President Biden’s first year in office was frustrating for many of his supporters. He has disappointed his more left-wing supporters by refusing to take aggressive unilateral action in some areas where he has discretion, and he has disappointed his more moderate supporters by choosing to take aggressive action in other areas.
That’s doubly true of the gang of young, college-educated, city-dwelling liberals who dominate the media workforce, the progressive nonprofits, and much of the Democratic Party itself—people who most likely didn’t support Mr. Biden in the primary and always suspected he wouldn’t bring enough change for their liking.
However, these are the banal normal problems of a normal presidency. Even the interim demise that seems imminent for his party is, by historical standards, normal.
If Mr. Biden and his team are to give Democrats a chance to fight and turn around his numbers before election disaster hits, they need to keep two somewhat paradoxical thoughts in mind. First, Mr. Biden rules in extraordinary times, but his presidency is still governed by the normal rules of American politics. Second, generating a sense of normalcy around American politics and everyday life — as he promised to do during the campaign — would itself be a transformative change.
The central contradiction of Biden’s presidency is that he won the Democratic primary by running to the center and offering eligibility and normalcy rather than political revolution and major, structural change. But just as he emerged as the party’s candidate, the Covid-19 pandemic struck and we started hearing about plans for “an FDR-sized presidency” — that is, major structural change. If the US economy had completely collapsed in 2020 as it did under Herbert Hoover, that would have been realistic.
But usually that didn’t happen. Timely action by the Federal Reserve and trillions in bipartisan aid credits kept things together. Not good enough to save Donald Trump’s presidency, but good enough to turn the Electoral College into a razor-sharp race and cost Democrats multiple seats in the House of Representatives.
But even when it turned out that the polls were out and his win was much smaller than expected, Mr. Biden never really let go of the dream of a transformative 1930s-style presidency, even though he clearly lacked the large legislative majorities to a New Deal of Great Society.
Will the Democrats face an interim destruction?
The disappointment of this failed attempt at transformational policymaking tends to mask the extent to which in his freshman year Mr Biden was in some ways surprisingly successful in his ambitious promises to restore a climate of bipartisanship in the legislative process.
Many progressives believe that Republicans voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill only as part of a ploy to thwart the Build Back Better agenda. But Republicans never took such a step during the Obama years, and the fact that they agreed to anything contradicted some very confident predictions from journalists (myself included) who cut our teeth in the Obama administration’s policy battles. era and total intransigence.
We’ve also seen bipartisan legislation to expand US science funding and independent supply chain capacity – the US Innovation and Competition Act – passed by the Senate by a significant bipartisan majority. The House has passed similar legislation (in separate bills), and the two chambers are trying to smooth out the differences in a conference committee, a venerable legislative institution that has largely fallen into disuse during recent years of partisanship.
But in addition to these reassuring sources of normalcy, Mr. Biden has faced some unusually challenging situations. It is extraordinary that his reign is being stalked by the specter of a defeated pastor who refuses to admit he has honestly lost. But as political scientist Sam Rosenfeld writes, the most striking feature of American politics in 2021 was the “enduring firmness of electoral dynamism.” Swing voters responded to a unified Democratic Party administration by swinging to the right and seeking counterweight.
What has fueled this trend is perhaps the most normal political problem of all: economic conditions deteriorated in the second half of the year, pushing Mr. Biden went down.
2021 inflation is not particularly his fault. It is impossible that a pandemic will not bring economic costs, and bearing those costs in the form of inflation is superior to the alternative of stabilizing prices at lower levels of employment and lower real output.
But the nature of the White House is that even things that aren’t the president’s fault are the president problem. The same goes for the virus. Mr Biden may have set himself up for failure by promising too much (a perfectly normal campaign sin) and implying that he would be able to “shut down the virus” and allow society to return to normal. That wasn’t true when he promised it, and variants have made it even less feasible.
Vaccines significantly reduce the health risk of the virus, but do not eliminate it. And that makes the trade-off between economic output and virus control more difficult instead of easier. Because so many Americans have been vaccinated, the demand for goods and services is much higher now than it was during the Trump presidency. That means quarantine rules and other restrictions on business activities and public institutions to do bear real costs. This winter, with the Omicron peak, we have more people who want to fly on airplanes than pilots who are allowed to wear them.
The Biden administration and the executive branch have clearly taken steps to prioritize the economy over public health — for example, by shortening the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on isolation time — but the president has been reluctant to say anything in public. saying this is what’s going on, perhaps for fear of looking too much like its predecessor. And simply saying “follow the science” isn’t the answer: the scientific method doesn’t answer questions about tradeoffs.
When all is said and done, the frustrations of Biden supporters who want to a return to normality are politically more important than those of the more progressive masses who yearn for transformation.
That means more attention to the economic situation in the short term. The good news about inflation is that the fuel price spike of 2021 is unlikely to happen a second time, and the Federal Reserve is likely to move into inflation control as well. But there are also risks of economic disruption in China, and monetary policy efforts to curb inflation could be doing too much to curb real growth as well.
The fate of Mr. Biden’s presidency — and if you believe the dire warnings of many Democrats and academics, of the republic itself — will depend less on the fate of legacy items like Build Back Better or a revamped voting rights law than the normal procession of macroeconomic events. Unfortunately for Mr. Biden, no president has complete control over them — but pushing for a final draft of the bipartisan U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which includes provisions to strengthen the semiconductor supply chain, could be helpful.
It means more focus on classic Biden themes of patriotism, duality and normality, and fewer headlines dominated by high-profile squeeze plays against moderate senators.
Most of what has happened to Mr. Biden has been quite normal. But if Democrats are serious about their own fears about the opposition party, they should be deeply concerned about the fallout from the normal cycle of overreach and backlash, and try harder to surprise the country by doubling normality.
Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias), the author of “One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger,” writes in Slow Boring.