Biden’s First Year in Office: Man in a Box

One year into office, one poll indicates that a 36 percent of voters say that Joe Biden is performing worse than expected and only 5 percent answer better than expected. Both Barack Obama and Donald Trump got better results on the same question, though Biden’s overall approval rating is still higher than Trump’s one year into office.

Biden is facing a set of problems familiar to political historians and scholars in American political development. As I pointed out after the 2020 election, he lacks both an electoral mandate and reliable majorities in Congress. Biden came into office as the most legislatively circumscribed president since George H.W. Bush. While Bush confronted opposition party majorities in both chambers, parties were then more willing to accept a deal for mutually shared goals. Bush and congressional Democrats agreed on disability legislation and the Clean Air Act of 1990, even though both knew political opponents could claim partial credit. When congressional parties switch majority control as often as they do now, Frances Lee points out that parties would rather deny the other party victories altogether. Any kind of compromise bestows legitimacy and undercuts the case for electing one’s party as the new majority. Biden needs every single Democratic vote in the Senate whereas Bush could lose some Republican votes by obtaining some Democratic support.

At a deeper level, Biden is limited by his leadership context, caught between a campaign narrative that appealed to swing states and the orthodoxy of party activists. Some presidents who did not even have nominal majorities, such as Ronald Reagan and perhaps Barack Obama, have had more success controlling their own narrative. Biden the president has evolved from Biden the senator, even though he campaigned largely as the latter. In several decades as a senator and vice president, he had a reputation for compromise, pluralism, and Senate institutionalism. As president, Biden has prioritized current party orthodoxy, insofar as that means his less compromising party’s activists. He risks losing the voters Biden the senator appealed to without achieving the most permanent victories party activists seek.

Institutional Constraints

Although working with the narrowest of congressional majorities, Biden’s tried to pass some of the most ambitious spending bills passed since the Great Society in his “Build Back Better” Plan. Left-of-center party activists were disappointed by Biden’s victory over Bernie Sanders, who promised Medicare for All, free college and debt cancellation. They were partly assuaged by the highly ambitious Democratic party platform of 2020. Individual provisions of Build Back Better

poll well, but members of Congress ultimately have to run on the bill as a whole. The most expensive part of the bill – a permanent child tax credit – falls short of majority support.

The gap between the aspirations of the platform and Biden’s political realities are a recipe for disillusionment. Great Society programs require Great Society congressional majorities that Biden does not come close to having. In fact, Biden only has a majority in the Senate at all due to the unlikely victory of two Georgia Democrats in January of 2021. In the absence of Trump’s post-election temper tantrums and electoral machinations, at least one of those seats would likely be in Republican hands and deprive Biden of even a nominal majority.

Congressional realities are likely to be a structural impediment to Democratic presidents for many election cycles. In order to appeal to party activists, Democratic presidential candidates have to at least fight for left-of-center policy demands when the median state has a significant Republican lean. If voters keep judging a party by its presidents’ stances, these demands will be a liability to Democrats running in the states they need to win the Senate. When George H.W. Bush was president, Tip O’Neil’s adage that all politics was local described more of the political landscape. People were willing to separate Democrats in their own states from the national brands, especially incumbents. Those days are gone.

Since the Constitution bars changing the formula for changing the number of Senators per state, Democrats are only likely to control the Senate by denationalizing politics, tailoring its national agenda around pivotal Senate states, or admit Democratic leaning states in the union. I am not holding my breath for any of these to happen.

Leadership Constraints: President Biden vs. Senator Biden

Biden is also boxed in by the narrative he created for himself around his political record in the Senate. Biden’s campaign sold voters a “return to normalcy” and emphasized his pragmatic congressional bargaining and willingness to work with Republicans. It was called naïve at the time, since polarization seems to have decimated old-time bipartisanship. Though other Democratic candidates mimed aspirations to bipartisanship, my social media feed was filled with claims that Biden was the only one who really believed it. In his campaign kickoff speech, Biden called for an end to the sharp split between the two parties:

I know some people in DC say it can’t be done. but let me tell them something, and make sure they understand this. The country is sick of the division. They’re sick of the fighting. They’re sick of the childish behavior…I know some of the smart folks say Democrats don’t want to hear about unity. The angrier a candidate can be, the better chance they have to win the nomination. I don’t believe it. I really don’t. I believe Democrats want to unify this nation.

Some of these people are saying. ‘Biden just doesn’t get it,’ you can’t work with Republicans anymore. That’s not the way it works anymore. Well, folks, I’m going to say something outrageous. I know how to make government work — not because I’ve talked or tweeted about it, but because I’ve done it. I’ve worked across the aisle to reach consensus. To help make government work in the past. I can do that again with your help.

In additional to normalcy, Biden biographer Evan Osnos agreed with Ezra Klein’s characterization of Biden as a pluralist. Since pluralists see the political landscape as peppered with multiple and irreconcilable visions of the good, they are able to work with political opponents without Manichean judgments of one party good, the other party evil. Throughout his career, Biden took others’ agendas as non-negotiable givens. Staffers reported that a major trigger for Biden was a recommendation to tell someone else what s/he should want, as Obama sometimes did.

Whether one supports the ambitious policies agenda Biden has put forward or not, the president’s public remarks part ways from Biden the pluralistic senator. Biden refused a deal for a more moderate Build Back Better plan from the most pivotal senator, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin. Admittedly, Manchin left out the permanent child tax credit, but retained $1.8 trillion in spending for Democratic programs. Instead of working with the Joe Manchin’s final offer as non-negotiable, Biden judgmentally rebuked Manchin in public. Future deals currently appear unlikely. It is frustrating for Democrats that one senator has so much influence over an entire chamber, but pragmatists work with the context they have rather than the context they wish they had.

