The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden’s approach to the presidency was flawed from the start

President Biden delivers remarks in the Cabinet Room of the White House on Jan. 20. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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Joe Biden’s approach to the presidency is outdated and ineffective. The sooner he acknowledges that, the sooner he can change course.

The endless presidential debates and forums of 2019 revealed two problems with the Democratic field. Two leading candidates, Sens. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), promised big, far-reaching agendas. That approach held two obvious dangers: Their plans might turn off too many voters to win the general election; or else, once in office, they might not be able to get them adopted.

Biden, meanwhile, campaigned on a more modest agenda and argued that his Washington experience and long relationships in Congress ensured that he could execute his goals. His approach wasn’t as dangerous for the general election, but it also presented two obvious problems: Biden’s modest plans might reflect an insufficient appreciation for the depths of the country’s problems; and he might be overconfident in his ability to work with lawmakers, particularly Republicans.

In July 2019, Crooked Media’s Brian Beutler, criticizing Biden in particular, warned of “any winning Democratic candidate who clings, sincerely or otherwise, to the view that a golden era of compromise will dawn once Trump is gone.”

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“These candidates will lock themselves into a mode of governing that can not work anymore,” he continued. “Their supporters and intra-party critics will be demoralized, their presidencies will stagnate, and they will waste precious time grasping for a better approach.”

The Post's View: How Biden can fix his presidency

Nailed it. Along with ending gridlock, Biden and his team emphasized three other goals in his campaign and early in this presidency: unifying the country, or at least reducing partisan tensions; running the government competently, particularly in dealing with covid-19; and getting the economy working for average Americans.

Those are laudable goals. But a president doesn’t have full control over any of them — and for some of them, others have a lot of power to sabotage him.

In terms of reducing gridlock, Biden was betting on getting the support of moderate Republicans such as Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and assuming the backing of conservative Democrats such as Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.). There were a lot of reasons to think that support would never come, and Biden’s misplaced optimism about Manchin and Sinema in particular has allowed them to severely hobble his presidency.

On the economy, for much of the past year, Biden took credit for a jobs boom that was likely to happen no matter who was president as the nation recovered from the most economically devastating stages of the pandemic. But since the president had cast himself as the hero of the jobs-growth story, he became the villain when inflation spiked.

On fostering unity, Biden’s behavior during 2021 suggests he actually believed some version of the critique that came from centrist and right-wing circles during Barack Obama’s presidency — that Obama’s problem was that he didn’t court Republicans hard enough. But the conservative movement in America isn’t specifically opposed to Black leaders who don’t conduct enough bipartisan meetings. It is opposed to the Democratic Party writ large, and particularly to policies that would redistribute wealth away from the rich and shift more power to people who aren’t White, male or Christian.

The intense GOP opposition to Biden was predictable and predicted. Biden is pushing the progressive policies of a multicultural coalition, just as Obama did, and conservatives are just as determined to tear down his presidency.

That right-wing opposition, in turn, made it much harder for Biden to demonstrate competence. While the president was running a massive campaign to get Americans vaccinated, GOP officials and conservative media effectively ran an anti-vaccine countercampaign, promoting doubts or playing down the importance of inoculations. Mask-wearing, vaccines and every other part of Biden’s covid strategies have been broadly undermined by Republicans, including GOP-appointed judges.

But it must be said that the competence problem is not just about Republicans. On the coronavirus, Team Biden has made blunder after blunder on its own. And it’s not just that they couldn’t provide clear guidance on isolating or mask-wearing or make sure Americans could easily get coronavirus tests. It’s also the condescending dismissal of criticism of their performance.

The administration has bungled plenty of other issues, too: Suggesting inflation was temporary. Failing to effectively run a program to prevent evictions. Making confident statements that Afghanistan’s government would not collapse immediately as U.S. forces were leaving. Announcing a huge domestic policy plan (what became the Build Back Better Act) that would require Manchin and Sinema’s votes, and then promising they would get the West Virginia senator behind it.

The deeper problem, however, isn’t just that Biden can’t deliver on unity and competence, ending gridlock or fixing the economy — it’s that he promoted those as the main criteria to judge his performance. And what connects unity, competence, the economy and a lack of gridlock is that they are ways to avoid conflicts.

Jennifer Rubin: Biden needs to rework his messaging. Here are some suggestions.

Biden appeared to think that the deep partisan, cultural, racial and ideological fissures that existed in America before Jan. 20, 2021, could either be reduced or sidestepped by a president like him (White, male, moderate, experienced, calm). So his approach has been designed to avoid big clashes with anyone — progressive Democrats, conservative Democrats, Black leaders, Republican officials, the Supreme Court, major corporations. Biden should seek to avoid conflicts with progressives and Black leaders, who in my view are correct on most of the big issues of today. But he should not, and cannot, avoid conflict with everyone.

In contrast, I think that a President Warren or Sanders would have made improving the lives of average Americans their one-and-only guiding principle. Because portraying themselves as ending gridlock in Washington would not have been so important to them, they would not have ceded six months of their first year to congressional negotiations. Because projecting a sense of unity would have been less important to them, they would have clearly explained to the country how Republican officials and conservative media were undermining vaccinations. Because projecting the idea that they were singularly focused on the economy would not have been so important to them, they would have looked for ways to respond to state-level GOP officials who have been curtailing abortion and voting rights and banning books written by Black authors. Because portraying themselves as super-competent wouldn’t have been so important to them, they would have prioritized aggressive action on the coronavirus as new variants emerged, rather than defending their performance in earlier stages of the pandemic.

In a Warren or Sanders administration, all would not have been perfect. But Biden can’t fix every problem — and now he has sewn his own straitjacket whereby critics can attack him for being insufficiently unifying whenever he tries to take on those obstructing him.

I want this administration to succeed, because it holds the same broader goals for the country that I do. Joe Biden is a good man who wants to do right by the American people, and he already has a long list of major policy achievements. But I worried before he took office that Biden would toggle between accepting that he is the president of the United States in the 2020s and trying to be the president of the United States of the 1990s. His first year validated my worries. Next week, I will lay out an alternative path for a presidency grounded in 2022.