Presidents Aren’t Magicians

We expect far more from the Oval Office than is reasonable.

President Joe Biden calls New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, Wednesday, November 3, 2021, in the Oval Office Study. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

CNN’s John Harwood apparently had a deadline to meet and, with “Biden confronts a host of problems he can’t do much to solve,” he by God met it.

There’s just not much President Joe Biden can do about it.

There’s not much he can do to curb inflation.

There’s not much he can do to stop migrants from reaching America’s southern border. Or to reduce crime, or to make vaccine resisters get shots that would hasten the end of the coronavirus pandemic.

There’s not much he can do to compel cooperation from defectors within his thin Democratic congressional majorities. There is nothing at all he can do to compel it from Republican adversaries who would rather aggravate than alleviate his burdens.

In other words, there’s not much Biden can do about the heaviest weights depressing his political standing, which has remained stuck in the avalanche-warning zone for months. So his party faces the likelihood of a substantial November election defeat that hands the House and perhaps the Senate to the GOP.

Well . . . yeah.

Biden and his aides will spend the next seven months trying just the same, using the White House bully pulpit, executive authority and international diplomacy. Marginal benefits represent the best they can hope for.

It recalls the 1960s-era lament of a beleaguered President Lyndon B. Johnson, who complained that “the only power I’ve got is nuclear, and I can’t even use that.” That applies literally to Biden’s predicament on Ukraine, where the risk of catastrophic escalation precludes direct intervention by America’s military to halt Russian aggression.

It’s as though Americans view their President as the embodiment of all that’s good and bad in the country and have done so for a very long time.

Frustrated fellow Democrats insist the administration can get politically healthier with better “messaging.” That might sound persuasive had the President’s party not lost House seats in 26 of the last 29 midterm elections over more than a century. Biden’s four most recent predecessors, with varying communications acumen, all lost control of one or both chambers of Congress in midterms.

Opportunistic Republicans say Biden needs to shift ideological directions. They fault his policies — “radical,” “far left,” “socialist” or worse — for creating the conditions turning voters against him.

Opposition parties have done this since time immemorial.

There’s a whole lot more, some of which actually gets to potential hard policy choices that Biden could make, but—SPOILER ALERT!!!—they all come with significant downside risk.

President George W. Bush was mocked, even by those of us who supported him, for repeatedly telling us that the job was “hard work” during a debate with John Kerry. He wasn’t wrong, though. And he got re-elected, too, so maybe Americans actually understand that at some level.

FILED UNDER: The Presidency, US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Gavin says:

    If only Biden would lead with LEADERSHIP, not only would gas prices magically drop, but the Ukraine war would end, the Yemen war would end, and everyone gets a pony for Easter!

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Where’s my rainbow farting, gold shitting magic pony?

  3. MarkedMan says:

    I always marvel when a Congress critter publicly faults the Administation for not getting legislation passed. You know, the one duty the Constitution gives to Congress critters.

  4. Kathy says:

    Why don’t Penn and Teller run? No phony search for a running mate, and they’d have ready-made campaign slogans like “Now watch as I make Putin disappear.”

  5. de stijl says:

    One thing I know for certain, Just In Time supply chains operate correctly only when there are no hiccups, no obstacles.

    Throw one obstacle into the mix and the whole structure, the system, collapses. Hard.

    We saw it in the early stages when people bought up and hoarded toilet paper. Pasta, meat. It was crazy.

    No one person controls that. Can control that.

    Our supply trains run on assumptions of an idealized frictionless world. That there are no disruptions. No ripples.

    There are always disruptions. Always ripples. The world is not perfectly predictable. Weather, war, a ship getting stuck sideways in the Suez Canal. What can go wrong will go wrong, eventually.

    I now know I need a strategic reserve of TP at home at all times because the general population are idiots and assholes and hoarders under stress. 20 gallons of water. A spare container of propane, a stocked pantry of staples and dry goods, candles

    I got caught flat footed on the TP front in March 2020. I had half a roll on the spindle and bupkes under the sink. It was on my list to buy a new four pack.

    Next time I went shopping that whole aisle was bare. Stripped clean. Toilet paper, paper towels, anti-bacterial wipes – all gone. No milk, almost no meat, almost no pasta. No pasta sauce.

    I was smart enough to back up two aisles and buy 2 packs of napkins. You shouldn’t flush them, but they do the job.

    One hiccup and people go bonkers crazy and hoard buy up everything.

