is to say that Biden’s first year in office has been bereft of real accomplishments or positive press. But neither the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act nor the American Rescue Plan – the president’s two great legislative victories thus far – have resonated with the electorate. Biden now holds the second lowest approval rating of any president at this point in their term – the record is still held by his predecessor Donald Trump.
It’s clear across the polls that voters are faulting Biden for inflation and a supposed inattention to the economy. But elevated inflation has been a global phenomenon – and here, one of the proximate causes has been the strength of an economic recovery boosted by the American Rescue Plan. Really, Biden’s been focused on the economy to the exclusion of nearly everything else on the Democratic agenda – his recent pivot to voting rights came only after the collapse of negotiations on the Build Back Better plan which, in its initial form, was easily the among the most ambitious economic packages ever proposed in Washington.
Messaging on the plan plainly hasn’t worked. The major individual components of Build Back Better are far more popular than the overall package – late last year, Politico and Morning Consult found that 47% of registered voters supported it, while increasing funding for affordable housing and expanding Medicaid to cover hearing services registered 65% and 75% support respectively. That’s not terribly surprising given that voters have probably heard much more about the intractability of negotiations over the plan in Congress than they have about the plan’s substance.
While Manchin and Sinema bear most of the blame for this, some commentators have also taken Biden himself to task for overpromising on his legislative agenda and deviating from the centrism he’d been known for. “The president should remember that he won as a moderate and a unifier,” the New York Times’ Bret Stephens warned on Tuesday. “Biden would do better to move on from defeat and draft legislation with bipartisan appeal.” But as these critics know full well, there’s extremely little that both parties still agree on, and even modest bipartisan proposals like universal gun background checks have been doomed to failure by the legislative filibuster, which forces the 50-member Democratic caucus to win over not just some, but at least 10 Republicans to pass anything outside of budget reconciliation.
Biden’s supporters and his centrist critics both have an interest in framing him as a visionary. But he isn’t one – the enlarged agenda the centrists disdain has been the fruit of internal party pressure and the sheer scale of our public health and economic crises. There’s plenty of evidence that Biden still favors moderation and restraint, especially in the administration’s executive actions and, on certain issues, executive inaction – there, the White House has spent the year frustrating party activists on issues including student debt, immigration and policing.
The notion that American unity was within Biden’s capacity to achieve was simply a lie – one of many he’s told about the state of our country
It is true, though, that Biden has made a slew of extravagant and under-scrutinized promises. Like his campaign, Biden’s inaugural address last year focused less on making the case for a set of specific policies than on making the case for Joe Biden as our spiritual savior. “Today, on this January day,” he told the crowd, “my whole soul is in this: bringing America together, uniting our people, and uniting our nation.”
Here, Biden’s failure should be obvious even to Americans who don’t follow the news closely. The tenor of political debate hasn’t softened; our substantive political divides remain just as deep. The notion that American unity was within Biden’s capacity to achieve was simply a lie – one of many he’s told about the state of our country and where it’s going. During the campaign, he assured voters that the Republican party would reach an epiphany and develop a willingness to work broadly with Democrats once Trump left the White House. In what amounted to open mockery of that claim, Mitt Romney – widely lauded in the press and within the Democratic party as one of the Republican party’s last voices of reason – compared Biden’s election reform advocacy to Trump’s post-election shenanigans earlier this month. “President Biden goes down the same tragic road taken by President Trump,” he said in a US Senate floor speech, “casting doubt on the reliability of American elections.”
In his press conference on Wednesday, Biden insisted he hadn’t a clue that he’d face this kind of nonsense and opposition from the right. Believing him does no credit to his intelligence. This was another lie, one uttered to advance the strategy Democrats generally turn to when they’re down – projecting indignation over Republican obstruction while hoping, in this case, that voters don’t notice the Democratic party controls government and can pass whatever it likes provided the party is unified.
Biden’s current standing gives us reason to doubt this will work in the November midterms. So does electoral history – incumbent parties tend to do poorly in them. None of that routine flux, the product of what political scientists call “thermostatic public opinion”, has produced the meaningful change many frustrated Americans hope to bring about at the polls. Inequality and corporate power are growing. Decades of rhetoric and poor policies have failed to bring about much progress on issues from healthcare to education. And both immediate crises like the coronavirus pandemic and long-term challenges like climate change seem beyond our capacity to address.
That impotence has been the product of our institutions and the myths that sustain faith in them. Biden has taken a belated and tentative interest in reworking the Senate’s rules; opposition from Manchin and Sinema and the electoral biases of our system have not only hobbled his agenda, but also ensured that Democrats won’t be able to govern on its own again in Washington for many years to come should they lose their governing majority in November.
It’s not obvious that there’s anything Biden can do to save the party from that fate. But it’s clear what moral leadership demands from him now. Our federal order is strangling us. He should say so. He should admit too that conflict and dissensus will always define American society. No other future is available for a country as large, diverse and nominally free as ours. And the achievements we take the most pride in today – from women’s suffrage to the civil rights movement – simply would not have been possible if leaders had limited their aspirations to objectives that “brought Americans together”. Naturally, there’s not a chance in hell anything like this will ever pass from Biden’s lips. It’s not savvy and it’s not safe. But it is the truth, and the American people deserve to hear it from someone someday.
Osita Nwanevu is a Guardian US columnist