Summer ends on Labor Day, the first Monday in September each year, but Tuesday is the problem. Everyone has to go back to work. Kids have to go back to school. Both are a bit problematic this year, but that’s the general idea. Back to the grind. The days get shorter and the nights get longer. Back to the gloom. Back to New Jersey and New York. And it was time for dire warnings:
President Biden on Tuesday warned of a “code red” moment on climate change as he toured two northeastern states ravaged by the remnants of Hurricane Ida, while his administration prepared to ask Congress for billions in federal aid to respond to last week’s storm and other natural disasters.
Biden, in his second Ida-related visit in less than a week, used his trip to press for robust action to combat climate change and focus attention on his expansive domestic infrastructure agenda in Congress.
Predicting that natural disasters will continue to occur with “more frequency and ferocity,” Biden said the “nation and the world are in peril” and implored passage of his “Build Back Better” plan, which will be drafted on Capitol Hill this month and is expected to include funding to deal with the warming planet.
But his plan seems absurdly expressive to every Republican in the Senate and to two Democratic Senators too. That may be dead, and that’s only part of the darkness everywhere now:
The administration is asking lawmakers to include those additional disaster dollars in legislation that must pass before the end of September to continue operating the federal government – adding another dilemma this month to a Congress that is already trying to not only craft Biden’s ambitious legislative agenda but to perform the basic functions of government.
In addition to averting a government shutdown, Congress must lift the government’s borrowing limit in the coming weeks to avoid defaulting on federal debt. Republican lawmakers have said they will oppose efforts to raise the limit, blaming the White House’s massive infrastructure and social spending programs even though increasing the debt limit deals with liabilities that have already been incurred, not policies that have yet to be enacted. Democrats have pointed out that much of the borrowing at issue was done during the Trump administration.
Yes, this is about old debt that has come due now. This has nothing to do with any hypothetical future spending, and America pays, on time, in full, as previously agreed upon. This is nonsense. But it’s good politics. Everyone get to be outraged, as the world ends:
Democrats have indicated that they want to handle both government funding and the debt limit in one package this month. Including disaster aid for Ida in that bill. The strategy outlined by the Biden administration Tuesday could make it more difficult for GOP lawmakers from hard-hit states to oppose the measure.
Perhaps so, but the Washington Post’s Ashley Parker sees this:
In his first year in office, Biden has embraced natural disasters, traveling to snow- and rain- and wind-ravaged communities on trips that not only fulfill his basic duties as president, but also allow him to demonstrate what he casts as his signature calling cards – compassion and competence. The president’s handling of such disasters also lets him push a message that has been central to his appeal since he was a candidate: That government can work for its people and that bipartisanship, at least in moments of crisis, still exists.
That’s what he wants the nation to see:
Unlike many of his recent predecessors, Biden came into office having watched previous presidents closely for decades. He has seen how the mishandling of natural disasters can prove politically damaging, as with George W. Bush’s initial inattention to Hurricane Katrina or Donald Trump’s callous disregard for Puerto Ricans hit by Hurricane Maria.
“From the time he was senator to vice president and now president, of all the things he faces, this is one he’s done before, and he understands that in many cases, just showing up sends the message that the federal government is going to be there,” said W. Craig Fugate, who worked closely with Biden as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Barack Obama.
That’s his message. This can work. America can work. Compassion and competence can fix this.
The Washington Post’s David Ignatius wonders about that:
This was a painful August for President Biden. He promised competent government, restored international leadership, an end to the covid-19 pandemic and a resurgent economy. But after last month’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan, a coronavirus spike caused by the delta variant, and a slowdown in job growth, those pledges seem questionable. Polls show a significant drop in Biden’s approval rating.
That’s because everything went bad all at once:
Biden got off to a fast start in his first six months, with coronavirus infections falling sharply and the economy rapidly gaining strength. After his June trip to Europe, Biden’s line, “America is back,” seemed plausible. But trend lines are fickle, with politics and pandemics. A bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan amplified other bad news, and Biden’s presidency suddenly seemed to be sputtering.
“This administration is about covid and competence, and we’ve got to show strength on both,” says a senior White House official. He argues that the administration overperformed on expectations in the first half of the year. “In August, maybe we underperformed,” he concedes.
So there’s this:
Biden knows he needs to restore confidence at home and abroad this fall to revive his presidency from the August doldrums. He plans a major speech on Thursday outlining new measures to deal with the pandemic – to boost vaccination rates, safeguard workplaces and bend the curve on infections.
Will a big speech help? Nope. But this might:
The larger challenge for the White House is to show that government can function effectively, despite partisan divisions. That was Biden’s signature campaign theme, and the legislative test was Biden’s two-pronged attempt to “build back better,” as his slogan put it, through a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package and a $3.5 trillion social spending plan.
