How Biden can get his presidency back on course
President Biden’s fall from political grace has been swift and steep. He began 2021 basking in the gratitude and approval of a solid majority of Americans and ended it only marginally less unpopular than former President Donald Trump.
What happened? Last week Biden blamed Republican obstructionism, marveling that not one voted for the $1.9 trillion bill Congress passed last March to fight the pandemic and speed the economic recovery. He’s also had to endure non-stop political sabotage by Trump, who in refusing to accept the voters’ thumbs down in 2020 has shredded yet another vital norm of American democracy.
Nonetheless, the White House missed an important opportunity in not making more of the president’s big bipartisan breakthrough — passing the first major infrastructure bill in decades. Instead, they attempted to use it as leverage in an unsuccessful bid to pressure dissident Senate Democrats into supporting the strictly partisan reconciliation bill.
Then there’s simple bad luck. The president took prompt and effective action to get Americans vaccinated (about 75 percent have gotten at least one shot). But just as public hopes for finally breaking COVID’s grip were rising, the delta variant appeared last summer, followed by the omicron surge in December.
Even so, the economy came roaring back over the past year, with unemployment falling below 4 percent and the strongest job gains in 40 years. But Americans are having trouble perceiving the Biden boom through the haze of inflation, which has awakened after three decades in hibernation. Prices are rising everywhere, but they are rising fastest (7 percent) here, and working families are acutely worried about the way inflation is eating into their purchasing power and nullifying their raises.
Also taking a toll on the president’s popularity is a string of political fumbles, especially the chaotic exit from Afghanistan and overreaching on the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. The White House unwisely tailored that bill to mollify the demands of the party’s leftwing, feeding a public perception that Biden has become less pragmatic and more partisan.
All this has triggered the defection of moderate and independent voters from Biden’s winning 2020 coalition. When asked by a reporter last week how he plans to win them back, the president shot back: “I don’t believe in the polls.”
Rather than taking refuge in denial, the White House needs to undertake a clear-eyed assessment of the president’s ebbing support across the electorate’s pragmatic center. “Stay the course” is not an option for Team Biden. Only a major course correction can help the president allay growing doubts that he is a strong leader who can rise above the nation’s paralyzing tribal divisions. What’s required is a disciplined and focused effort to remind persuadable voters why they backed Biden in 2020.
These four steps would help:
First, the president should tackle inflation with the same determination he showed in the vaccination campaign. Instead of dismissing it as a “transitory” problem, he should hit the road and empathize directly with Americans who are feeling pinched by soaring prices. In addition to showing up at congested ports, he could tap more of the nation’s strategic oil reserves to stabilize gas prices until domestic production ramps up; reduce or eliminate the Trump tariffs, which raise prices for U.S. consumers and producers; and defer his “Buy American” plan, which would have the same effect.
Second, Democrats should cultivate economic optimism rather than lecturing the public incessantly on the moral failings of capitalism. Working Americans aren’t pining for “democratic socialism” and hand-outs; they want new opportunities for getting ahead in a thriving private economy. And while Biden is rightly concerned about concentration in some parts of the economy, it would be a huge mistake to join the populist stampede on Capitol Hill to dismantle America’s most innovative and successful tech companies.
Third, Biden and leading Democrats should push back more forcefully against cultural leftism. Ruy Teixeira, a liberal political analyst, says, “…the left has managed to associate the Democratic Party with a series of views on crime, immigration, policing, schooling, free speech and of course race and gender that are quite far from those of the median voter.”
If candidates don’t clearly separate themselves from such views, the public will assume that they reflect the party’s true inner beliefs. The model here is Biden himself, who won his party’s nomination after renouncing single payer, decriminalizing illegal immigration, banning fossil fuels, defunding the police and other progressive shibboleths.
Fourth, the White House should acknowledge deep parental frustration with public schools and pick up the discarded mantle of K-12 reform. Hoping to replicate their recent success in Virginia, Republicans are planning to make concerns about school closings, mask mandates and the phantom menace of critical race theory a centerpiece of their midterm campaign.
Rather than defend the status quo, the Biden administration should be leading the charge toward a more nimble model that expands parental choice, shifts decisions from central bureaucracies to school leaders and holds all schools accountable for delivering our students a first-class education.
Managing the Democrats’ heterogeneous coalition is never easy. But as successful two-term presidents like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton understood, the job has a dual character. Presidents are the leaders of their party, but more importantly they are the leaders of the country. Voters fired Trump after he proved incapable of uniting the country around common values and challenges.
Now they are asking questions of his successor. Sometimes presidents have to be bigger than their party, and for Joe Biden that time has come.
Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).
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