Biden Can be a Good President or Transform America, Not Both
He can stop pretending that the tiebreak in a split Senate is a mandate for sweeping changes, and start acknowledging that he was elected to steady the ship—not rebuild it.
We’ve reached the point in Joe Biden’s presidency and the Democratic party’s ascension when reality sets in. The honeymoon is over. We’re living in a cramped studio apartment, not the suite overlooking the beach. The kids are screaming, the toilet needs plunging, and my paycheck is stretched thin. You’re not dropping those ten pounds and I’m never going to get around to writing a great American novel. This is the real world, baby, and not the MTV version. That’s OK. The question is, how do we deal with it?
The honeymoon was Biden winning the presidency, Democrats winning both run-offs in Georgia, and living up to his promise not to be a mess like Trump, as he quickly steamrolled Republicans, passed a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package, and restored a sense of normalcy. Bada bing, bada boom. He was on a roll, raising the public’s expectations even higher as he spent his first 100 days talking about major legislative accomplishments and putting points on the board a la FDR and LBJ. This conceit was fed by the surprising Democratic victories in Georgia, confirmed by historians he met with, and premised on the always-flimsy hope that nuking the filibuster and exploiting reconciliation rules might allow him to pull off miracles.
Now, reality is crashing down. Democrats are fighting with each other, including Jewish House Dems and Ilhan Omar (over her equating Israel and the U.S. with Hamas and the Taliban), as well as progressives who are angry at Sen. Joe Manchin (for refusing to nuke the filibuster). Democrats face a challenging mid-term environment next year, and between now and then, it’s not clear that they can even pass an infrastructure bill or criminal justice reform. Even if they do, it won’t be easy; it’s difficult to conceive of much more “landmark” legislation passing during Biden’s first term. Biden can certainly try to woo Joe Manchin, or just keep pretending that everything is fine.
Or—and here’s what I would recommend—he can flip the script. He can redefine success. He can be the hero of his own story. He can quit trying to be FDR or LBJ, and he can just be Joe Biden. He can reinvent himself and rewrite his own narrative. It could be as simple as that. He can stop pretending that having the tiebreak in a split Senate means he has a mandate for sweeping changes, and start acknowledging that he was elected to steady the ship—not rebuild it.
The trend for modern presidents is to get one or two big things done. For Trump, it was the tax cuts and the Supreme Court Justices (luck being a big factor in the latter). For Obama, it was Obamacare (after which, he was mostly relegated to using “a pen and a phone”).
Biden has already passed a huge COVID-relief bill, but arguably, the biggest problem confronting the nation is more of a spiritual or attitudinal problem: the sense that the center will not hold and that American democracy will spiral apart. The good news is that this is a problem Biden is well-equipped to tackle. When he phones a critic like Larry Summers, tells soldiers to be at ease as he speaks, or jokes about cicadas—he is restoring our hope and living up to the promise. Biden has already made great strides in restoring our global image. If he can do the same thing at home he will be, in my book, a successful president.
In less than a week, Biden is slated to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This will be another test. When it comes to dealing with adversaries like Russia (and China), the ability to project a strong image and reassert American leadership is vital (and—last time I checked—no congressional approval is required). If he survives these tests he will be putting points on the scoreboard.
Now, it is understandable that progressives want to pass progressive legislation, like the fatally flawed H.R. 1, and that they will be frustrated if and when Biden doesn’t deliver. But Biden shouldn’t allow their ambitions to cloud his thinking too much. As Tom Nichols recently observed on The Bulwark podcast, just as Republicans are deathly afraid of their base, Democrats are afraid of failing to deliver for theirs. They should get over this. In recent years, progressives have conveniently found a way to frame accomplishing their legislative goals as being necessary for the preservation of democracy.
While it’s true that an impotent and anemic elite class invites radicalism, a successful presidency is not contingent on passing progressive legislation. What invites provocation is the perception of weakness and failure. And this can be the result of actual empirical evidence or merely the perception of unmet expectations. What I’m suggesting is that Biden now redefine success in a way that is not only more realistically achievable, but also more responsive to things that most Americans actually care about—things like restoring optimism, reviving the economy with an injection of $1.9 trillion, guarding against rising inflation and crime, and ensuring that—with the continued rollout of vaccines—COVID stays defeated.
Of course, these things could slip away if Biden focuses too much on the elusive—too much on pleasing the progressive base and on trying to herd the cats in the Congress. He should clearly define the few important things he can accomplish legislatively, and not lose sight of the many things he can accomplish outside those bounds. In short, he should pivot. He should reinvent himself just like he did in 2008 (Obama’s loyal deputy) and 2020 (the elder statesman). He should keep the main things the main things. He should focus on accomplishing one or two really big, overarching goals. And then, he should declare victory.