In The New York Times, Michael Shear writes, “While many Democrats are pleading for a fighter who gives voice to their anger, Mr. Biden has chosen a more passive path…” Politico reported on Democrats who are growing “frustrated” at Biden’s “lack of urgency” and “seeming lack of fire.” And a Democratic member told CNN that what people “want to see is the president out there swinging.”
Having lived through the #ButHeFights! wars that propelled Donald Trump to the top of the Republican Party, I am keenly aware of pugnacity’s power. It’s true that there is often little correlation between fighting and winning, but even performative fighting makes people feel like you give a damn.
Dig deeper and you’ll find the key distinction: it’s not just that Biden doesn’t “fight,” but that he refuses to give up on existing norms and institutions. Increasingly, progressives are blaming “institutionalism,” “neo-centrism” and “popularism” for Democratic failures—and suggesting that in order to win, “Democrats will have to throw out any concern for the appearance of moderation.”
The acceleration of this anti-Biden narrative suggests to me that progressives are beginning to move past the “let’s work the refs” stage (where they attempted—often successfully—to push Biden to the left) and have now transitioned to laying the predicate to explain (at some future point) why Biden’s presidency failed.
Their motive? Some progressives are passionate about issues (like abortion rights, for example), and sincerely believe Biden could change things by trying harder. For others, telling this story advances their ideological agenda, and (in some cases) their own career ambitions. If Biden’s administration becomes a cautionary tale about the dangers of moderation, Democrats will be more likely to nominate someone with a more progressive agenda the next time around.
Since the stakes are so high, it’s worth questioning whether the narrative is actually true. I mean, progressives have an obvious incentive to tell a story that makes them both Cassandra and the solution to the problem.
So is it true? Not in my book.
As The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank points out, “Biden has been saying—heatedly and repeatedly—exactly that which he is accused of avoiding.”
Biden also wants to nuke the filibuster (at least for voting rights) and to codify abortion rights on a federal level. So he’s willing to bend on norms and institutions.
You can argue that he’s not a good or convincing fighter, or that he doesn’t want to burn as many norms or institutions down as you might prefer. However, this is a guy who cavalierly goes around calling things “Jim Crow 2.0.” This is a guy who told African-Americans that Mitt Romney (!) wants to put them “back in chains.” He’s no shrinking violet.
On the contrary, it’s more likely that Biden’s fundamental mistake was trying to be too progressive and transformative—trying to be FDR and LBJ—despite running as a restorer of norms who would work across the aisle.
What went wrong with his presidency? Biden’s polling collapse began a year ago with his disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal. And his biggest political problem is inflation, which he exacerbated with his spending and pretense of being transitory for months.
There are valuable lessons to be learned from these mistakes, to be sure. But the idea that Biden should have been busy destroying more norms is hardly the takeaway.
Getting the story right matters, because otherwise, Democrats will make assumptions and calculations based on a faulty premise.
Indeed, one could argue that at least some of Joe Biden’s problems were created because he embraced dubious narratives.
As the liberal columnist Bill Scher illustrates over at Washington Monthly, Biden embraced narratives pushed by liberal opinion leaders like Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, saying that Barack Obama spent too little on stimulus and spent too much time trying to persuade Republicans.
Krugman wasn’t alone. “The [Obama] stimulus bill was whittled down and down,” wrote Ezra Klein right after Biden’s inauguration. “A simpler, faster, more generous bill [than The Affordable Care Act] would have been better politics and better policy.”
At some point, this became conventional wisdom on the left, and it’s pretty clear that even Biden accepted it once he was sworn-in as president in January 2021. Instead of trying to cut a deal with Republicans, Biden steamrolled them right out of the gate. What is more, he didn’t let concerns about overheating the economy stand in his way. “We have learned from past crises that the risk is not doing too much,” Biden said in January 2021. “The risk is not doing enough.”
Parties that learn the wrong lessons are doomed to repeat past mistakes, and it looks like Democrats are in the process of doing just that. Reject Joe Biden, if you want. But at least do so for the right reasons.