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For Joe Biden, could low expectations be a gift?

President Joe Biden speaks at the construction site of the Hudson Tunnel Project, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

A special counsel investigation. A GOP-led House hellbent on obstruction. A low-40s approval rating. Small wonder why conventional wisdom is that President Biden is already a lame duck. Yet as Biden’s second State of the Union address approaches, could low expectations actually be a gift for his personal brand of pragmatic politics? 

Freed from the pressure of delivering for progressives (while simultaneously trying to keep moderates on board), a final two years of his term that eschew ideological purity and focus on getting things done could be just the second act Biden needs. It would be consistent with his values, popular with swing voters and in line with the platform he campaigned on in 2020. The question: Is Biden ready to be Biden?

At the start of January 2021, Biden emerged as the unlikely figurehead of an ambitious left-leaning coalition, which spotted an opening with full control of Capitol Hill to transform federal policy through big-ticket legislation. With the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus, Biden’s team boasted about pushing through one of the largest bills in modern history, even as he’d run on moderation and bringing back normality to Washington. 

But the “go big” approach predictably hit a wall. Fights over Build Back Better sidelined other key legislation like the infrastructure bill, expended scarce political capital and laid bare the gaping rifts within the party that Biden couldn’t close. It also thrust Biden into uncomfortable intra-party debates over issues such as killing the filibuster and packing the Supreme Court, which had limited appeal beyond the flanks of his base. 

While both parties bemoan the stalemates to come, Biden has the opportunity to shift his focus over the next two years from Sisyphean efforts to keep moderate Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.)  in line to actually leaning into the bipartisan gestures he promised as a candidate. That means casting aside a new legacy-defining agenda and rolling up his sleeves to focus on less glitzy tasks like implementation of laws already passed. 

Biden’s trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, for example, was a considerable achievement that eluded his last two predecessors. And the CHIPS and Science Act, signed after the midterms, proved that the parties can still cooperate on areas of common interest, including energy independence, innovation and U.S. competitiveness. Still, as 2024 approaches, voters will need to see tangibly how new investments in areas like housing, health care and energy are working in their daily lives.

Biden has reportedly told his staff that ensuring an effective rollout of these laws is high on his priority list. But whether Biden can fulfill this role as “implementer in chief” will depend on how he leverages his leadership in the coming two years, including reshuffling several key administration positions to focus less on politics and more on policy. 

The next two years may also allow Biden to frame his old-school deal-making skills as an asset rather than a liability. That’s particularly important given polling showing that the high cost of living and the rocky state of the economy remain the most important problems facing the country. With Republicans trying to strong-arm Democrats into making spending cuts through leveraging the debt ceiling, Biden needs to make a compelling case for a vigorous but efficient government. 

Biden has shown that willingness to compromise can lead to bipartisan wins on other issues as well, such as gun safety and sexual harassment. While both parties may dig in their heels in the months to come, the past few weeks have already shown some cross-aisle consensus on issues such as regulating congressional stock trading and challenging Ticketmaster.

In the more likely scenario that gridlock becomes the norm, Biden can still lean into foreign policy, where he can maneuver with fewer constraints. The majority of Americans still support aiding Ukraine, even as some Republicans become increasingly wary of writing a “blank check” to Kyiv. Belt-tightening is inevitable with the GOP House majority. But Biden’s steady international leadership offers a strong point of comparison between him and Donald Trump’s erraticism.

Indeed, the midterms showed that Biden and Democrats are strongest when contrasting themselves with the dysfunction of the Republican Party. As the House Speaker vote illustrated, that dysfunction isn’t hard to find. Even the “establishment”-vs.-MAGA Republican cleavages of the Trump years may soon seem quaint as far-right flamethrowers such as Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) appear empowered to dial up their own brands of disruption. 

With the GOP controlling the House, Biden and his fellow Democrats could absolve themselves from shouldering the full blame for all that goes wrong on Capitol Hill. Indeed, it may be Republicans who find themselves in a defensive crouch if they’re accused of overreaching on investigations, while abandoning kitchen-table concerns like inflation and the economy. The White House, however, also risks backlash if it appears too dismissive of legitimate queries or follows Trump’s lead by refusing to comply with congressional oversight committees.

It’s true that the administration will be playing defense against probes launched by Republican House members, not to mention the current Justice Department inquiry into Biden’s alleged mishandling of classified documents. So far, the White House communications office has shown little acumen in dealing with the controversies. In the rare public comments Biden has made on the matters, he’s also not done himself any favors

Still, Biden’s biggest weakness in the first two years was trying to straddle between being a calming voice of moderation on the one hand and a progressive trailblazer on the other. Both leadership styles have merit, but Biden learned that you can’t be both at once. In his second act, the pressure to be the next FDR or LBJ is off, and Biden can, if he chooses, be the kind of president he campaigned to be.

Thomas Gift (@TGiftiv) is an associate professor of political science at University College London (UCL) and founding director of the UCL Centre on U.S. Politics (@CUSP_ucl). He is a visiting fellow at Yale’s Center for the Study of American Politics.

Julie M. Norman (@DrJulieNorman2) is an associate professor of politics and international relations at University College London (UCL) and co-director of the UCL Centre on U.S. Politics (@CUSP_ucl).

Tags biden administration Biden presidency biden white house Joe Biden Joe Biden State of the Union

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