Biden’s search for a legacy

At the one-year mark of Joe Biden’s presidency, the question that is repeatedly asked is: “How can someone with all his years of political experience in the nation’s capital be so seemingly inept at being the nation’s chief executive?” 

With more than three decades as a senator, plus eight years presiding over the Senate as vice president, Biden surely knows how to count votes, make deals and pass legislation. And, indeed, although as a senator he had a reputation for eyeing a seat in the Oval Office, Biden got along well enough with his colleagues on both sides of the aisle to achieve success sufficient to secure reelection from the voters of Delaware time and again. Given that history, he would appear a nearly perfect fit for guiding our system of separated powers in light of the thin Democratic majority in the House and an evenly divided Senate.

Instead, the president seems intent on fighting fights he is unlikely to win, whether it’s pushing his Build Back Better proposal or, more recently, throwing down the gauntlet on the two voting rights measures stuck in the House of Representatives. What gives?

There are undoubtedly a variety of reasons both high and low, but a key, often overlooked one is institutional. The Constitution’s architects purposely designed the three branches of government with different terms of office, different selection processes and different make-ups. They expected, as a result, a difference in behavior once in office. The path to being a successful senator would probably not look the same as the path to be being a successful president.   

According to The Federalist, the combination of the four-year term and indefinite reeligibility would not “discourage the most dignified characters from aspiring to the office.” Stated more boldly, Publius suggested that the new executive office had room for, even encouraged, “the ruling passion of the noblest minds”: “the love of fame.” By offering the prospect of an extended stay in office and undiluted credit for accomplishments, the new Constitution encouraged the president to expand his political horizons to pursue programs that might enhance his reputation beyond the immediate and expedient.

It’s no surprise that presidents want big legacies, and why a Democratic stalwart such as Biden would want to see himself like FDR or Lyndon Johnson. Presidents are encouraged to make an impact even more quickly now because of the two-term limit absent in the original Constitution, and, in Biden’s case, his age may well limit him to just one. He appears to be a man in a hurry because he is. 

The reality is there is not much fame attached to dealing with inflation or supply chains, handling a pandemic that is turning endemic or confronting illegal immigration with all its complexities. We might want a president to “fix” these problems, but there are limits to what powers a president has at hand or what the courts might allow him to use.

Certainly, Biden should point to his success in getting a massive infrastructure bill through Congress and signed into law after years of congressional gridlock. But no president thinks that repairing potholes, fixing crumbling concrete bridges or even building a nation-wide network of charging stations is enough to make a mark in the history books.

The paradox is that Biden won in 2020 largely by not being Trump. And he certainly could “make history” if he settled for helping to reestablish political civility and reaffirm long-standing constitutional norms as the order of the day. But that agenda, his political advisers are almost certainly telling him, will neither generate the needed hype to turn out the Democratic base nor create the kind of policy results that will move the needle in a general election with the public asking, “What have you done for me lately?” 

Nevertheless, the hard reality is that Biden does not have and is not likely to enjoy the kind of support in Congress necessary to realize his ambitions for the rest of his term. Ironically, he might just have to “settle” for the success that comes from his experience in the Senate in working both sides of the aisle. It’s not a legacy that will have anyone calling for a new face on Mt. Rushmore. But there is lot to be said for the idea that good enough is really pretty good. 

Gary Schmitt is senior fellow in cultural, social and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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