“We have to prove democracy still works – that our government still works, and we can deliver for our people,” Biden told a joint session of Congress in April, in proposing his two initiatives.
But that’s in real danger:
The domestic budget negotiations, weirdly, seem to be the hardest part of the job. Forget about Biden’s early promises of bipartisanship; right now he just needs to lead his own party. That means threading the needle between progressives who are demanding all of the $3.5 trillion in new social spending and moderates who say they won’t support such a big package.
The Senate passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill in early August, and Biden ought to pocket that win. But moderate and progressive Democrats have been playing a game of chicken ever since over the size of the social spending package. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has promised a vote on the infrastructure package by Sept. 27, and Democrats would be very stupid if they let it slip away because of internal bickering.
Biden’s task is to break the logjam and get a social-spending bill through the budget reconciliation process that will pass both houses.
This ought to be his sweet spot, as a career politician and self-proclaimed dealmaker. The White House is keeping mum, saying nice things about progressives and moderates both, but soon it will be time for knocking heads and cutting deals.
That remains the challenge, but Biden doesn’t have a lot of time.
And this will be tricky:
It seems obvious that a consensus budget deal will have to focus on the things Americans appear to want most – greater tax fairness, measures to reduce climate change, lower costs for prescription drugs, greater access to community colleges and education, generally – and save some other measures for later. Passing such legislation might save the House and Senate for the Democrats in 2022. Otherwise, forget it.
And forget the rest of the Biden presidency:
The White House was battered last month by bad luck, bad policy and bad implementation. The surprising thing, given this gut-wrenching reversal for an administration that had been riding high, is the relative lack of internal backbiting. In other administrations, the leaks by now would have been flowing like a fire hose.
Biden’s inner team sometimes seems more like a Senate staff than a typical elbows-out administration. Congeniality has its advantages. But when mistakes happen, as they did in August, problems need to get fixed. Otherwise, the boss – and perhaps dozens of Democratic legislators – will pay the price.
And the nice guy loses, but he was always going to lose. Paul Waldman sees this:
In the early days of Joe Biden’s term, clever observers had a piece of advice for the new president and his party that was repeated often: Do popular things. It was a bit tongue in cheek for being so obvious, but that was the point. Rather than turn his political strategy into a Rube Goldberg machine with a hundred moving parts, he should simply pursue his most widely supported objectives. That, it was said, is the only way to win, especially to prevent one’s presidency being hamstrung by a midterm election loss that gives the opposition control of Congress.
But what if doing popular things doesn’t do a president much good? What if he gets plenty of blame for everything that doesn’t go well, whether it was his fault or not, but little or no credit for what he actually accomplishes?
That seems to be the case now:
Over the past month, Biden’s approval rating has fallen by about six points – hardly a dramatic plunge, but enough to push him into negative territory. While it’s easy to make too much of that kind of momentary change, there’s no question that presidents with approval under 50 percent don’t pull off midterm miracles.
What has Biden done that caused this turn against him? The public is certainly unhappy with the withdrawal from Afghanistan – not the withdrawal itself, which was overwhelmingly supported, but the difficulties in accomplishing it. We could argue about whether it actually went any worse than anyone should have expected, but there’s no question that weeks of screaming headlines about what a disaster it supposedly was had their effect.
This is a question of blame:
You can lay that one at Biden’s feet. But in other areas – where his actions have had far more of an impact on Americans’ lives – he’d be forgiven if he lamented that he gets little or no credit for the things he does right.
For instance, before Democrats passed the American Rescue Plan in March – with zero Republican votes in either house of Congress – polls showed it to be almost absurdly popular, with approval reaching into the 70s. Not only that, it gave direct, visible benefits to people, in the form of stimulus checks and the expanded child tax credit.
How much did the public reward Biden for it? Not at all. There was no surge of good will and appreciation; his approval rating before it passed was around 53 percent, and his approval rating after it passed was about 53 percent.
So expect more of that:
We’ll almost certainly wind up telling a similar story about the infrastructure bill and the Democrats’ reconciliation bill if and when those are signed into law: The public will like the spending, but it won’t convince them that the president who forced it through is doing a good job.
The same will probably be true of his entire agenda. Democrats are often advised that because their policy agenda is widely popular with the public — majorities of whom would like to see a higher minimum wage, action on climate change, higher taxes on the wealthy, legalized marijuana, universal background checks and so on, they should move aggressively forward on all those issues without fear.
Which they should. But the seemingly logical conclusion – that if they do those popular things, the public will reward them for it – has little if any evidence to support it.
