Performance or performance art? A question for voters in 2022 (and 2024)

Performance or performance art? A question for voters in 2022 (and 2024)
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President BidenJoe BidenOvernight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Democrats hope Biden can flip Manchin and Sinema On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Democrats advance tax plan through hurdles MORE is not a gambling man. But he is making a bet of enormous importance that voters will reward performance over performance art. Biden’s task, as he sees it, is to make government work again.

During the New Deal, a generation of Democrats, including Biden’s parents and grandparents, grew up adoring Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. For them, government worked by providing Social Security and jobs and lifting millions into the middle-class with modest homes and patches of green grass. Life wasn’t perfect, but it offered what Biden describes as “a little bit of breathing room,” which meant going to the occasional dinner or movie, buying ice cream (a Biden favorite) or taking a family vacation. The late Hubert Humphrey wrote that the New Deal produced an “administrative liberal [who]. . .possesses a sense of urgency for making Government equal to its tasks.” A working government became synonymous with liberalism.

That came to an end in the 1970s. Wage gaps, inflation and a defeat in Vietnam made government, in Ronald Reagan’s words, a “problem.” Gas lines, oil embargoes, Iranian hostages and Soviet advances in Afghanistan and elsewhere found Americans on the defensive and unsure about the future.

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In the decades since, the string of government failures continued. For Americans turning 21 this year, their lives have been marked by 9/11, endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, climate and financial crises, racial strife, disappointing presidents, an insurrection on Jan. 6 and more. Crushing student loans, a Great Recession followed by a Great Pandemic, and a belief that Social Security won’t be around for them have created an amply justified cynicism that goes unrequited.  

For Biden, renewing faith in government means vaccine shots in arms, money in pockets and shovels in the ground. His infrastructure and Build Back Better plans include free pre-kindergarten and community college, more home health care for the elderly and, most importantly, a monthly childcare tax credit for individuals making less than $120,000 or families whose incomes are under $150,000. Already, the program is depositing checks into bank accounts.

Biden has emphasized these “deliverables” and believes they will renew faith in the American Dream. In May, the economy created 850,000 jobs, adding to the 3,000,000 created since the start of the administration. Biden noted that this was the fastest economic growth since 1984, and he echoed Reagan’s “Morning in America” tagline, saying, “It’s getting close to afternoon here and the sun is coming out.”

Biden’s bet is that making government work will translate into Democratic votes in 2022 and 2024. He’s not necessarily wrong, although the administration faces significant challenges getting its message out. Biden’s political antenna has always been particularly acute. In 1978, he opposed the Humphrey-Hawkins bill, which would have made the federal government an employer of last resort. At the time, Biden noted that “the thing that’s most wrong about Hubert Humphrey is that he is not cognizant of the limited, finite ability government has to deal with people’s problems.” Ronald Reagan was looming on the horizon and Biden sensed the political tides shifting. Biden’s bet is that this is a different era, with voters wanting more government, not less.

Republicans are making a different wager. For years, political scientists have observed that partisan conflict has become asymmetrical. If Republicans wanted to talk about taxes and cutting federal spending, Democrats wanted to discuss health care, Social Security, the environment and education. While both parties highlight issues that will benefit them politically, Republicans believe that it is not performance, but performance art, that matters most.

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Performance is a crucial aspect of modern presidential politics. John F. Kennedy was a master on television. Ronald Reagan excelled in making Americans feel good about themselves. But both men believed in things, and, for them, policy mattered. Kennedy wanted to go to the moon and strive for excellence. Reagan was a firm believer in the virtues of tax cuts, less government and individual initiative.

Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFormer Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor Overnight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right MORE was a master performer who cared little about policy. For him, the presidency was a daily show to be rebroadcast by his social media followers. His rallies were the ultimate in performance art. The “Trump Show” became the go-to event for those who wanted to be entertained, not informed. Even when casting the White House staff and Cabinet, what mattered was finding the right supporting players. Trump loved elevating generals who looked their parts and Fox News hosts who parroted his often outlandish claims.

His tweets, television appearances and emphasis on staging transformed the presidency into a television series with each day a new episode. By generating both passion and clicks, Trump understood that he could marshal millions of voters who didn’t care much about policy per se, but believed he spoke for them. His lack of policy chops was reflected in the Republican Party’s failure to adopt a 2020 platform. This spoke volumes about Trump’s failure to outline what he might do in a second term. For him, keeping center stage was all that mattered in 2020.

Like Trump, other Republicans understand that performance art matters. Social media gives these Trump wannabees unlimited opportunities to stage their own performances. Rep. Marjorie Taylor GreeneMarjorie Taylor GreeneGOP efforts to downplay danger of Capitol riot increase The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene says she's meeting with Trump 'soon' in Florida MORE (R-Ga.) can troll Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezConservative group files ethics complaint over Ocasio-Cortez appearance at Met Gala If .5 trillion 'infrastructure' bill fails, it's bye-bye for an increasingly unpopular Biden The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Schumer: Dem unity will happen eventually; Newsom prevails MORE (D-N.Y.) and generate thousands of clicks. Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) can brag “cry more, lib” and generate nearly 32,000 Twitter likes. Rep. Lauren BoebertLauren BoebertWatchdog group seeks ethics probe over McCarthy's Jan. 6 comments Jan. 6 panel seeks records of those involved in 'Stop the Steal' rally Jan. 6 panel to ask for preservation of phone records of GOP lawmakers who participated in Trump rally: report MORE (R-Colo.) can post a video carrying a Glock while walking the streets of Washington, D.C. Rep. Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzWashington ramps up security ahead of Sept. 18 rally Police brace for Capitol rally defending Jan. 6 mob Watchdog group seeks ethics probe over McCarthy's Jan. 6 comments MORE (R-Fla.) can defend Britney Spears. Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.) can call the Jan. 6 insurrection a “normal tourist visit.” These Republicans not only generate clicks; they generate cash. Going viral is the point.

In 2022 and 2024, voters will have to decide what matters more: performance or performance art. It’s a judgment of significant importance to both parties.

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America. His latest book is “What Happened to the Republican Party?”