The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Critics say Biden has been too ambitious. There’s a big hole in their argument.

(Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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President Biden is now enduring a new barrage of criticism: He was too ambitious; he tried to do too much. Sure, he’s faced a persistent pandemic, inflation and historically small congressional majorities, which make legislating spectacularly difficult. But his biggest mistake, the critics say, was his failure to grasp that Americans aren’t asking for a remade country, which is what he tried to deliver.

Rather than “focusing relentlessly on the crises facing the nation and voters,” says the New York Times in what has become a common critique, he chose “to prioritize the goals of his party’s activist base.”

This story seems to get told about every Democratic president whenever they’re having political problems, as every president does. They’re out of touch, they lost sight of what people care about, they tried to do a bunch of wacky liberal stuff Americans didn’t want.

But underneath that assertion is a very particular ideology, one of stasis, a kind of do-nothing centrism that says the worst thing a president can do is attempt to solve difficult problems.

This perspective manifests itself in criticisms of the president for not focusing on people’s supposedly “real” concerns, their everyday problems and worries. Instead, we’re told, he’s off pursuing some meaningless agenda that no one cares about, as though he were spending every day and night crafting new regulations to govern drapery purchases in U.S. consulates.

But look at the centerpiece of Biden’s domestic agenda. What did Build Back Better try to address? Whether people can afford to pay their bills, whether they have access to pre-K and child care, whether they have affordable health coverage, the cost of housing and prescription drugs and education, and how we’ll deal with worsening climate change. If you want the president to confront “kitchen table issues,” there it is.

And while there’s plenty to criticize in Biden’s handling of the pandemic, what mistakes he’s made certainly aren’t because he ignored it in favor of spending time on issues no one cares about.

As for inflation, if someone tells you Biden hasn’t “focused on” it enough, ask them what precisely this “focusing” should consist of. The truth is there are very few tools the president has to fight inflation (the Federal Reserve has much more power in that area), and the administration has been trying pretty much whatever it can, working with ports to ease supply chain bottlenecks and releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The fact that those moves haven’t made much impact shows the complexity of the problem, not a lack of “focus.”

You will search all these critiques in vain for specific policy steps Biden should have pursued instead, beyond the assertion that he’d be in a better political position had he already solved all the country’s problems. That Times article tells us that a poll found most voters “said their opinion of Mr. Biden would improve if he tamed inflation.” Good to know.

Which leaves us with the conclusion that what’s really being advocated here is what we might call the Continuing Resolution Presidency.

When Congress can’t agree on new appropriations bills to detail everything the government will spend money on, they often pass a continuing resolution to buy more time. A CR essentially says that funding levels for every agency will just continue as they are today; it puts off difficult decisions by extending the status quo.

And that’s what the centrist scolds are advocating: A president, or at least a Democratic one, shouldn’t actually change too many policies, even if he’s just keeping the promises he made as a candidate and following up on the agenda he was elected to pursue.

In this theory, efficient management of government is good, of course. Some minor policy tweaks are fine. But even extremely popular policy change is a no-no if it’s too significant or would help too many people; that would just be playing to the activist base.

You may notice that this is also what defenders of the filibuster want, and sometimes explicitly say. If there were no filibuster, warned Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) not long ago, “Whenever one party replaced the other as the majority, tax and spending priorities, safety net programs, national security policy and cultural interests would careen from one extreme to the other.”

Just imagine if the voters gave a party control of the White House and Congress, and the result was changes in government policy! And if the voters weren’t happy with the results, they would elect the other party, and my god, policy would change again! It would be chaos!

Far better, apparently, to have a system in which everything just stays as it is. Change will only be justified if the opposition party supports it too, which of course they won’t. The wisest course is to not do too much and hope everything works out. Look to the continuing resolution as your guide.

A presidency that actually followed the advice of those advocating for policy stasis would be paralyzed in both the short and long term, constrained by the past and the opposition from doing anything to solve our country’s deep-seated problems.

To some people that sounds just fine. But it’s a recipe for failure, and any Democratic president would have to be crazy to follow it.