I am somewhat skeptical of this narrative. There are some signs that President Biden and his team, while not totally prisoner to what I view as old and misguided norms of the Democratic Party, aren’t fully free of them, either. So, no, it’s not all Joe Manchin III’s fault.
Here’s how I think Biden might be falling into five of those self-defeating norms:
1. A mistaken view of the electorate.
The Democratic Party has long operated from a 1996 view of the U.S. electorate: There is a big mass of swing voters who break away from whichever party is too extreme. In the late 1990s, this view was true to some extent — Clinton hewed to the middle and had an approval rating in the 60s throughout much of his tenure.
But it’s not true now, because the electorate is so much more polarized. There just aren’t that many swing voters. And the swing voters who do exist tend to have eclectic views and are often disengaged from the details of politics. So when Biden aides suggest that the infrastructure negotiations will help the president politically, even if no deal gets done, that suggests at least some in the president’s orbit are operating in an outdated paradigm. There is virtually no evidence that a bloc of voters who would otherwise back Republican congressional candidates next year will instead support Democrats if they perceive Biden as really trying hard to be bipartisan.
2. An overreliance on polling.
In 2018, polls showed that voters really disliked the GOP’s attempt to repeal Obamacare, so congressional Democrats focused on that issue. Democrats won the House. But it was fairly obvious that the Democratic wins in 2018 were about broad anti-Trump sentiment, not health care. Obsessed with following the polls, the party spent a lot of time talking about health care again in 2020 — and lost significant ground in the House.
Biden’s initial refusal (and then quick reversal) to increase refugee admissions this year reeked of such poll-centric decision-making. Polls show that voters have less favorable views of Biden on immigration compared with some other issues, and the White House is likely wary of moves that make Biden seem too lax on the issue. But with a heavily polarized electorate and swing voters who are often disengaged from political discourse, almost no policy decision is going to matter that much. And there is no value in taking a poll-based stand and then immediately backtracking from it.
Many Democrats, even those in very blue states who basically can’t lose reelection, are quite conservative — not ideologically but psychologically. They are wary of big policy changes or even really strong rhetoric.
This mind-set is widespread among Democratic elites, so I doubt Biden and his team are immune. For example, Biden has so far shied away from policies that he could arguably implement through executive action, such as forgiving the student loan debt of millions of Americans, offering banking services at local post offices and creating a comprehensive public database of the use of force by police departments, according to a list of possible actions compiled by the left-leaning American Prospect. Muscular executive action might seem “radical” to people in Biden’s circle (the president has implied that is his view), but the administration is avoiding a powerful avenue to enact policies that would also be good politically and substantively.
4. A desire to return to “normal."
Democrats such as Manchin and Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) are working constantly to reach bipartisan deals with their GOP colleagues — who just blocked an investigation of a mob that stormed their workplace and are condoning efforts to prevent people in Manchin and Coons’s party from voting. The Biden administration seems to have similar instincts.
The administration, which initially smartly reframed bipartisanship as appealing to GOP voters as much as lawmakers, is now treating getting the votes of congressional Republicans on any legislation as a victory in and of itself. Biden’s Justice Department is defending stances the department took under Trump. I understand the instinct to try to bring the country together and focus on the future. But normal is over. The Republican Party is on an anti-democratic, racist course, and Biden and the Democrats have to accept that the Republicans have basically thrust them into a partisan uncivil war. They have to fight and win that war, instead of wishing it away.
The United States is in the midst of a broad power struggle between the wealthy White Christian men who have historically been dominant and everyone else. Republican lawmakers feel this acutely — most of them, after all, are wealthy, White Christian men. But the real powerbrokers in the Democratic Party, such as Biden’s inner circle of long-time advisers, skew more White, wealthy and male than the party’s voters.
This is important because it means top Biden aides are somewhat distant from the struggles of the people they are supposed to be fighting for — they are probably never going to have a hard time voting or need Medicaid or unemployment benefits. The Biden White House has not made beating back the wave of GOP laws targeting Black voters a centerpiece of its agenda, and I worry this is in part because most Biden aides will never feel the bite of these laws in the way that Black people who live in GOP-dominated states do.
It’s still early, and no president is ever fully unfettered in our system. It will always be hard to tell the difference between a Biden constrained by forces beyond his control and one hemmed in by the self-imposed limits of outdated thinking and old norms. And maybe there are aggressive moves coming soon. But after seeing the past 50 days of the Biden administration, I am much less confident that this will be a presidency of bold action than I was after the first 100.