The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Biden is stumbling

President Biden speaks in Philadelphia on Jan. 16. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

This is not the presidency that Joe Biden wanted.

His first few months in office were heady. Vaccinations and warmer weather were pushing coronavirus cases to new lows. Congress passed a big pandemic relief bill without much friction. The bar for presidential behavior, already lowered during the previous four years, was pushed underground by Donald Trump’s response to his 2020 election loss. Biden had sweeping ambitions for a policy agenda that would draw comparisons with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, comparisons that he apparently encouraged.

A year later, he’s drawing more comparisons to a less successful Democratic president: Jimmy Carter.

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This is not entirely Biden’s fault — but it is partly his fault. In fact, the current state of his presidency can be explained largely through two overlapping realities.

Doing something is always harder than doing nothing, especially for a Democrat.

During a conversation with the right-wing network Newsmax over the weekend, Trump was asked what policies he thought a Republican-led House should prioritize. Trump’s response was that … Democrats are bad.

It’s not new that Trump doesn’t have much of a policy agenda, of course. During the 2016 election, he was explicit in rejecting the idea that his candidacy required detailed policy positions. Running for reelection in 2020, his agenda was similarly diaphanous, centered almost entirely on restoring the country to where it was immediately before the coronavirus pandemic. The Republican Party signed up, dropping any traditional platform development in favor of a policy that amounted to whatever Trump wants.

After all, Trump had learned the hard way that advocating for actual change was dangerous. His efforts to work with Congress on upending the Affordable Care Act led to depressed approval numbers and embarrassment at the hands of his longtime foil, the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). After being backed into picking a fight over a border wall in late 2018, Trump forced the government into a shutdown before deploying unilateral executive action to redirect funding to the effort. No wonder he’s more interested in stoking partisan anger than proposing an actual policy agenda.

Biden presumably learned the lesson about the dangers of bold policy efforts firsthand a decade ago, when the Affordable Care Act was passed. After the administration of Barack Obama leveraged the president’s popularity to pass an economic relief bill, it fought tooth-and-nail to get the policy that became known as Obamacare across the finish line. It was a “big [censored] deal” when it passed as Biden, then vice president, expressed it in a hot-mic moment.

Now, Biden is more deeply mired in a less sharply defined debate. He’s had successes: that pandemic relief bill and the bipartisan infrastructure bill that was meant to be a companion to a broader set of spending. But now his Build Back Better proposal and efforts at bolstering federal election law are being ground down by the inescapable mechanics of an evenly split Senate. If Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) aren’t happy, that’s it. This isn’t 2010, when Democrats were just shy of a filibuster-proof majority. It’s 2022, when they barely have a majority at all. A Senate that offers disproportionate power to rural, Republican states is an uphill climb for Democrats even in the best circumstances, and these are not the best circumstances.

A central ideological difference between America’s political left and political right is support for government intervention. That holds within the Democratic caucus as well; moderates like Sinema and Manchin are ideologically less supportive of spending than, say, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Despite predictions that the Democratic caucus in the House would be held hostage by the whims of its left wing, it was the moderate right that tripped up progress on Biden’s agenda last year.

A Republican president can shrug at a policy agenda, particularly in a world where culture-war fights have so much focus. For a Democrat, being pushed to leverage governmental power, the playing field is different. And, particularly at the moment, it’s a playing field that advantages inaction over action.

Biden went from winning to losing the expectations game.

After Biden was elected, he selected as his chief of staff an individual who’d played an unusually large role in a central part of the campaign debate. In an effort to rationalize his own response to the pandemic, Trump repeatedly tried to compare it favorably (and enormously dishonestly) with the Obama administration’s response to an H1N1 virus outbreak in 2009 and 2010. That argument often hinged on comments made a few years ago by Ron Klain, who had been Biden’s chief of staff at the time and who would become Biden’s chief of staff in 2021.

“It’s just purely a fortuity that this isn’t one of the great mass casualty events in American history,” Klain said of the administration’s H1N1 response during a 2019 event, comments that Trump used to suggest that the response was a near disaster. But Klain was talking specifically about fumbles with the rollout of vaccines targeting that virus: Had the virus been deadlier, the country would have been in peril.

Given that focus by Klain, it’s not surprising that the initial effort to effectively distribute vaccines was a central focus of President-elect and then President Biden’s. At the heart of the effort was a very well-managed expectation-setting effort, with Biden establishing and announcing achievable goals that the country was then able to hit before schedule. Case totals dropped (not solely because of vaccinations, certainly) and approval of Biden’s handling of the pandemic helped power robust approval ratings overall.

That was the end of Biden’s success at meeting expectations. The emergence of the delta variant over the summer, coupled with broad Republican resistance to both vaccination and efforts to otherwise contain the spread of the virus, led to a surge in cases and deaths that was disproportionately centered in Republican areas. Biden’s qualified declarations of victory against the virus were severely undercut.

More problematic was Biden’s habit of suggesting that America’s furious partisan hostility would wane as president. He’d made a similar pledge a decade ago, suggesting that the Republican “fever” would break after the 2012 election. It didn’t then, and his calm assurances that he’d be able to lower the temperature in Washington once elected proved similarly inaccurate. Here, too, the failure is heavily a function of his political opponents, with right-wing media casting his presidency in often misleading terms. (As I wrote in November 2020, his defeat of Trump was not a defeat of his more intransigent opponent: those who earn money and attention from elevating dishonest right-wing rhetoric.) Biden spoke repeatedly of building unity and advocating an agenda embraced by most Americans, of lowering temperatures and shifting the presidency to the background. That was always going to be difficult in a world where there is an enormous media ecosystem in which he has no influence where casting his presidency as a failure triggers reward mechanisms.

Politics is often about what voters and observers expect and what they actually get. On vaccines, Biden managed that balance well (for several months, anyway). On reshaping the national conversation, he managed it terribly. And that’s even before we get to his inability to pass large chunks of legislative agenda he’d promoted.

It is absolutely the case that Biden has also made mistakes (like the administration’s failure to guarantee access to tests or masks before this winter) and/or unpopular decisions (like the hard deadline for removing troops from Afghanistan). It is also the case that broader trends have negatively affected Biden’s popularity, like rising inflation and supply shortfalls. (The extent to which these derive significantly from Biden’s policies is, obviously, a matter of robust debate.)

But fundamentally Biden is challenged by a confluence of decisions he unquestionably made. He wanted sweeping policy changes that have predictably become bogged down in the Senate — and he set expectations that he could effect those changes and other positive benefits, like a functional end to the pandemic. He not only argued that partisan opposition would wane but, crucially, largely predicated his administration’s success on the idea that it would.

Predictably, that was a bad bet.