Second Guessing Biden’s First Year

Did the President exceed his mandate? Does it matter?

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the passing of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Tuesday, August 10, 2021, in the East Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

In response to complaints by Republicans that the 46th President has misread his mandate and governed too far from the left, veteran political analyst Stuart Rothenberg asks, “What was Joe Biden supposed to do in his first year?

Those criticisms have some merit. With a 50-50 Senate and a very narrow House advantage, Biden was always going to be limited in what he could do. He needed to explain that to his supporters, and he needed to build legislative coalitions around key members, getting as much as he could even though that would fall short of what many in his party had hoped for.

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But winners invariably exaggerate the mandate they are given by the voters, and the Republican critics of Biden assume that he needs to please only swing voters during his tenure in office. 

Just let Biden sit in the Oval Office, make nice with Republicans in Congress and stay away from anything ideological or controversial, they seem to be arguing. That would give him the best chance of holding the House and Senate during the midterms.

Sorry, but that dog won’t hunt. No, Biden was not elected to be Franklin Roosevelt, but he also wasn’t elected to be Herbert Hoover or Calvin Coolidge.  

Biden won by some 7 million votes and ousted an incumbent president of the United States, but he should avoid “ideological” issues? 

Is that what George W. Bush did? Or Trump? Hardly.

I agree that the “mandate” concept has relatively little value. While it’s perhaps wise for Presidents who win by narrow margins to govern with some humility, the fact of the matter is that one is either President or not. Ultimately, what matters is whether one has the votes in Congress to enact one’s agenda. Despite a narrow and controversial Electoral College win coupled with a modest popular vote loss and modest gains by the opposition party in the House and Senate, Bush had a Republican Congress, albeit briefly, when he took office. The same happened with Trump in 2016: he lost the popular vote and Republicans lost seats in both Houses—yet he was able to govern with narrow majorities in both. It’s perfectly reasonable that, having won the popular vote and held both Houses (albeit, again, with Republican gains in both) Biden would attempt to enact his agenda while he still can.

Here’s the difference: Bush and Trump ran as change candidates with bold agendas to change the direction of the country; Biden ran as a restoration candidate, pledging a return to normalcy. Indeed, he won the Democratic nomination over more dynamic candidates because the party establishment—and, crucially, powerful Black leaders—thought a calm, moderate candidate was the best chance of beating Trump. Governing as though Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren had won is simply misreading the room.

Biden would have looked weak and risked splitting the Democratic Party apart if he hadn’t tried to do something about climate change, child care, Medicare expansion, income inequality (through taxes) and other core party goals.

If you think Democratic voters are lukewarm about Biden now because they believe he didn’t push hard enough on voting rights (which Republicans are blocking), imagine how they would feel if he shied away from even promoting more money for universal pre-K, home care, prescription drug costs and the other items in the Build Back Better plan.

In a sense, Biden was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.

But, again, this isn’t the agenda that he stressed in his campaign. As the primaries demonstrated, many of those issues divide even Democrats. And, regardless, trying to do them all at once was simply a non-starter: he didn’t have the votes even in his own coalition.

Biden’s biggest problem is that he made lots of promises — promises that he couldn’t keep without the cooperation of Capitol Hill. Given the makeup of the House and Senate and the refusal of a couple of Democrats to change Senate rules, that was never in the cards.

Precisely.

Biden is now stuck in a nearly impossible position. Swing voters and moderates think he is too liberal and that he is responsible for inflation, hasn’t handled the coronavirus well and hasn’t dealt effectively with a range of other issues. Democrats and progressives, on the other hand, are frustrated that many of his promises are unfulfilled.

Which is, well, not a great position to be in.

The president now needs some luck, especially on inflation and COVID-19, and an opportunity to change the public’s focus. He may not get either, which could well result in a bloodbath for Democrats in November. But governing like a Republican or a political eunuch was not a serious option for Biden. 

But those aren’t the only alternatives!

While he was laser-focused on drawing a contrast with Trump’s erratic leadership, Biden wasn’t without an agenda. Clearly, the pandemic was Priority 1, as it should have been. He was clearly committed to fighting climate change, including rejoining the Paris Accords—but rejected the Green New Deal and a total ban on fracking. He vowed to restore the mandate to buy health insurance and expand the public option—but rejected Medicare for All. He vowed to work toward racial justice and police reform—but rejected calls to Defund the Police.

