How is Biden pulling this off?
Part of the answer is that voters just don’t pay all that much attention to policy. For instance: Biden’s health-care plan, while stopping short of Medicare-for-all, would dramatically expand the number of Americans getting secure coverage from the government, going much further than President Barack Obama ever contemplated with the Affordable Care Act. But if 1 in 10 voters could tell you what Biden’s plan does, it would be a shock.
Not only that, on the places where Biden has moved left on policy, like health care or his ambitious climate agenda, the positions he has taken are broadly popular. You can’t be a radical if you’re proposing things most of the public likes, even if those ideas are further to the left than what you supported five or ten years ago.
He’s also aided in presenting himself as a moderate by the fact that the primary campaign has not left our memories. In that campaign, he was the moderate alternative to candidates, such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who promoted more sweeping reforms. Indeed, the story of Biden’s victory was one in which the Democratic electorate decided that precisely because he was more of a centrist (and because he was a familiar older White guy), he would be the most palatable to the general electorate.
And Biden’s rhetoric is full of pleas for calm and bipartisanship. As he said when imploring Republicans in the Senate not to push through Trump’s nominee to fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat on the Supreme Court, “We need to de-escalate, not escalate.”
But even more importantly in terms of his image, whenever a new controversy emerges, Biden has managed to find a kind of sweet spot in which he manages not to alienate partisan Democrats while signaling to everyone else that he’s no radical.
Consider, for instance, how he has reacted to the newly urgent discussion about whether Democrats should expand the size of the Supreme Court if they control the White House and Congress next year. Here’s how he answered when asked about it by a local news program in Wisconsin:
It’s a legitimate question, but let me tell you why I’m not going answer that question. Because it will shift the focus, that’s what [President Trump] wants, he never wants to talk about the issue at hand and he always tries to change the subject. Let’s say I answer that question, then the whole debate’s gonna be about what Biden said or didn’t say, Biden said he would or wouldn’t. The discussion should be about why he is moving in a direction that’s totally inconsistent with what the Founders wanted.
He’s surely right about the attention it would receive if he said that the court should be expanded. But he didn’t say no, either. Which Democrats surely noticed, and which means that, should the day come when he decides to support increasing the size of the court, he can legitimately say it was not the product of some radical agenda but a reasonable response to events.
Which is how Biden is characterizing pretty much every procedural question. Right now many Democrats are discussing a program of procedural aggressiveness, including eliminating the filibuster and then granting long-overdue statehood to D.C. and Puerto Rico. To questions like that, Biden’s answer has been, essentially: We’ll see.
Take the filibuster. Biden’s position on it has remained fairly constant: He doesn’t think it should be eliminated, but if Republicans are particularly recalcitrant when he’s president, then he might reluctantly consider it. “It’s going to depend on how obstreperous they become,” he said in July. Left unspoken is the fact that Senate Republicans using the filibuster to thwart his agenda is 100 percent guaranteed.
To the average voter, however, it sounds like Biden is being as reasonable as he could be, essentially putting the ball in Republicans’ court: If they want to work with him, then procedural radicalism will be unnecessary. It’s up to them. Which, to be clear, is surely how he sincerely feels.
There’s one more reason Biden continues to be seen as someone without much of an ideological agenda: On the single most important issue facing the country, the contrast between him and President Trump has little to do with ideology.
Trump’s disastrous mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic has now cost 200,000 lives, with nearly 7 million Americans infected, many of whom will suffer long-term health consequences. While there are issues connected to the pandemic that implicate ideology — for instance, those 7 million people now have a preexisting condition, and if Trump succeeds in convincing the Supreme Court to strike down the ACA then they could be denied insurance coverage — for the most part, the pandemic is a management problem.
Trump, Biden argues, screwed this up so catastrophically because in addition to all his other shortcomings, he’s just bad at his job; Biden says he’d do better. It’s a pretty good reason to vote for him, and it doesn’t make him look like any kind of radical.