What’s the Plan, Man?

Another comment on the American presidency and its critics.

Source: The White House

I was a big fan of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica which had a great title sequence. At one point words on the screen noted that the Cylons, the show’s antagonist, had a “plan.” Now, who could dispute that having a plan is a good idea? But, as I am sure many readers who watched BSG may recall, it ended up that it was pretty clear that the Cylons didn’t really have a plan after all. (Or, if they did, it wasn’t especially clear to the rest of us).

This whole thing comes to mind because there is always this hope that there is a plan, and that somehow a plan will save us. It is a version of willpower, it seems to me. I mean, if we would just plan hard enough, there would be a way forward (or, like BSG, the endgame may be a bit of a muddle).

The proximate inspiration to this is more reaction to the CNN piece that James Joyner noted yesterday and that I sideways expounded on myself. The reaction is question is Ryan Cooper’s piece in The American Prospect: President Biden Is Not Cutting the Mustard. One of the key criticisms is about what the White House did/didn’t do, in regards to the issuing of Dobbs:

But the Biden administration was, impossibly, caught flat-footed, about which Democratic Party insiders dished brutal details to CNN recently. Biden’s team had no immediate plan—even on the day of the ruling, White House counsel Dana Remus assured staff that it wouldn’t be released. Now, two weeks after the Dobbs decision, top aides are still squabbling over what the administration should do. A conference of Democratic governors was arranged last Friday, so late that none could attend in person and some declined to do it at all. Initially, the administration dismissed ending the filibuster to pass a codification of Roe, though Biden did later reverse course.

On the one hand, I get the critique that the administration should have had something bigger to say or do that day, at least from a political theater point of view (although, to be honest, I am not sure what it would have looked like). So, sure, they could have planned a Democratic governor’s meeting, but if that meeting had been better planned, the response from Cooper and other critics would have been likely: is that it?

The President can support ending the filibuster all he likes, but that is a decision for the Senate, not the White House. This is where I point out that our parties are not hierarchical, and that while, yes, the Democrats hold a majority of seats in the Senate, Biden, even as nominal head of the Democratic Party, can’t order Leader Schumer to make the Senate Democrats act in any particular way. And, moreover, Schumer can’t order Manchin and Sinema to vote a particular way (which the piece acknowledges, more or less).

I come here not to defend the Biden administration specifically, but rather to ask what plan do people think is possible here? I have seen a lot of Biden critiques decry the lack of a plan, but I have seen precious little about what such a plan should contain. Like the mythical plan of the Cylons, it sounds good, but it appears to mean very little.

There is zero immediate action that the Biden White House can undertake to reverse a Supreme Court ruling. Pretending otherwise is foolish and just adds to the endless loop of American politics that if we just had a better president, everything would be okay.

Another BSG element comes to mind: “all of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.” In this context, it is the endless repeat of people simply not understanding the presidency is not magical, so instead of trying to work to find long-term solutions, if not serious political reform, we just try to find a better president.

The first paragraph of the Cooper piece notes:

Unlike Trump, Biden’s poor numbers are mainly thanks to weak support among his own base. Where Trump commanded virtual lockstep loyalty among Republicans, Biden is staggeringly unpopular among wide swaths of Democrats—particularly young folks. Americans aged 18-29 have gone from +37 approval at the beginning of his term to 11 points net disapproval today.

Look, as I like to say: better is always better, and the Democrats would certainly like a better candidate in 2024 and a better president in 2022. I mean, a better president would have a better plan, right? And better whatever is needed to fix the problem. The problem is, of course, what does “better” actually mean? And, moreover, right now “better” means some imagined improvement, but if Biden was replaced with another candidate, the reality would not be as better as was hoped. (And note, I think it is possible for there to be a better candidate than Biden, but hypothetical betters are a far cry from real people–and the best candidate isn’t going to have an immediate fix for what Cooper and others are complaining about).

At the moment, though, the irony of in-fighting for Democrats (should it come to that) is that they potentially face a unified GOP, and somehow I don’t think Cooper will think things are better if Trump wins in 2024.

BTW: if people want better politics, they need to start focusing on long-term structural fixes instead of wishing for better politicians to save us. The notion that better people will come in and fix things is as old as political philosophy, but even the ancients understood that finding the best to govern is not so easy. Thinkers from Aristotle to Madison to modern political scientists have understood that the main pathway to better governance is through institutional design, and that is where the energy needs to be focused, not hoping for chimerical plans or better politicians.

FILED UNDER: Political Theory, The Presidency, US Politics, , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. drj says:

    While I’m not disagreeing with the main point of this (that there is only so much that Biden & co can do), I think there could have been a much more forceful reaction to the Dobbs decision.

    A court appointed by politicians that never represented a majority of the electorate just took away a very significant right from half the population based on nothing more than some incoherent gobbledygook.

    I get that you can’t undo (or even significantly mitigate against) such a ruling.