Nobody expected him to govern like a Republican; he’s a moderate Democrat. And why would a normal Presidency that focused on good governance, eradicating COVID at home, and restoring good relations with our allies and partners abroad have made him “a political eunuch”?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    Arguably the only legislation that would garner unanimous Dem, legislative support wast the Covid package. BBB was going to be a lift no matter what the dollar figure of the initial proposal was. Was $3.5T too large a package for the initial BBB gambit, probably, were liberals too optimistic and held out too long before finally compromising, probably. But if the initial number were $1T, Manchin and Sinema would have still held out to whittle it down and may not have supported it even then.

    Inflation was the result of supply-demand inequities, but is becoming a self-fulfilling promise that will keep inflation high. The Fed could crush the economy to control inflation or the historical relationship between what American’s spend on goods v. services could be restored. That would reduce demand on goods and bolster the service economy that is still struggling. Unfortunately, spending on services won’t grow till the fear of dying because you went to a restaurant, took a flight or went to an event, dissipates.

  2. I am firmly of the view that “mandates” don’t exist–and can’t in a system of separated powers.

    And I really do thing that a lot of otherwise smart people expect presidents to be magical Green Lanterns.

    And pundits so desperately need narratives of Win/Loss or Success/Failure, etc.

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  3. DK says:

    A bit strange analysis.

    One, Biden is a mainstream liberal Democrat. He’s not Bernie no, but he is also not Joe Manchin.

    Two, Build Back Better is literally Biden’s campaign slogan and campaign platform. It’s the platform that united the party behind him when he ran. His agenda is supported by a majority of the country, a majority of the House, and near-unanimous majority of the party. Only two corporate Democrats are holding things up who, along, with 50 Republican senators, represent a minority of the country.

    Three, Biden is not governing as Warren or Bernie. Build Back Better is not a Medicare For All and Defund The Police bill.

    Four, no Biden did not run with a voting rights focus: the latest rightwing attacks on voting began after Biden’s win. Should he have ignored that?

    It’s fair to say Biden overpromised given the Senates realities, which allow a minority to thwart the will of the majority. He’s a beast of the Senate and probably should have known better. But to claim he’s been acting as a democratic socialist Trojan Horse who has shifted focus from what he ran on is inaccurate.

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  4. John430 says:

    As Joyner says,…Just let Biden sit in the Oval Office,

    finishing the sentence…”and give him professional examinations that can measure his decline into dementia.”

  5. Kathy says:

    I’ve toyed with the idea of a time travel story, where the protagonist can travel back in time on as many occasions as they want, but never to a past where they’ve already traveled. Example, if you travel back in time to this morning to set your alarm clock so you don’t get fired, you cannot travel again to this morning.

    Why this set of rules’ the idea was the protagonist would screw up, or see a horrible chance accident, or a terrible crime, and go back in time to change things. But often their change wouldn’t work, because hindsight turns out not to be 20/20.

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  6. gVOR08 says:

    @Kathy: Wait. If you have time travel and can alter he past to change the present and future isn’t hindsight foresight? I’m so confused.

  7. DK says:

    @John430: Is Dementia Donald still having mid-sentence mini strokes, telling Americans to inject Lysol, insisting he won an election he lost by 7+ million votes, and trying to nuke hurricanes?

  8. Kathy says:

    @gVOR08:

    If hindsight is a time traveler’s foresight, that would explain why it’s not 20/20.

  9. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @Kathy: My idea is a variation of yours: an individual gets the power of being able to control the wills of others, but every time the power is used, the individual loses an indeterminate number of days of his/her lifespan. So the question is: how badly do you want to control the other person’s will?

  10. Kathy says:

    @SC_Birdflyte:

    Ok, we go back in time and give this talent to Donald Benito trump on his 18th birthday, and he’ll be dead the next day.

    BTW, come too think of it, a movie called The Butterfly Effect pretty much did what my story idea proposes. I did see it, too.

  11. John430 says:

    @DK: What color is the sky in your make-believe world?