When Joe Biden joined the Democratic Presidential Primary in April 2019, the consensus from the politically engaged was ‘why?’ Faced with a bevy of more exciting candidates, the appetite among Democratic activists for a twice-failed septuagenarian candidate was tepid, to say the least.
Many lessons can be taken from his primary victory, and I hope to explore these more in future articles.1Basically, 1. Twitter isn’t real life and 2. Don’t bash the party you are currently trying to lead. Few pundits would have anticipated our current situation: not only is Joe Biden the President, he is very, very good at it.
Joe Biden entered the presidency during a tumultuous time, and the early tone of the administration was one of stability and competence. This was crucial to maintaining positive media coverage for the first few weeks of the presidency. However, explicitly returning to a pre-Trump politics would be a failure. This is a tight line to walk: restoring the liberal norms of a well-functioning executive branch while not replicating the behaviors that limited the Obama Administration’s efficacy and led to Trump’s election.
The first aspect contributing to Biden’s relative popularity2Given the incredible polarization of the electorate. is his handling of COVID, the issue that still consistently ranks as the most important to Americans. In some ways, Joe Biden is the beneficiary of timing: he entered office just in time to see a rebounding economy and skyrocketing vaccine production. In that sense, tweets like this one from chief of staff Ron Klain are disingenuous. On the other hand, having a cretinous, petty president who did everything he could to downplay the crisis and sabotage efforts to control its spread probably had something to do with the US’s abysmal response to both the virus and the early rollout of the vaccine. According to Klain, a Vaccine Distribution Plan didn’t even exist when they took office. Democrats generally do better at these large-scale administrative endeavors because they generally believe the government has a significant role to play in people’s lives. In addition, Joe Biden can retain public sentiment due to his unique capacity for grief and empathy, enabled by his tragic personal history of overcoming just that. During a pandemic that has killed far too many, no politician could have filled that role as well as he has.
The American Rescue Plan
The Great Recession was met with a wholly insufficient fiscal response from the federal government. The ARRA was much too small for the scale of the crisis, and the general sentiment among economists is that this fear of deficit spending and inflation made the economic situation worse than it had to be. In contrast, the American Rescue Plan was more concerned with the economic consequences of doing too little, not doing too much.
Note how different this is from Obama’s stimulus in 2009! By most estimates , the ARRA closed only a small portion of the output gap created by the Great Recession — probably less than a 1% drop in the unemployment rate. It didn’t even get us close to the pre-recession trend.
In contrast, Biden’s bill will probably get us all of the way back. Partly this is because the output gap is so much less — unlike a financial crisis, a pandemic is a short-term shock. But partly it’s because Biden went big; even after adjusting for inflation, his bill is about twice the size of Obama’s stimulus, and it follows on the heels of even bigger bills in 2020.Noahpinion
Biden’s willingness to go fast and big served him well, not by chance, but by how the public and media react to legislative initiatives. The White House’s3And congressional Democratic. messaging around the American Rescue Plan was insanely effective politically for a few reasons:
- Repeatedly stressing the urgency of the relief package, limiting Republican’s lines of attack and the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic Party from slowing down the process
- Defining ‘bipartisanship’ as popular support from a vast majority of voters, not votes on the final bill from Senate Republicans
- Inserting substantively good long-term policies on a ‘limited’ basis, therefore creating a constituency that will increase the likelihood the policy becomes permanent (see: Child Tax Credit)
- Eschewing complex work requirements and rebates formerly popular in wonky, budget-hawk Democratic circles. Instead, promoting largely universal and direct transfers of wealth, which reduces administrative burden and increases the visibility of relief to voters
- Steadfastly ignoring the increasingly stupid culture war, which is both electorally polarizing and can’t really be transformed into anything legislatively worthwhile.
- Allowing Senate moderates to pick big, performative fights over high-income phase-outs and the minimum wage while the overall price tag wasn’t negotiated down significantly.
Many of these effective strategic decisions are the benefit of Biden and his administration reading the putts of Obama. Many of the people at the highest levels of the Biden administration experienced the stonewalling of Republicans, especially during the passage of the ACA. Obama put in a genuinely bipartisan effort to craft a healthcare bill. Months of political capital was expended during the long legislative process, including concessions to Republicans, as well as conservative Democrats like Max Baucus and Joe Lieberman. Lo and behold, zero congressional Republicans voted for the final bill. This pattern would repeat with numerous efforts during Obama’s terms, including immigration reform and gun control. With this benefit of this history, Biden is poised to avoid the political process mistakes of the past. This will allow him to better execute on the substance of the Democratic platform, which is similarly informed by the past.
