He has proposed a massive pandemic relief bill and an immigration overhaul. Did anyone who’s been conscious over the past four years — indeed, over the past 20 — expect those to pass overnight? Psaki might have been excused if she succumbed to the temptation to channel her boss: “Give me a break, man.”
The question was telling because it is just one entry in the entirely predictable festival of carping that has greeted Biden.
Conservatives complain that Biden is moving to institute the policies he endorsed during the campaign, and that trying to fill campaign promises is somehow inconsistent with his expressed desire for unity. They are happy to confuse an urge for bipartisanship with a pledge of unconditional surrender.
Thus, Republican strategist Karl Rove, writing in the Wall Street Journal, crocodile-teared over Biden’s supposed “race to the left” during his first week in office. Rove lamented that Biden released his pandemic package before consulting Republicans — although he has spent the past week doing just that. This is a bit hard to take from the man whose president, George W. Bush, celebrated his reelection — with half the margin of Biden’s victory — by proclaiming, “I earned capital in this campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.”
Conversely, progressives grumble that Biden, never their favorite, isn’t doing more. The executive orders were fine, but they should go even further. Biden should proceed straight to ramming his pandemic package through by using budget reconciliation, not dillydallying in a hopeless search for bipartisanship. “Biden’s preferred model of governance is already well on its way to failing its first test,” declared Osita Nwanevu in the New Republic.
And the news media, though broadly relieved at no longer having to deal with a president who labels reporters “enemies of the people” or a press office that doesn’t bother to answer basic inquiries, demands to know why it’s taking so long (see briefing question, above); why he’s overreaching so much (“Ease up on the executive actions, Joe,” urged the New York Times editorial board, of all places); why he isn’t pushing even harder.
Honeymoons — the old-fashioned kind and the presidential version — aren’t what they used to be.
From Harry S. Truman through Richard M. Nixon, according to Gallup, presidents enjoyed an average of 26 months with approval ratings above the historical average of 55 percent on taking office. By contrast, from Gerald Ford through Barack Obama, the average time above the 55 percent level was just seven months.
President Donald Trump, historically unpopular, enjoyed no honeymoon whatsoever. He started with low approval, at 45 percent, according to Gallup, and headed lower, to 38 percent by the end of March 2017.
By contrast, Biden begins in reasonably good shape: His average job approval stands at 55 percent, according to RealClearPolitics — below Obama but higher than George W. Bush or Bill Clinton.
But the point of a honeymoon is what you get to do on it. Approval is nice, but its significance lies in the ability to translate popularity into progress. Here, the structure and geography of presidential popularity come into play.
If Biden’s popularity and job approval are in a healthy range, the other half of the equation is sobering. As Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein observed, Biden enters office with a higher level of disapproval (in the mid-30s) than any president but Trump in the modern polling era.
This reflects the broader polarization among voters and suggests that Biden’s popularity may have limited legislative consequences. His congressional majorities are microscopic. In theory, his heightened popularity would increase pressure on some moderate Republicans in swing districts or purplish states to be more cooperative. But such lawmakers are few and far between, and they have primaries to worry about.
Biden is going to mess up, maybe sooner rather than later. He’s Joe Biden, after all. Reports of his prowess as a dealmaker have been greatly exaggerated.
But as I write, he’s been in office for all of nine days. In that time, as I’ve said, he’s confronted more varied crises than any president; he’s moved to undo some of Trump’s worst policies; and he’s begun the hard slog of fixing the pandemic disaster that Trump left behind. The execution has been solid. There’s been no distracting personnel foul-up.
The surprise isn’t that change is hard. It’s actually that they’ve managed to get so much done, so fast.