So we have this:
What does make a difference? For the most part, it’s circumstances outside the president’s control. Right now, Biden is suffering mostly because the pandemic is dragging on, and that’s holding the economy back. But it’s hard to see precisely what he could have done differently to prevent that from happening.
While his administration’s effort to distribute vaccines was enormously successful, our ability to put the pandemic behind us has been hampered by the emergence of the delta variant and the project undertaken by Republican governors and media figures to discourage vaccination and undermine public health measures. They know that the longer this plague drags on, the worse it will be for their opponents.
And so the Biden presidency fails:
The opposition’s ability to make trouble and cause chaos is sometimes more politically potent than all the institutional power the president possesses.
But more than anything else, it is circumstance that determines whether a president’s party gets wiped out in a midterm or whether he wins reelection. Yes, he can handle changes in circumstance well or poorly, but his success or failure is often out of his control, determined by accidents of fate or the things other people do. And when he succeeds, it’s seldom because he was a genius.
For instance, it is entirely possible that the threat to abortion rights will sway some voters in the middle and drive Democratic turnout in 2022, especially if the Supreme Court causes a political earthquake by overturning Roe v. Wade in its next session, which it now seems likely to do. But that won’t be because Biden and Democrats earned the country’s thanks for their efforts to protect the right the court is taking away. Indeed, at the moment the response from Democrats seems to be confined to statements of deep concern and displeasure, the functional equivalent of “thoughts and prayers” for women’s bodily autonomy.
And that leaves this:
Perhaps by next fall we’ll be fortunate enough to see the pandemic behind us, and if it is, the economy will probably be doing well. It could be that Democratic voters will be fearful enough of the reactionary future Republicans are determined to bring about that they’ll turn out in large numbers. But maybe not. In any case, Biden’s ability to make either outcome happen is marginal at best.
Among the things this tells us is that the axiom “Good policy is good politics” is simply not true. Good policy is good policy, and usually not much else. Which means that whatever circumstances put you in power, you should squeeze every policy advance out of it while you have the chance, not because it will win you the next election but because that’s the whole point of getting power in the first place.
In short, do what you can as you can, because t all end soon enough, but the New York Times’ Bret Stephens sees this:
We are a country that could not keep a demagogue from the White House; could not stop an insurrectionist mob from storming the Capitol; could not win (or at least avoid losing) a war against a morally and technologically retrograde enemy; cannot conquer a disease for which there are safe and effective vaccines; and cannot bring itself to trust the government, the news media, the scientific establishment, the police or any other institution meant to operate for the common good…
Our civilization was born optimistic and enlightened, at least by the standards of the day. Now it feels as if it’s fading into paranoid senility.
And that would be Joe Biden:
Joe Biden was supposed to be the man of the hour: a calming presence exuding decency, moderation and trust. As a candidate, he sold himself as a transitional president, a fatherly figure in the mold of George H. W. Bush who would restore dignity and prudence to the Oval Office after the mendacity and chaos that came before. It’s why I voted for him, as did so many others who once tipped red.
Instead, Biden has become the emblem of the hour: headstrong but shaky, ambitious but inept. He seems to be the last person in America to realize that, whatever the theoretical merits of the decision to withdraw our remaining troops from Afghanistan, the military and intelligence assumptions on which it was built were deeply flawed, the manner in which it was executed was a national humiliation and a moral betrayal, and the timing was catastrophic.
That was the end for Bret Stephens:
We find ourselves commemorating the first great jihadist victory over America, in 2001, right after delivering the second great jihadist victory over America, in 2021. The 9/11 memorial at the World Trade Center – water cascading into one void, and then trickling, out of sight, into another – has never felt more fitting.
And no amount of spending can fix that:
When Lyndon Johnson launched his war on poverty, its associated legislation – from food stamps to Medicare – passed with bipartisan majorities in a lopsidedly Democratic Congress. Biden has similar ambitions without the same political means. This is not going to turn out well…
Maybe Biden supposes that the legislation, if passed, will prove increasingly popular over time, like Obamacare. That’s the optimistic scenario. Alternatively, he could suffer a legislative calamity like Hillary Clinton’s health care reform in 1994, which would have ended Bill Clinton’s presidency save for his sharp swing to the center, including ending “welfare as we know it” two years later.
Even the optimistic precedent was followed by a Democratic rout in 2010, when the party lost 63 House seats. If history repeats itself at the 2022 midterms, I doubt that even Joe Biden’s closest aides think he has the stamina to fight his way back in 2024.
Has Kamala Harris shown the political talent to pick up the pieces?
And so ends the Biden presidency. Trump was worse. But no one can do that job anymore. Not now.