The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden is foundering because Democrats made two major misjudgments

President Biden listens to a reporter's question outside the White House on Dec. 15. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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December 2021 is obviously not shaping up as President Biden had planned.

Last February, Biden told a CNN town hall that “by next Christmas, I think we’ll be in a very different circumstance, God willing, than we are today. … A year from now, I think that there’ll be significantly fewer people having to be socially distanced, having to wear a mask.” Instead, America will be getting a very nasty Christmas present of the omicron variant. More contagious than anything seen so far, it’s clearly able to evade at least some of the immune defenses acquired from vaccines or prior infection.

Then there are the other big nasties under our collective tree: soaring homicides, a brewing conflict over Ukraine and the highest inflation rate the United States has experienced in nearly 40 years. In his stocking, Biden will get an approval rating hovering in the low 40s, lower than that of any modern president at this point in their first term other than Donald Trump.

Happy Holidays, everyone.

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Reality happens to every president, of course, but reality has been happening especially hard to Biden. Nor can this be blamed entirely on the fickle finger of fate. The Biden administration has foundered in part because Democrats misjudged how much difference policy could make — underestimating the effects of economic policy, while overestimating the effects of pandemic control.

Back in January, there was a very clear theory of the incoming Biden presidency. All he really had to do was to not be an incompetent, impulsive pandemic-denier.

“Look, we know what we need to do to beat this virus,” he told Americans in March. “Tell the truth. Follow the scientists and the science. Work together. Put trust and faith in our government to fulfill its most important function, which is protecting the American people — no function more important.”

And there it was: Joe Biden was going to be the guy who used the healing power of science to give Americans their lives back. Americans would respond with a burst of gratitude, and Biden would use that political capital to pass big, ambitious programs that would please his political coalition and further endear him to voters. Cue the roaring applause, the starry-eyed crowd chanting “Four! More! Years!”

President Biden on March 25 answered questions on his handling of immigration, the filibuster and foreign policy at his first news conference as president. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

To some extent, of course, the administration was obviously just planning to take credit for rolling out the vaccines that his predecessor had funded and pushed through expedited regulatory review. But Democrats also clearly believed that better policy could turn the pandemic around, because for the left, this has been a running theme throughout the pandemic: “the Party of Science” vs. a “death cult” that bore almost all of the blame for America’s continuing woes.

They had a point. It does seem likely that Trump’s resistance to pandemic precautions is the reason that the United States, which started out with a lot of advantages that should have protected us, nonetheless ended up with the worst death rate of any rich country. But looking at other countries in our economic class, it seems clear that, absent Trump’s deranged denialism, the United States would probably nonetheless have lost at least half a million people — and would still now be facing the most contagious variant yet.

The country is swiftly reaching the point at which more Americans will have died from covid-19 under Biden than under Trump. It is not surprising that polls show voters losing confidence in Biden’s handling of the pandemic. Much of the decline is unfair, of course (such is the lot of presidents). But in focusing so much of the blame for the pandemic on Trump and Republicans, Democrats and their allies raised the expectations that have now been brutally disappointed.

Yet, even as Democrats were overestimating how big a difference policy could make, they were underestimating policy effects elsewhere, notably the inflation that resulted when massive relief spending collided with a kinked-up supply chain. Democrats had been warned of the risks of a too-big relief package, even by some of their own economists. But the left had spent the past few years convincing themselves that old-fashioned concepts such as balanced budgets and controlling inflation were irrelevant to the modern world.

Though the mistakes on the pandemic and on inflation might seem to be of opposite kinds, in fact a common thread links them: a tendency to treat a policy’s intended effects as its actual ones. Throughout the pandemic, blue-state Democrats tended to overweight policy differences between blue and red states, and underweight variables such as seasonal weather patterns; what mattered was that blue states were trying to do something, and red states were not. And that’s also what Democrats paid attention to when it came to economic policy: the goals the administration was trying to achieve, not the inconvenient side effects no one wanted. Unfortunately for Joe Biden, reality had other plans.