    To this day, I can’t routinely find buccatini, the most sumptuous of the long pastas. Elbows work fine. Penne works fine. Rigatoni works fine. I miss buccatini.

    No one person can solve this. The EU can’t solve it. ASEAN can’t solve it.

    If one link in the chain breaks, the whole system breaks.

    One thing I would advocate for would be a national strategic reserve of two ply toilet paper like we do for oil.

  6. James Joyner says:

    @de stijl: Not to derail the thread but I don’t believe I had ever heard of, much less seen, bucatini before the stories of shortages started circulating during the panics of 2020. I find it quite often at my local Safeway now and have been buying four boxes every time I do. I agree its better than my previous choice of fettuccine. Pappardelle is also a favorite, since I mostly make meat sauces like bolognese.

  7. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner: @de stijl: Just-in-time has been getting blamed for an awful lot in this pandemic, but I don’t think that’s correct. FWIW my company’s supply chain issues have not been greatly affected by JIT. Problems caused by JIT manifest mostly in lead time increases, and those usually of a week or two, at most a month. Our vendors have been hit by capacity problems and raw materials problems. We saw lead times on components go from “Available” to “50 weeks”. That’s not a JIT issue.

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    There are circumstances under which @de stijl’s observations about JIT are true, for example, when there is no second sourcing. IMO quite a few of the problems we have encountered have been due to a lack of second sourcing and that’s something about which I have been complaining for decades. There are multiple possible reasons for the lack of second sourcing but most of them boil down to bad management.

  9. MarkedMan says:

    @Dave Schuler: I wonder if there were much worse outbreaks in China than have been reported and that’s what led to so many plant closures and delays. It’s just my speculation and I have zero evidence to back it up.

  10. Scott F. says:

    Opposition parties have done this since time immemorial.

    I know this isn’t what this post is about, but this little bon mot of normalization is beyond infuriating. What today’s opposition is doing is NOT political business as usual and it shouldn’t be suggested as otherwise by anyone ever.

  11. Scott says:

    Since the issues that irritate people are those largely out of control, the only rational thing to do politically is go negative. And repetition of 3-4 negative items are the most effective. So bang on the “failed Trump administration”, the “failed Trump response to the pandemic”, the “attempt to take away your healthcare”, the “$8T in debt ran up during boom times”, the “failed tax cut scam”, etc.

    I see nor hear any of that going on.

  12. Modulo Myself says:

    It’s not unreasonable to expect responses. There are no responses to crime increase other than to yell about activists and Defund the Police. There are no responses to the ‘border crisis’ other than tedious racists yelling about immigrants and fantasizing about being cruel like daddy Trump again. Biden is stuck in a world of his own making. He can’t propose a better world. He can’t say maybe owning all of these guns is a sign of a deep psychological problem. He was complacent as anybody in power in Americans in emptying the idea of the public good and replacing it with the cheap imitations of capitalism and law and order. You treat people like zombies and canon fodder long enough, and you become them.

  13. Neil Hudelson says:

    @James Joyner: @de stijl:

    Not to derail even further, but while I know nothing regarding supply lines, I do know a thing or two about home cooking trends, and bucatini was a hot, trendy noodle in 2019 and 2020. Good ol’ fashioned unexpected trendy demand, rather than hoarding, may have been to blame.

    @de stijl: if you haven’t yet, check out Mission Impastable and then give the new cascatelli a try. It’s not a long noodle, so it doesn’t have the spinability of bucatini (which doesn’t spin that well anyway thanks to its inner tube), but it grabs and holds sauce better than any noodle I’ve tried. And the texture is great. (Available online, trader joes, and whole foods. Yeah, it’s bougie.)

  14. Gustopher says:

    There’s not much he can do to […] reduce crime

    This reminds me of one of my father’s jokes. Why did the teen pregnancy rate decline during the Clinton Administration? The presidency is a very demanding job and he just doesn’t have the time…

    Anyway, Biden should stop any crime sprees he goes on, and yes, that even includes the Wednesday Night Wilding, where he takes his security team out to rough people up and commit arson. Impressive for a man his age, but he should try to lead by example.

    Although, it might get Manchin and Sinema on board with his domestic agenda…

  15. just nutha says:

    @de stijl: None of the stores I’ve ever shopped at even stocked bucatini until the Gwyneth Paltrow started bloviating about it. To this day, I don’t get bucatini. At least rigatoni can be stuffed.

