The root of Joe Biden’s troubles

President Biden needs a base. “Every politician has to have a base,” a member of Congress once told me. “Your base is the people who are with you when you’re wrong.”

Ronald Reagan’s base stuck with him during the Iran-contra scandal, even though it was shocked when he was caught selling arms to Iran. Bill Clinton’s base stood by him during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, even though it couldn’t defend his behavior. Donald Trump’s base remains loyal even though he was defeated (something they refuse to accept).

Joe Biden is not an inspirational figure like Barack Obama or the champion of a cause like Reagan or a leader who channels resentments like Trump. Biden is a professional politician. A professional politician is expected to have the skills to reconcile competing interests, make deals and get things done. His job is to deliver results. Biden is under enormous pressure right now to do just that.

Biden has so far failed to deliver on many of his campaign promises — police reform, immigration, voting rights, a federal minimum wage hike, eliminating the filibuster. He did deliver a withdrawal from Afghanistan but in a way that most Americans saw as incompetent and humiliating. To make matters worse, the economic recovery appears to have stalled. Inflation is threatening to get out of control, which leads to speculation that Biden could become another Jimmy Carter.

The one issue that Biden is expected to deliver on is the pandemic. It’s the issue that defeated Trump and got Biden elected. Right now, the country has pandemic fatigue and the perception that the Biden administration isn’t doing enough about it. Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg told Politico, “The president’s decline is alarming, It’s serious. … And it isn’t going to be reversed by passing these two bills alone [the president’s infrastructure bill and his safety net legislation]. He’s got to get COVID under control.”

Ending the pandemic may be beyond the power of any president or any government. But it’s the issue at the core of the current national malaise. The Biden administration’s strategy is focused on vaccination mandates and masking, while Republicans are doing everything they can to undermine those policies. 

Most voters outside the Democratic Party don’t understand or even care too much about the legislation Democrats are fighting about in Congress. Nevertheless, it will be a serious blow to Biden if the legislation fails to pass. It will mean the president can’t deliver. “If we don’t pass one of these [bills] before the [Virginia] gubernatorial election [Nov. 2], it’s a huge mistake,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) warned his party.

If Democrats lose next month’s Virginia election — after having won every statewide election since 2009 — progressives will argue that Biden failed to deliver for the party’s liberal base. Moderates will argue that the party failed to reach out to swing voters, particularly in the suburbs. And they will both be right.

Biden will look weak. Which is exactly the problem Carter had. Carter was called weak, ineffectual and “wishy-washy,” especially in contrast to Reagan. The contrast could show up again if Trump runs against Biden in 2024. Trump comes across as anything but weak. He has bullied nearly the entire Republican Party into submission. The danger for Democrats is something Clinton said after the 2002 midterm election. That was the first election following the 9/11 attacks, when Democrats were dismayed by their failure to make gains. What Clinton said was “When people feel uncertain, they’d rather have someone strong and wrong than weak and right.”

In “The Prince,” published in 1532, Niccolo Machiavelli asked whether it was wiser for a prince to be loved or feared. His answer: “It is better to be feared than loved.” That is true for presidents as well as princes. Every new president has to establish “the fear factor.” He must show that there is a price to be paid for defying him. In the old days, Democratic presidents were famous for their toughness. Franklin D. Roosevelt said about his political opponents in 1936, “They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.” Harry Truman displayed his toughness when he fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur for insubordination. John F. Kennedy displayed it in the Cuban missile crisis. Anyone who dared to defy Lyndon Johnson would be in for “the Johnson treatment.” Reagan displayed his toughness when he faced down a strike by the nation’s air traffic controllers.

Trump, on the other hand, overplayed “the fear factor.” He was so vengeful, he ended up frightening the voters. And he paid a price for it at the polls in 2020.

Democrats could abandon Biden if they don’t believe he can offer them political cover. That often happens when a president’s job approval rating drops below 50 percent, which is what happened to Biden after the withdrawal from Afghanistan in August. Somewhere, sometime, members of Congress must understand that they cannot defy the president with impunity. They must fear him.

Biden hasn’t established “the fear factor” yet.

Bill Schneider is an emeritus professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).

Tags Barack Obama Biden agenda Bill Clinton coronavirus pandemic Democratic agenda Democratic Party Donald Trump Jimmy Carter Joe Biden Mark Warner Niccolò Machiavelli pandemic fatigue political base Political positions of Joe Biden Presidency of Joe Biden presidential power

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