Every presidency is a mire of unforeseen challenges, not to mention the relentless manufactured crises born in the right-wing media cesspool and endlessly captivating to horse-race journalism outlets trying to maintain a broken sense of objectivity. After the 4-year attack on democracy and decency that was the Trump presidency, the press was forced into a less objective standard than they would like to maintain. The New York Times wound themselves into cognitive knots to avoid calling Trump a liar, yet ultimately the illiberal tendencies of Trump were met with a similar urgency by the media ecosystem at large. In light of this, the Washington press seems committed to symmetrical adversarial journalism, even when the people they are covering are wildly asymmetric. So far, the White House has largely avoided playing into this resurgence of tan-suit journalism, and continuing that tendency into the future is really important to continued success.
Joe Biden has done the impossible: he has not been characterized by the right as an America-hating radical hell-bent on taking away personal freedoms. This quandary for conservative politicos contributed to their tepid opposition to the American Rescue Plan.
“There’s just not the antipathy to Biden like there was Obama. He just doesn’t drive conservative outrage,” said Alex Conant, a longtime GOP operative, who worked for the Republican National Committee in 2009 as they labored to undermine then-President Barack Obama.
“They never talk about Biden. It’s amazing,” Conant said of the conservative news media. “I think Fox covered Dr. Seuss more than Biden’s stimulus bill in the week leading up to the vote.”GOP struggles to define Biden, turns to culture wars instead
What a stark difference in how Obama and Biden have been characterized by the right. It’s almost black and white!
This infuriating reality of politics has blessed Joe Biden with a tailwind throughout this process. During the Democratic primaries, voters’ singular focus on electability gave the white guy an edge. During the general election, that electability argument was borne out, as the Trump campaign’s central message careened between describing Biden as a scheming socialist and a harmless dementia patient. The difference between his treatment and that of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton could not be more clear. As Obama talked about at length in A Promised Land, he was constantly pressured by the desire to speak out on the ugly forces of racism that still existed, and the knowledge that any discussion of the reality of prejudice in America would become a controversy. I mentioned earlier how the White House has avoided becoming mired in the unwinnable culture war. In many ways, Barack Obama never got that choice. As a result, any discussion of Biden’s success must acknowledge that he gets the benefit of appearing more moderate and reasonable due to his appearance and mannerisms.
It Only Gets Harder
Joe Biden’s success until now was the easy part. The American Jobs Plan, while still being a hugely popular and crucially important piece of legislation, cannot be as easily sold as an urgent relief package. Therefore, it is subject to many more of the anfractuous constraints of normal congressional stupidity. I anticipate that this bill, which will not even pass the House until at least July 4th, will see much more organized opposition from both Republicans and influential Democratic coalitions. Maintaining the message discipline that has characterized these first few months will be crucial to Biden’s success.
Beyond that, the For the People Act is vital to protecting democracy itself. This bill faces even stiffer opposition, as the very forces of dark money, corporate political spending, and Citizens United beneficiaries that would be eliminated are hell-bent on ensuring its defeat.
While reconciliation may provide a path to legislative victories for the next few major bills, beyond that lies the antiquated monstrosity of the filibuster. The ahistorical defense of the filibuster by a few moderate senators, coupled with the complete unwillingness of Republicans to grant Democrats4And the country, but who are we kidding. the bipartisanship and success, could very well stop the Biden administration from making any meaningful progress outside of executive action.
Joe Biden Has Changed
The evolution of Joe Biden’s thinking is directly responsible for the enviable position he enjoys 80 days after inauguration, as Ezra Klein argues:
The American Rescue Plan was a $1.9 trillion bill that erred really heavily on the side of doing more. That is not, I would say, a hallmark of Joe Biden’s career up until now. But maybe you could say, well, it’s a coronavirus emergency. That changed everything. Well, coronavirus doesn’t explain the $2 trillion American Jobs Plan that just came out. This is not a coronavirus bill. It is not fixing problems caused by a pandemic. This is a searing critique of the pre-pandemic economy. Its provisions amount to an argument that the economy we had before the pandemic was a calamity for people and for the planet. The status quo was a disaster. And by implication, Democrats, very much including Joe Biden, who had a hand in building it, had been too slow to recognize its problems and much too timid in facing them.Opinion | The Best Explanation of Biden’s Thinking I’ve Heard – The New York Times
When Pete Buttigieg dropped out of the Democratic Primary, Joe Biden became my preferred candidate. Throughout the general election, I bristled at those who characterized him as an ardent defender of the status quo. Even so, I am blown away by the levels of reform and urgency he has shown. The road ahead is long and filled with snares, but at present, Joe Biden is very good at being President.
- 1Basically, 1. Twitter isn’t real life and 2. Don’t bash the party you are currently trying to lead.
- 2Given the incredible polarization of the electorate.
- 3And congressional Democratic.
- 4And the country, but who are we kidding.