Thursday, January 20, 2022

One Year In


Early in 1978, I and a couple of my academic colleagues on the political science faculty at the university where we were teaching staged a panel discussion on President Jimmy Carter's just completed first year in office. It was essentially an excuse for us to play pundits for the edification or entertainment of our undergraduate students. I don't think any of us then thought of the one-year anniversary as much more than a convenient occasion for commentary. Politics was already changing, but it was still very different then from what it has since become, and it was still comprehensible in the conventional ways we then understood. 

Part of that then still conventional understanding was that first-term presidents typically take up to two years to get up to speed and that the third year is, therefore, often the most productive (before the distraction of the next presidential campaign takes over in the fourth year). Of course, politics is completely different now. Campaigning is constant, and politicking rather than policy-making is increasingly the main frame of reference through which the media interprets political life. Congress is increasingly less a partner in policy-maklng and more a forum for political posturing, making it more an obstacle to the president's agenda than was once routinely the case. The permanent campaign precludes any presidential "honeymoon," while the looming prospect of losing congress to the opposition party in the mid-term election (as happened to both Obama and Trump) makes the first year the only year in which enacting the president's agenda through legislation is a realistic hope.

So, in this deformed political context, where does President Biden stand at this critical juncture one year in? His standing in the polls at this point is lower than that of most recent presidents (Trump excepted), and media coverage (which is what the polls reflect and reinforce) has been increasingly negative. Punditry presumes a certain sort of historical determinism, in its expectations about the midterms, which may well prove true, but less because of historical inevitability and more because of the Democrats' demonstrated political failures.

Some of that is the fault of the Administration's own messaging. After all, the Biden Administration did get a major covid relief bill passed and its infrastructure bill passed, accomplishments worth bragging about. Instead, however, it has pursued a much more ambitious agenda, which may well reflect the preference of many (maybe most) Americans, but which always had little chance of success in our unrepresentative, inherently antidemocratic Congress. Perhaps those policy goals should have been pursued anyway and maybe could have been pursued more successfully in a more moderate manner. But two unexpected developments just prior to Biden's inaugural made that strategy less likely.

When Biden won the election in November 2020, it was evident that Democrats would retain only a modest majority in the House, and it was widely expected that they would remain the minority in the Senate. The peculiar dysfunctions then at work within the Republican party provided an unexpected opportunity to win not just one but both Georgia Senate seats in the January 5 run-off election. This surprise created an evenly divided Senate, with Democrats in procedural control thanks to the Vice President's tie-breaking vote. This made it possible to imagine improbable legislative outcomes, which would have been completely impossible to expect prior to January 5. To this exaggerated expectation of a path to a more transformative presidency (as if Biden were a new FDR or LBJ, both of whom, of course, had enormous, not razor-thin, congressional majorities) was added the inevitable reaction against the January 6 insurrection attempt. 

Yet it became clear fairly quickly that there were limits to what this very narrow congressional majority could actually be counted on to accomplish. The disgraceful behavior of Senators Manchin and Sinema has been the ongoing media soap-opera, into which the Biden Administration has allowed itself to be trapped. In fact, however, both senators had been fairly clear all year about where they stood. Persuading them to vote to end or modify the filibuster may be an honorable goal, but it was always unlikely to succeed. So, other than reinforcing the loyalty of the Democratic party base, the constant struggle to pass what had no real hope of being passed, has only made the Biden Administration and the Democrats look like ineffective losers (in spite of the major bills that were successfully passed but were largely ignored instead of bragged about).

While the FDR/LBJ analogy is irrelevant in any case because they had such large majorities (which /Biden lacks), there is another reason why the analogy fails. The model of American politics that FDR and LBJ practiced was famously a politics of persuasion. Both understood the need to persuade others, and both were very good at it. How good at it Biden might be in their circumstances is pure speculation. There is at present practically no one to persuade. Biden's Mitch McConnell is not LBJ's Everett Dirksen. Republicans are largely united in their commitment to oppose Biden simply for the sake of opposing. Likewise, someone like Senator Manchin is largely. impervious to persuasion as a conservative Democrat in a radically Republican state.

If it is still true that presidential power is the power to persuade, the object of persuasion is no longer Congress but the public (in large part filtered through the media), who must somehow be persuaded to evaluate the President and his party differently from how politicians and pundits do. Biden may yet do this (and hopefully will be able to do so before the midterm and a fortiori before the 2024 election), but he has no successfully done so as yet. Democrats must also cure themselves of their fatal obsession with the presidency and rediscover how to build up their party base at all levels of government - especially at the local and state levels - and in a larger area of the country.

The midterms are still many months away, and a possible Biden-Trump rematch is still years away. That is an eternity in politics. So much may happen between now and then, including the completely unanticipated (as was covid at the beginning of 2020). How the present pandemic will play itself out remains to be seen. No one saw omicron on the horizon last fall when we were all anticipating an imminent end to the pandemic. More problematically, the Biden team did not anticipate wither the extent of Republican opposition to the covid vaccine or the resulting need to continue mass testing. But the Democrats could have avoided (or at least prudently retreated from) being identified, for example, as the party of closed schools - a policy pursued by some teachers' unions (an excessively powerful part of the Democratic coalition) but not welcomed by parents and demonstrably damaging to students.

Meanwhile, assuming we can attain a satisfactory modus vivendi with covid, Biden's problem will be the perennial problem for contemporary Democratic presidents - persuading ordinary voters that the Christmas tree of social benefits Democrats are attempting to provide for them matter more than the cultural grievances and racial resentments which Republicans are all about exploiting in order to keep the country conflicted and divided to the greater advantage of the richest among us.

No comments:

Post a Comment