In the News
Assessing Biden's first year
This week's marks the first anniversary of Joe Biden's arrival in the White House
From this weekend’s Observer newspaper, four great writers have given their thoughts on Joe Biden’s first year in office, and they are certainly worth a long read.
My highlight comes from Margo Jefferson: “Biden has tried to do well, and he has done some decent things, but there’s a limit to what can be done within this institutional structure, the American body politic, when outlaw forces are not only fighting it strategically, but creating a kind of atmosphere of hysteria. There’s this spilling out of hatred, with a kind of glee as well as fury, that is terrifying. I see it in the attacks on voting rights, on critical race theory, on anti-immigrant legislation, I also see it in the language in the supreme court rulings on abortion. We were back to, implicitly and well-nigh explicitly: how dare you women think you have primary rights to your body? I’ve heard many black and brown people, and women, say, “My god they hate us so much.” It’s a kind of venom linked with a desire for vengeance on all of us for not just wanting these rights, but thinking we deserve them.
It’s unfair to imagine that one man, even if he’s the president, could rein in all these forces.”
I have written before on this blog on the difficulties face by US Presidents.
When the framers of the American constitution got together in Philadelphia in the fabled 'long hot summer' of 1787 it would have been impossible for them to imagine that one day the limited role they had designed for the head of the executive branch would have grown so much in size and scope that that person would one day be the de facto chief legislator.
Ever since the days of FDR, and the birth of what we now regard as the 'modern presidency' the POTUS has been expected to deliver on legislative promises made during their victorious election campaign.
In other words, there is a massive gulf between the burdens placed on the White House incumbent in legislative terms and their ability to control the process.
Consider these quotes:
"The President and Congress are like two halves of a dollar bill, each useless without the other half." (Professor Samuel Finer in "Comparative Government" [I think!])
"In short, the President needs Congress." ("Presidential Power", Richard Neustadt)
"A mile and half is a long way." (Anthony King in "Both ends of the Avenue" [ed.]) - NB that a mile and a half is the geographical distance from the White House to Congress.
Each of these, by among the most well-respected authors and academics in the field of American political science give a flavour of the constitutional structures and political reality that shape modern executive-legislative relations.
In addition to this, the hyper-polarisation of politics inside the beltway means that the modern day POTUS is invariably entirely reliant on garnering the votes in the House and Senate from within his own party. Gone are the days, when a White House incumbent could reach across the aisle and secure the support from the opposition party.
Instead, Biden has just three options. To try to reach over the heads of Congress using the media to appeal to the public to raise support for his agenda and hope this has an influence on members of congress. This was a strategy used successfully by Reagan in the 1980s, but Biden probably lacks the same degree of connectivity. He can put trust in his White House team to work on his behalf. Key here would be the likes of Ron Klain, his Chief of Staff. Klain has a great deal of Washington insider experience, but whether he has the requisite political clout predecessors some of his predecessors is yet to be tested. And there is a Biden himself. With a long Senate careers, and two terms serving as Obama’s right-hand man, his knowledge of the Hill is almost unparalleled.
So if we want a potted summary of the best and worst of Biden’s first year comes from the Atlantic magazine.
- A $1.9 trillion COVID-19-relief package that helped families—and states and cities—weather the financial hardship caused by the pandemic
- A relatively smooth rollout of the major COVID-19 vaccines that offered protection to more than 200 million people and provided at least a brief return to normalcy
- A $1 trillion infrastructure law that won Republican support and made substantial progress on an issue that had vexed presidents of both parties
- The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan that ceded the country to the Taliban, cost the lives of U.S. troops, and left many Afghan allies to fend for themselves
- The resurgence, first in summer and then in late fall, of the coronavirus pandemic, which—while largely out of Biden’s control—made the president’s springtime celebration seem sadly premature
- Failure to win Senate backing of his $1.75 trillion Build Back Better economic plan, which had already been cut in half from its original size
If Biden had a tough job this year, the stakes will be even higher in 2022, when his party’s slim majorities will be on the line.