Biden Misread His Moderate Mandate, and Missed His Moment
He left Democrats more shaken than stirred as he tried to kick the can in a game of chicken that left his agenda as mixed up and messed up as his mangled metaphors.
Two defining moments come to mind as Democrats careen dangerously close to what could effectively be the coup de grâce to Joe Biden’s presidency: failing to pass either of the much-touted “infrastructure” bills as House progressives called Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s bluff.
The first moment was when Biden thought he could be the next FDR or LBJ. The second moment was when he announced on stage that he would only sign the bipartisan infrastructure bill if a more progressive social reform package (“human infrastructure”) passed via reconciliation vote at the same time. Both moments have conspired to lead Democrats perilously close to blowing up their president’s legislative agenda.
Let’s start with the FDR/LBJ moment made possible by Donald Trump’s sabotaging of two U.S. Senate seats in Georgia. This pushed aside the more modest (and widely popular) mandate of a “return to normalcy,” and created the tempting, if elusive, possibility that Biden could be a truly transformational president. The perceived shift from transitional figure to transformational president gave progressives the false hope that Biden’s presidency could be a vehicle to deliver their wildest dreams.
Of course, Biden and the so-called “adults” in the Democratic Party allowed progressives to wallow in this delusional state. This leads us to the second moment: Biden’s decision (likely under duress) to link the bipartisan infrastructure bill with a larger, more progressive, “human infrastructure” reconciliation bill.
“If this [the bipartisan bill] is the only one that comes to me,” Biden bluntly declared to a stunned audience that had just carved out a bipartisan compromise deal, “I’m not signing it. It’s in tandem.” Republicans who had just crossed the aisle rightly felt slighted. Biden later sought to clean up and clarify his statement, but he did it in a way that really didn’t really clarify anything.
Instead of allowing Georgia’s weird election results and the wishes of progressives to define his presidency, Biden would have benefitted from taking a hands-on approach to shaping his agenda, and managing expectations. This would have required staking out realistic goals that, yes, would have disappointed progressives at the time.
Why didn’t he do this? The fact that Biden won the 2020 Democratic primary by surviving—not taming—the left probably led him to wrongly conclude that the same model was transferable to governing. It wasn’t. Surviving a primary campaign by employing strategic ambiguity is quite different from surviving a four-year presidential term that begins with a razor-thin majority.
In many ways, Biden’s reluctance to confront the left in his party mirrors what Republicans went through with the Tea Party, the Freedom Caucus, and, finally, with MAGA. Just as the GOP establishment thought they could placate and co-opt the right without confronting or conquering them, Democratic establishment leaders thought ignoring the problem would make it go away.
This brings us to our current state of affairs. Democratic moderates and progressives are currently engaged in a game of chicken. Democratic leadership does not have the kinds of carrots or sticks that might force or cajole either side to get back in line. If they can’t be persuaded that saving Biden’s presidency outweighs the long-term strategic gains of playing hardball, then the unthinkable could occur: Democrats could end up losing both the bipartisan and the reconciliation bill, which is to say the Biden agenda would go over the cliff.
In a game of chicken, the hope is that someone swerves. But what if that doesn’t happen? In a statement Thursday night, Biden said that "a great deal of progress has been made this week and we are closer to an agreement than ever." We'll see, but clearly that means that failed to reach an agreement by the deadline that the speaker set for the bill and her party, with the president's blessing.
Biden seems to have assumed that he could reach a compromise between the center and the left of his party, without realizing that some things in life are mutually exclusive. F. Scott Fitzgerald is said to have, in vain, warned his friend Ernest Hemingway that “A man, torn between two women, will eventually lose 'em both.” Or—as Ricky Nelson sang, “You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.” Biden might want to hum along. To lead is to make choices, and to make choices is to preclude some options. This comes at a cost, including the likelihood of disappointing others. Biden has, so far, refused to do that.
Instead, Biden seems to be a spectator who is more concerned about border agents allegedly whipping migrants than he is about whipping any Democrats into shape to support his legislation. Axios reports that Biden won’t beg Democrats to save his agenda. Politico’s Sam Stein reports that progressives don’t feel pressured by the White House to fold.
With all due respect, I would suggest he start begging and pressuring. He also might consider praying.