Biden administration competency doubts increase
One quality Joe Biden brought to the presidency was competency, certainly compared to his predecessor, a low bar. More than a few Republicans concurred.
That’s why the most alarming numbers in the Quinnipiac poll this past week were — by 55 percent to 42 percent — Biden’s negative ratings on competency. This goes to the core of his presidency.
Unease also is reflected in background conversations with a few Democrats, strategists, donors and officeholders. This is not just the passions of the moment, they fear, but a deeper concern that this White House may not be up to daunting challenges.
The most current, hardly the only, concern of Democrats is over the multitrillion-dollar social spending measure. For Biden, and most congressional Democrats, this is do-or-die, certainly for next year’s elections — and probably for 2024 too.
The White House has fumbled both the outside and inside role. Publicly it has permitted the agenda to be dominated by the initial size of the package — $3.5 trillion. This is a number Republicans — and a few Democrats — seized upon, ignoring that it’s over 10 years. The dialogue instead should be over the specific proposals for child care, home health care assistance, education, health care and climate. They all are very popular.
The inside role also has been problematic. The White House hasn’t always been on the same page as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who will be the central figure in any success. The president made a pitch in person to the House Democratic Caucus more than a week ago to — at best — a mixed reaction.
The competence issue really flared with Afghanistan, not the U.S. withdrawal — the only sensible course — but the failure to anticipate the speed with which the American-backed government and military collapsed. Republicans, brushing aside that the withdrawal deal was first cut by Donald Trump and most of the many Afghanistan miscalculations were made by Republicans, have stayed on the attack here.
The president compounded his problems by declaring his military advisers never counseled him to retain a small force; in subsequent congressional testimony, the generals contradicted him. This enabled right-wingers to accuse the president of dishonesty and even to raise the specter of scandal. It was a self-inflicted wound for Biden.
A White House populated by experienced staffers has been too slow in making crucial appointments, with around 400 positions yet to be named. Biden never appointed an envoy to Afghanistan, and it took seven months before Nick Burns was nominated to be ambassador to China, a critical post. The situation gets worse as obstructionists such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) block confirmations when they do get to the Senate.
The record on diversity of the Biden appointments is terrific and welcome — but too often the White House stresses that instead of the quality of the appointees.
A question on the lips of more than a few Democrats these days is “Where is Kamala Harris?” The vice president was assigned to handle the border crisis and securing voting rights legislation, either near-impossible tasks or ones that will be taken over by others in the crunch. Biden gave her “a portfolio that’s not meant for her to succeed,” complained Bakari Sellers, a Harris ally and political commentator.
This is especially worrisome as Democrats look ahead, concerned that an 81-year-old incumbent won’t run for reelection and Harris isn’t starting to burnish the credentials to step up.
The vice president’s office recently brought in two top advisers — supposedly on a temporary basis — in an apparent recognition of a serious problem.
There have been stupid miscues on small matters. Last month the administration removed some Trump appointees to the U.S. service academy boards, including his political operative Kellyanne Conway to the Air Force board and his former press flak Sean Spicer to to the Naval Academy board. Biden press secretary Jen Psaki told the media; “I will leave it up to others whether they think Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer and others were qualified, or not political, to serve on those boards.”
But they undercut that point by also dumping H.R. McMaster from the board of the U.S. Military Academy, his alma mater. McMaster is a three-star general and former Trump national security adviser with a Ph.D. in history and the author of a widely studied book on the U.S. military and the Vietnam War.
Amid Democrats’ pervasive gloom, some see a possible light at the end of the dark tunnel. A requisite is that Congress this year passes the popular domestic initiatives, say $2.2 trillion over a decade, as well as the big infrastructure bill. The Democrats must also suspend the filibuster rule to approve a voting rights measure that counters Republican voter suppression efforts.
Then, if COVID-19 cases continue to decline, the economy takes off and unemployment drops below 4 percent a year from now, the Democrats and the president might be well positioned.
If the competency doubts subside.
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.