Biden’s approach to voting rights have also veered from his campaign narrative. In his summary of two voting rights bills this month, Biden did not make room for multiple versions of good democratic practice. Instead, he framed support as a choice between democracy and its enemies, insinuating good and “insidious” evil, invoking Biblical imagery. Calling out what’s wrong may or may not be good politics, but it definitely does not fit with the pluralistic world of Biden the senator. Instead of highlighting consensus, Biden highlighted the anger he eschewed in his kickoff:

Today, we come to Atlanta — the cradle of civil rights — to make clear what must come after that dreadful day when a dagger was literally held at the throat of American democracy… When the Bible teaches us to feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty, the new Georgia law actually makes it illegal — think of this — I mean, it’s 2020, and now ’22, going into that election — it makes it illegal to bring your neighbors, your fellow voters food or water while they wait in line to vote…

Jim Crow 2.0 is about two insidious things: voter suppression and election subversion… But each and every time, Senate Republicans have blocked the way.  Republicans oppose even debating the issue.  You hear me?

Will you stand against voter suppression? Yes or no? That’s the question they’ll answer.  Will you stand against election subversion? Yes or no? Will you stand for democracy? Yes or no? At consequential moments in history, they present a choice: Do you want to be the sit on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace?  Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor?  Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?

In his final touch, President Biden rejected Senator Biden’s institutionalism openly:

Sadly, the United States Senate — designed to be the world’s greatest deliberative body — has been rendered a shell of its former self.  It gives me no satisfaction in saying that, as an institutionalist, as a man who was honored to serve in the Senate.

The either/or framing of the issue is more reminiscent of George W. Bush’s admonition that you’re “either with us or against” us than the “consensus is not weakness” campaign message. The lack of faith in the Senate contrasts sharply with his campaign message that he could make the Senate work through consensus before and can do so again. Savvy presidential candidates realize they cannot always be realistic if they want to win. But failing to live up to his campaign message may cost him. Not only does it look like Biden lost one-half of a loaf to hold out for a full-loaf that probably will not materialize, but 42 percent of voters say Biden is too unwilling to compromise – almost twice as many who says he is too willing to compromise.

If President Biden reverts to Senator Bidens’ ways, a number of low hanging fruits may be bland to the party base but still meaningful to voters. Criminal justice reform achieved bipartisan support under Trump. National marijuana laws are more conservative than public opinion polls. Congress could pass laws preventing state legislatures from overturning the popular vote. The enormous spending on COVID has not been accompanied by commensurate preparations for future epidemics.

George Edwards’ book Overreach points out that Obama’s Affordable Care Act was ahead of public opinion and probably came at the expense of the rest of his agenda for six years. But in that case, Obama had something to show for sacrificing his political chits: the Affordable Care Act. It makes more sense to sacrifice some public support for policies party activists want when you can actually deliver those policies. Biden has sacrificed public support to focus on policies when it is clear they will not pass Congress.  I can see sacrificing public opinion and low hanging fruit for actual policy victories, but not for just saying “well, I tried.”

The Constraints of Current Events

The responsibility for creating an image that he cannot live up to arguably falls in Biden’s lap; you have to answer for electoral promises you can’t live up to even if you needed to make those promises to win. But some of the policy trade-offs Biden needs to make would be difficult or impossible for many presidents. After 20 years, America had limited control over Afghanistan and it was unclear whether a more prolonged presence would accomplish anything. Yet, any president who withdrew was going to be blamed for the limited gains accomplished, and Biden paid the price for this. Maybe a better evacuation of allies was possible but voters were going to be unhappy with whatever president exposed either long-term trajectory.

Biden just happens to be saddled with another constraint not of his own making. Parties dread issues that divide their won caucus but unite the opposition, and Democrats are confronting two highly publicized such issues right now: COVID restrictions and the influence of critical race theory in education. People without college degrees in particular differ from teachers’ unions, an important Democratic Party bulwark, on these issues. Working people are especially worried about the disruption to education, but teachers’ unions are currently voting for another round of school closings in some cities.

Stimulus spending may or may not have contributed to inflation, but presidents have only limited tools to fight it. Perhaps Biden could appoint more hawkish economists to the Federal Reserve, or lower prices by lowering tariffs. But even if he did both, inflation will cast a shadow on any new spending or wage increases until it subsides. Rightly or wrongly, economists and political opponents will warn that now is not the time. Based on his experience in the Obama administration, Biden placed less weight on the opinions of economists. Larry Summers warned that excessive spending in 2021, especially after employment picked up, could lead to inflation. Remembering Summers as the naysayer to a more ambitious stimulus in Obama’s first term, the Biden administration discarded his advice in 2021. I leave economists to debate whether Biden’s spending exacerbated already existing inflation, but voters will blame the party in power whether they are at fault or not. At present, a clear majority blames Biden.

None of this is to deny the significance of what has already been accomplished. If Biden supporters write the history books, he will be remembered for presiding over a smoother rollout of COViD vaccines than most other western countries. Additionally, he got Congress to pass two bills costing over $1 trillion each, and even got Republican votes for one of them. They would have been a lot smaller without the unlikely victories of Georgia Democrats. Being late to the party of one-year-anniversary reviews, I can see that pundits are emphasizing Biden’s obstacles overs his accomplishments. Since Biden is likely at the peak of his congressional influence, he is going to need all of the luck he can get going forward. I wouldn’t count on it getting any better.

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