How Biden missed his moment
Daniel Darling | And, misreading the electorate, he keeps missing it
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A president who barely won is governing as if he has been given a vast electoral mandate. He wasn’t.
President Biden is having lots of trouble getting the signature element of his Build Back Better campaign enacted into law. And Republicans aren’t the only ones standing in his way. Two key Senate Democrats—Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona—are as well. The $3.5 trillion proposal, a virtual wish list of progressive priorities, is meeting resistance from Manchin and Sinema based on the price tag, which, combined with the bipartisan infrastructure plan and earlier COVID relief, would add up to $7 trillion of new spending.
To be sure, Republicans haven’t always exercised financial discretion when in power, adding their own trillions in deficit spending. But it’s not the GOP that is keeping the new president from writing trillion-dollar checks; it is the fissures in his own party. For example, progressives are threatening to hold up passage of the much smaller infrastructure bill, and moderates are refusing to accept the high price tag of the social spending bill.
So frustrated are progressive activists that they’ve resorted to direct confrontation. Some made their voices known by paddling kayaks to Sen. Manchin’s houseboat docked on the Potomac. He engaged them from the deck of his boat but remains unmoved, his eye on the conservative electorate of West Virginia that elected Trump by a significant margin. Progressive activists also went after Sen. Sinema, breaking into the building where she teaches at Arizona State University and filming themselves following the senator into the bathroom. It was a disgusting spectacle deserving of bipartisan denouncement.
What many seem to be missing is that the White House appears to have misread the political moment. President Biden, who harbors dreams of a legacy of society-shaping social spending, was elected by the narrowest margins with a 50-50 Senate and a razor-thin margin in the House. Biden is president because swing voters in key states grew just tired enough of President Trump’s style. Yet he has assumed office, not with that reality in mind, but as if he had a landslide victory. In other words, Biden campaigned like Warren Harding, harbors dreams of being the next Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was elected to be Gerald Ford, and yet, if he’s not careful, could end up with a presidency like Jimmy Carter. He may be there already.
Biden ran on competence and unity as a grown-up ready to be the adult in the room. But since he’s taken office, his persona has utterly changed , genuflecting to appease his left-wing base on every social issue, including abortion and religious liberty, while also proposing massive spending proposals.
Historically, presidents succeed when they understand the moment. Roosevelt came into office with huge majorities, while Eisenhower had the majority only his first two years. Reagan came into office with a Senate majority but had to deal with a Democratic House. More recently, President Obama, who was swept into the presidency in the wake of the financial collapse and fallout over the Iraq War, began by proposing a massive health care program. Its passage barely made it through a Democratic Congress that enjoyed significant majorities in both houses. The public response to Obamacare also cost him those majorities in the ensuring midterms. Obama spent his political capital too quickly. Bill Clinton tried the same approach in 1992, but his ill-fated attempt failed to get a health care plan passed and cost him his majority. After winning the closely divided election after the Supreme Court shut down the Florida recount, President Bush began with the more bipartisan issue of education, before the 9/11 attacks and War on Terrorism swamped his presidency.
The media are framing President Biden’s problem as resistance from recalcitrant senators. The activist class cannot imagine why anyone would oppose the massive spending. But both Sen. Sinema, who represents a swing state, and Sen. Manchin, who represents a conservative state, are more in tune with American voters. This—combined with his catastrophic management of Afghanistan and rising inflation—means the president has very little leverage.
As conservative Christians, we might not be shedding tears that much of Biden’s wish list seems unpassable. Instead, we should be thankful that there seems to be no consensus for eliminating the filibuster or protections that prevent taxpayer-funded abortions. Yet, we can also learn from the leadership mistakes the president is making. Leaders must be able to read the moment and understand the limits of their power. President Biden is failing on both counts.
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