    But a coherent messaging strategy, including an immediate show of Democratic unity, and a vow to enshrine the right to privacy in legislation as soon as practicably possible would have been nice.

    I get that it’s just messaging and that we did get some of what I wanted to see. But it was… underwhelming.

    Of course, motivational speeches will only get you so far. Even so, you fight with the weapons you have – not just with the weapons you would like to have.

  2. Kathy says:

    If we’re going to bring up TV, in Rebels I think the word “plan” outweighed terms like “The Force” and “The Empire.” Ezra, Sabine, Hera, Kanan, Zeb, even Chopper, all had plans. They all worked, or had to be changed due to unexpected developments (but still worked).

    Now, Thrawn, and Vader, and Price, all had plans, too. They always lost.

    So having a plan is not enough. You also need to have the writers in your corner as well.

    Unfortunately, history is only written after the fact. Even if those writers are on Biden’s side, they can’t affect the outcome.

  3. Rick DeMent says:


    I think there could have been a much more forceful reaction to the Dobbs decision.

    Be nice if you actually suggested one. But if this is your list it would still draw the same criticism for not doing anything and that right there is the problem. To be fair he did call for the Roe to enshrined in law, but let’s face it, that would be slapped down by Scotus as soon as it make it to them from the appellate court.

    The biggest asymmetrical issue the Democrats have to face is that the GOP never criticizes it’s own on policy (you can get kicked out for not saying the election was stolen but that it). The Democrats will be criticized by their own and everyone else for anything they do no matter how productive.

  4. Jay L Gischer says:

    Lol, there is no such thing as a coherent messaging strategy. These are Democrats we are talking about. They are anti-authoritarian, and that’s a good thing. So they aren’t going to take a dictum about “this is our messaging” from on high, even if it’s the White House.

    I think people are freaking out about this, and throwing shade in every direction, including the White House. I don’t have a problem with people being unhappy about Dobbs, but I wish they would get a grip.

    Political initiative doesn’t come from the White House. I think folks should stop expecting elective politicians to lead on controversial policy issues.

    This isn’t going to be “fixed” overnight. It isn’t going to be fixed this election cycle. It might take 20 years. It might take 50. Get in this for the long haul, not the overnight fix.

  5. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Rick DeMent:

    To be fair he did call for the Roe to enshrined in law, but let’s face it, that would be slapped down by Scotus as soon as it make it to them from the appellate court.

    Nothing in Dobbs itself precludes the Federal government from making a law such as this. So that would be a further step, and as such, further political dramatization, which motivates voters.

    I frankly think it’s good. But the filibuster stops it. They aren’t that easy to dramatize, though. And they allow Republicans to dramatize to their voters. Which is probably why this isn’t blasting along.

  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Jay L Gischer:
    Exactly. This war will not ‘be over by Christmas.’

    The other side did the work, they played the long game, and we didn’t. They focused, and we didn’t. They were united, and we were not.

  7. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Yeah. But I understand the difference. Your side doesn’t have and imaginary sky daddy promising a better future somewhere else. The sky daddy contingent doesn’t have to worry about losing this week, this year, this decade. Your side does. The arc of their universe bends toward justice…

    …eventually. The arc of your universe needs to arrive at justice by tomorrow–or the day after, but only if necessary.

  8. Gustopher says:

    Biden can’t make Schumer to do anything, and Schumer cannot make Manchin vote any specific way, but Biden can probably get Schumer to call a vote (he’s a friendly guy), and Manchin can either vote or hide.

    The Women’s Health Protection Act didn’t even get 50 votes in the Senate. It was also more expansive than Manchin could support, let alone the “pro-choice Republicans” Murkowsky and Concerned.

    Trim it back, so it can get 50. Chop it into bits.

    Call a vote on first trimester.
    Call a vote on second trimester.
    Call a vote on rape and incest exceptions.
    Call a vote on meaningful protections for health of the mother.

    They will get 50-52 votes, and fail due to Republicans.

    (2nd trimester might fail on Manchin, and if he’s willing to vote for the others, we might want to not force him to vote on that — plus that would muddy the message)

    Health of mother might get through though, and while it’s not enough, it’s better than the status quo.

    (Right now there are already reports of women losing access to medicines they’ve been on for years because the medicines also affect pregnancy — not sure what the catchy term for that is, but bring protections for that to a vote too)

    There’s a lot of theater to this, but there’s a value to being seen fighting. It builds support in the base, and that helps the long term goals.

    And that’s a plan.

    Failure should be an option. Not trying should not be.

    Also, watching all of these get blocked by the filibuster will make voters put pressure on their Senators to kill the filibuster.

  9. DK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    The other side did the work, they played the long game, and we didn’t. They focused, and we didn’t. They were united, and we were not.

    Ralph Nader and Bernie Or Bust and “Why is Mark Udall scaremongering about abortion?” unavailable for comment.

