Joe Biden and the Political Limits of Competence
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In August 2019, Joseph R. Biden Jr. held a round table with several black political reporters in Washington, DC amid a Democratic presidential primary election that seemed fraught with uncertainty
The stated purpose: to extol his support among the black communities and highlight the same constituencies that ultimately helped him secure the party’s nomination. While Mr. Biden spoke for more than 90 minutes, he also outlined his philosophy of government.
When I pressed Mr. Biden about why his political agenda would be successful in Washington after Republicans repeatedly blocked the efforts of his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama, Mr. Biden flatly said those rules would not apply to him. In contrast to Obama, he has had decades of relations in Congress, will succeed Donald J. Trump’s historically chaotic presidency and is even popular with Republican voters, he said.
“Part of a president’s role is to convince,” he said. If Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, blocked him, he would say, “Guess what? I’m going to Kentucky and I’m going to campaign. “
Two years later, amid falling polls, a deadlocked agenda, and growing Democratic fears that a Republican clash is inevitable in next year’s midterm elections, Mr Biden is learning the limits of that strategy. Projecting proficiency hasn’t got enough skeptical Americans to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. His familiarity with closing Washington deals – although he was crucial in getting a bipartisan infrastructure package through – hasn’t moved the needle on issues like voting rights, police reform, or raising the minimum wage. Mr. McConnell, as a minority leader in the Senate, still plays the role of Democratic obstructionist. And Mr Biden, who prided himself on campaigning in largely white, conservative areas, continues to lose ground with white voters without college degrees.
According to Pew Research, about six in ten white adults now say they disapprove of Mr Biden’s presidency.
The challenges help explain the subtle change in Mr. Biden in recent months that has been noticed by activists and some lawmakers. Gone are the earlier talk of a Republican “epiphany” or the prospect of an election campaign in Mr. McConnell’s backyard in Kentucky. The White House and its congressional agenda are in the hands of more centrist Democratic senators like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
At a town hall event with CNN in October, during a crucial phase of negotiations on Mr Biden’s “Build Back Better” social spending package, the president stunned some political observers by reversing his position on the Senate filibuster, the 60-vote Threshold that has often hampered ambitious legislation.
Mr Biden – who strongly opposed removing the filibuster during his tenure in the Senate and during the 2020 presidential campaign – said he was open to a change in his stance, particularly on voting rights.
“We have to get to the point where we are fundamentally changing the filibuster,” said Biden. It “remains to be seen what that essentially means exactly – whether we will simply terminate the filibuster directly or not”.
When Anderson Cooper, the host of the event, asked Mr. Biden directly, “When it comes to voting rights – just so I’m clear – you would consider the idea of getting rid of the filibuster on that one issue. Is that correct?”
The President replied, “And maybe more.”
His words will have little tangible effect in the short term (several Democratic senators, including Mr Manchin and Mrs Sinema, oppose ending the filibuster), but they are yet another sign that the White House is grappling with the scope of its political challenges .
Steve Phillips, a Democratic funder and strategist, said the party’s desire to appease white conservative and independent voters who are pissed at them should not come at the expense of their cross-racial liberal base.
“I think the loudest and most influential voices in the White House and the Democratic Party do not believe in a base agitation and mobilization strategy,” Phillips said. “I think the whole myth still clings to the fact that with the right language and vocabulary we can win over even more white voters.”
Democrats are optimistic that the three-legged chair of the coronavirus bailout package Mr Biden signed in March, the infrastructure bill passed in November, and the pending spending deal will be enough to keep the party base moving ahead of the midterm elections. Some of Mr Biden’s closest allies blame the news media, saying if voters feel underutilized by what the party has delivered this year, it is because of the way it has been covered.
“Why do we need to get the president’s entire agenda done in his first year in office,” said South Carolina Rep. James E. Clyburn, a leading Democrat in the House of Representatives and a close ally of Biden.
But it was Mr Biden who pledged ambitious measures on issues such as climate change, the right to vote, minimum wage, criminal justice and police reform. And members of his own party fear that the White House lacks a critical window of boldness, not competence.
“It’s not that these things just didn’t happen,” said Cori Bush MP from Missouri, a progressive Democrat and representative of the House of Representatives. “We talked about them. We pushed these things forward, we organized around these bills and we still don’t have them. “
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