  16. just nutha says:

    @Scott: The choir already knows, the opposition doesn’t care, and the balance aren’t going to be paying attention for another 6 or 7 months.

  17. James Joyner says:

    @Scott F.:

    What today’s opposition is doing is NOT political business as usual and it shouldn’t be suggested as otherwise by anyone ever.

    There are myriad ways in which the GOP is not acting as a normal opposition party. But in the specifics of blaming the sitting President for bad things out of his control and using focus-tested slurs to cast aspersions—the two things suggested by the quoted snippet— it’s acting precisely as you’d expect.

  18. KM says:

    The Imperial Presidency is suffering from the same logical side effect monotheism or divine rule does – if you have an theoretically supreme power, all bad must flow from it same as all good. Why do bad things happen to good people? Theologically you must come to terms with the fact that God intentionally allowed it to happen as Part of the Plan or isn’t as powerful as you claim He is. If God can be foiled, is He really God? The Imperial Presidency is the same; you can’t claim the good without getting blamed for the bad. You can remind folks you’re part of a political trinity that should be separate but equal but it’s not going to work. If you’re THE PRESIDENT, you are supposed to be IN CHARGE, not just the lead pencil pusher or decision maker.

    That’s what comes with pushing the American Exceptionalism mythos since we simply can’t be lead by anyone with limited reach. We’re #1 so we’re lead by a Boss! America likes to claim we have no king but really, we just decided we want to swap ours out more often and impose more rules to remind them we’re in charge. Otherwise, we’re fine thinking they giveth all the goodies and causeth all the suck.

  19. Dave Schuler says:


    My Chinese contacts insist not.

  20. de stijl says:

    Derailing even further….

    If you look a grocery sore from a data analysis perspective it is really fucking fascinating. I always sorta wanted to work a big grocery chain.

    The taxonomy is fascinating. You get stuff coming the back door, you have stuff flowing out the front door. Really granular purchase data. Market basket analysis. Big, meaty stuff.

    Each individual sale is fascinating. That particular mix of product meant something to that purchaser then. In aggregate, it is a deep set. Statisticians and people way smarter than me point their pointy heads at data sets like these. Tease out inter-related purchases, figure out that this set of items should be clustered together physically. This at eye level, the other up or down.

    Think about your grocery store. There is one aisle that holds everything you need for a picnic / cook-out. Solo cups, plates, napkins, plastic utensils. They are grouped intentionally and obviously, any idiot could do that, but it is way deeper.

    Big sellers go eye level. High margin items closely clustered towards that item go directly above, one shelf up. Lower margin items go below.

    Why items get shelved up or down from eye level is quite consciously chosen based on aggregate past market basket analysis and psychology.

    Walgreens in particular really leans in. You go in, buy a bottle of aspirin, SPF 30 sun lotion, two frozen pizzas, and a Big Grab of Cheetos.

    Every time you buy something at Walgreens your receipt is a yard long. It has coupons targeted at you, tagged at you personally, based on past purchases.

    The aspirin is comparatively uninteresting – everybody needs to restock every year or three and really low margin. Sunscreen, high margin, but we are going to sell them a bottle or two a year to this person max. The Cheetos were an impulse buy probably because he was a bit peckish at time of purchase or else he would have bought a bigger package – wanted a quick snack.

    The two frozen pizzas are the intetesting bit. One, he lives close by. Two, he sometimes can’t be bothered to cook a proper meal and settles for a quick alternative on the regular. You fit a profile, or a particular sub-type of a broader profile.

    Next transaction we are going to offer up these 4 coupons based upon your past purchase practices.

    Every transaction is captured, analyzed, sorted, typed. Every time.

    Most retailers stick to macro analysis, Walgreens goes micro. (And macro, obviously.)

    Next time you go to the store pay attention to store layout, aisles, end caps, product groupings, vertical and horizontal placements. It is all consciously chosen by the retailer based on aggregate data analysis and psychology.

  21. Jax says:

    @JustAGirl: So if Donald Trump were President right now, what could he do to change any of this in a positive manner?

  22. James Joyner says:

    @de stijl:

    Derailing even further….

    If you look a grocery sore from a data analysis perspective it is really fucking fascinating. I always sorta wanted to work a big grocery chain.

    This isn’t so much derailing as completely off-topic, seemingly unsparked by anything that came up in the natural course of the conversation. That’s what open threads are for 😉

  23. Pylon says:

    @JustAGirl: That’s a hell of a straw man you got there. Maybe show your work next time.