  10. Rick DeMent says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    Nothing in Dobbs itself precludes the Federal government from making a law such as this. So that would be a further step, and as such, further political dramatization, which motivates voter

    Of course, just as there is nothing that will preclude SCOTUS from slapping it down, which they will do in a heartbeat.

  11. @drj: FWIW, I would definitely have preferred that Biden take on the democracy-deficit issues from day one (if not during the campaign).

    I just think that having “a plan” to deal with Dobbs specifically is asking for magic (especially a short-term one).

  12. @Gustopher:

    but Biden can probably get Schumer to call a vote

    Maybe, but not necessarily. At a minimum he can only ask he can’t force.

    I would note, too, that getting bills to the floor is not as straightforward in the Senate as it is in the House. Schumer would have to do a lot of maneuvering to do what you are suggesting–not that I am opposed to such activity.

  13. Scott F. says:

    Like the mythical plan of the Cylons, it sounds good, but it appears to mean very little.

    The BSG analogy is an apt one. The Cylons had a GREAT plan for the destruction of the Twelve Colonies. That action certainly gave them the upper hand on their objective of universal domination. And it would have worked if it weren’t for Adama, Roslin, and those pesky kids of the Fleet.

    The right destroyed a constitutional right for half the population, but they haven’t yet secured permanent minority rule. The resistance is just getting started. In retrospect, they may regret not codifying voter suppression before overturning Roe.

  14. Gavin says:

    Of course Biden will be blamed.. but this is the denouement of the entire New Democrat theory of change – and governance as a whole.
    New Democrats came into power asserting that they could sustain liberal social changes by doing Republican economic things and handwaving PR to substitute for passing laws and seating liberal judges. Of course this always was just a Republican-lite governance philosophy, but the entire concept of implementing both administrative policies and a long-term strategy geared to benefit people who can’t be fundraised off of [to be clear, the US population who aren’t super-wealthy] is absolutely anathema to the beings of both Pelosi and Schumer.
    They don’t respond.. because all they want to do is post on Instagram wearing kente cloth rather than whip votes to increase worker protections or increase the minimum wage or increase womens’ rights, etc etc.
    Obama’s entire strategy was also only PR [“not my legislative priority”]; Biden just carried that tradition forward.
    And now, in 2022, the wool has [finally] been pulled from the eyes of the public. Tangible benefits for the working class must be the actual goals moving forward – no more triangulation stupidity, no more caterwauling about the emotions of a fake Republican that doesn’t actually exist. The parliamentarian complains? Fire them, period dot.
    Getting into the 3rd Lochner Era [first ended by Lincoln, second by FDR] is a terrible way to have the New Democratic emperor shown to have no clothes, but here we are.

  15. alkali says:

    If you’re in charge, you have to have a plan. The plan may not be able to do much, but you have to have one because the definition of being in charge is being the person with the plan..

    Here it is manifestly clear that the Democratic leadership had done nothing to think about how they would handle this eventuality — even though this was a 49-year project for the GOP, even though a draft of the opinion was leaked (!) a month ago. They didn’t even have press statements prepared. They were utterly adrift, reading poems, posting about yoga, and singing God Bless America. It was pathetic.

    AOC had a bunch of interesting things to say about what should be done, and one could debate the merits of her suggestions, but if no one has a plan other than the most junior member of your caucus, that evinces a massive failure all by itself.

  16. Tony Edwards says:

    @Gavin: Dems tried to get many liberal/moderate judges on the bench when Obama was in office. Moscow Mitch and the GOP Senate blocked most of them (see e.g., Merrick Garland). The GOP currently has a rock solid safe position in the Senate, even if their Senators represent many fewer Americans (see e.g., MT, WY, SD, ND, AK, etc.) because in many of these states Dems are rarer than hens’ teeth. To overcome the filibuster Dems needed to appeal to red state voters (much harder now since many of them have mentally gone off the deep end – for example by believing that the election was stolen in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary) by visibly and vocally supporting working people (like they used to back in the heyday of unions) instead of seeming to support only the very poor and the very rich. This is more messaging discipline than anything else as the GOP can propose policies that benefit the very rich but talk it up as a benefit for the middle class (see e.g., opposition to estate tax). For example, free trade (previously opposed by Dems and long supported by the GOP) has hollowed out many communities in America, Dems failed to notice and jumped on the bandwagon just as the downside of free trade was becoming visible by talking about the “new economy” and “green jobs” and college education (only 37% of Americans have college degrees – a number that is on a downward trend) and free trade agreements, while the GOP pivoted to talking about (and spotlighting) the devastation and dislocation wrought globalization (which they somehow placed on the backs of immigrants, as if immigration to the US wasn’t a byproduct of the globalization the GOP had long supported). Now that the parties have been radicalized it will be difficult for the Dems to make any progress (even if they somehow manage to flip W. VA and AZ and replace Manchin & Sinema). The President is powerless without the support of Congress. Dems need to focus on the long term issue of getting and keeping comfortable majorities in the House and Senate. Congress can drag the President along with it but it rarely works the other way (except maybe for LBJ).