What’s a President To Do?

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

Joe Biden, as president of the United States, may be the most powerful person in the world, but even he is at the mercy of events and public perception of those events.

How else to explain the disconnect between the popularity of Biden’s policies and his plunging popularity? As Nate Cohn pointed out in Sunday’s New York Times, Biden has presided over the enactment of a whopping stimulus plan and a bipartisan infrastructure act. He is on the cusp of pushing through Congress an ambitious $2 trillion bill to modernize the American social safety net. The components of those bills are all very popular; the president is not. 

Biden’s approval ratings are in the mid-40s. He gets little or no credit for the passage of his agenda. Polls show a majority of respondents do not believe that Biden’s policies have helped them much, even though most households received stimulus checks and parents received additional funds. 

The media is partly at fault for concentrating on the messiness of the legislative process and the overall price tag for each measure without providing a sense of what each piece of legislation contains. Most of the media also has ignored the Republicans’ refusal to participate in lawmaking. The political reality of Republican obstructionism has been obscured, resulting in a lack of public understanding of the differences between the two parties. The simple fact, not always grasped, is that Democrats want to get things done — build bridges, provide child care, lower drug costs — and Republicans do not. 

Biden has tried to bridge the partisan gap. Bipartisan cooperation is built into Biden’s DNA; it is part and parcel of his entire legislative career. Biden also believes that achieving bipartisan cooperation in Congress would fulfill his promise to restore a sense of “normalcy” to politics, whatever that might be at this point. Many of Biden’s political allies worry that Biden’s emphasis on reaching out to Republicans obscures the danger the Republican Party presents to American democracy through its devotion to former President Donald Trump, ndorsement of Trump’s “big lie,” and drift toward authoritarianism and embracing violence as a means to its ends.

Messaging is part of Biden’s problem. Biden’s popularity plunged in August because of the perception that the pullout from Afghanistan was botched. The speedy takeover of that beleaguered country by the Taliban and the the deaths of 13 American soldiers at the Kabul airport dominated the news, allowing Republicans to portray the president as incompetent. Hidden in the overwrought headlines were two salient facts: First, Biden inherited a deal Trump reached with the Taliban; and, second, the United States successfully airlifted more than 124,000 people out of Afghanistan, the largest airlift in American history. 

Another driver of Biden’s plunge in the polls is COVID-19, which Biden promised to bring under control. In truth, Biden has been far more successful tackling the pandemic than his predecessor. He has urged all Americans to get vaccinated and undertake safe practices. He promised speedy delivery of vaccines, and he delivered. He cannot reasonably be blamed for mutations in the virus that lead to more dangerous and more easily transmitted variants. 

Yet, Republicans have successfully portrayed Biden as failing to combat the coronavirus. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy made this argument recently: “I took President Biden at his word; I took him at his word when he said he was going to get COVID under control. Unfortunately, more Americans have died this year than last year” from the disease. It is a cynical line of attack: Blame the president for failing to tame the pandemic while using every trick in the book to undermine his attempts to do so. Republican governors have opposed mask mandates and blocked the president’s vaccine mandates. Large parts of the party’s base refuse to get the vaccine and continue to go unmasked. As of September, 90 percent of adult Democrats had been vaccinated; only 58 percent of Republicans were fully vaccinated. 

Republicans have spread disinformation about the pandemic, undermining Biden’s attempts to control its spread. The most blatant recent example of this is the tweet this past weekend by Representative Ronny Jackson, a Texas Republican who served as White House physician for Presidents Trump and Barack Obama. In his tweet, Jackson launched the most absurd conspiracy theory about the appearance of the new coronavirus variant, Omicron: “Here comes the MEV – the Midterm Election Variant! They NEED a reason to push unsolicited nationwide mail-in ballots. Democrats will do anything to CHEAT during an election – but we’re not going to let them!” 

How idiotic can anyone be? Does Jackson really believe that a new variant discovered in November 2021 will affect elections a year away? Are the South African doctors who first reported the variant part of the Democratic plot to steal elections? Are all the other countries that imposed travel bans working to help Democrats win elections? It is easy to mock Jackson, but his ignorant tweet highlights Biden’s problem: How to message effectively the truth when so much disinformation is so readily disseminated?  

So, what can the president do to turn things around? For starters, Biden should stop trying to enlist Republicans in bipartisan cooperation. Democrats, the president included, must reveal Republican as obstructionists unwilling to govern, showing them to be a danger to democracy. This line of attack must be part of the strategy to get recalcitrant Democrats to support federal legislation to protect voting rights. Failure to do so will allow Republican-controlled state legislatures to continue to pass legislation geared to undermining democratic government, making it impossible for Democrats to win elections in the future.

Democrats must also use the remaining weeks in the current legislative session to pass the social infrastructure bill. Providing child care and universal pre-K, expanding Medicare, extending child tax credits, paid family and medical leave, and combatting climate change are all popular provisions in the bill. A bill signing event at the White House will help Democrats launch the 2022 election season on a high note and will give Biden the big, substantive win to show Americans he is truly working for them. 

Getting stuff done has to be the Democrats’ emphasis. There is no guarantee that it will work, but Biden and the entire Democratic Party have little alternative.

Posted November 30, 2021