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Is Biden doomed to fail?

Mike McCartney

29th October 2021

The US President is under severe pressure to avoid seeing his key campaign pledges tank

I was reading an article last weekend about Joe Biden’s troubles and thought of what Enoch Powell once said, “All political careers end in failure.”

Certainly, in the context of British premiers, we can consider likes of Callaghan and the Winter of Discontent, Thatcher and the Poll Tax, Major the ERM (and sleaze), Blair and Iraq, Brown and the Great Financial Crash, Cameron and the EU referendum, May and Brexit. You could take issue with some of these, perhaps contending that, for example, Blair won the 2005 election, even though Iraq had caused serious damage to him personally and to his party. But, equally, we could say there is much to what Powell said if we consider the extent to which politicians often act as if they were the protagonist in a Shakespearean tragedy, and rather than being blown off course by what Macmillan called “events” they unleashed forces they could not control and were the cause of their own downfall. Cameron calling the referendum he never expected to lose is a case in point here.

And in a US context, we can play a similar sort of parlour game with US Presidents over a similar sort of time period. LBJ and Vietnam, Nixon and Watergate, Carter and the Iran hostage crisis, Reagan and Iran-Contra, Bush Sr’s one term, Clinton and Impeachment, Bush Jr and Iraq, Obama in failing to match his promises. And Trump? Well, where do we start?

Again, and probably heavily influenced by personal ideology, one could take issue with labelling each of these holders of the office of the President as failures but there is a something of a truth in what Powell said, when we consider politicians who have reached the high point of their career alongside other types of individuals who are similarly in the public eye. Actors, for example, plough on making films, and appearing on stage more or less until their health gets the better of them. Musicians anyone?

So, to return to President Biden. The title of the article in the paper (print version) pretty much says it all: “As Biden’s troubles mount, Democrats fear the chance for change is slipping away.”

Source: ‘We need him to deliver’: Biden faces wrath of disappointed supporters | Joe Biden | The Guardian

As the writer, David Smith notes:

“A growing sense of betrayal is shared by campaigners for everything from gun rights to immigration reform, from racial justice to voting rights, who saw Democrats’ governing majority as a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Instead party infighting has put Biden’s agenda in jeopardy and could result in voter disillusionment in next year’s midterm elections.

The 46th president came into office promising to attack four crises – coronavirus, climate, economy and racial justice – but has seen his approval rating sink to 42% after colliding with some harsh political and economic realities.”

He goes on:

“But the biggest sense of a stalled presidency derives from seemingly interminable wrangling among congressional Democrats over Biden’s $1tn physical infrastructure bill and a $3.5 trillion social and environmental package.

With his legislative agenda in limbo if not peril, Biden was this week forced to step in, host both factions at the White House and take a more aggressive role. This gave some Democrats fresh hope of a breakthrough but indicated that he will pare down the $3.5tn package in favour of a more modest proposal, threatening a clean electricity programme that was the centerpiece of his climate strategy.”

As I write this, the latest reports as Biden arrives in Europe are that a delay has been triggered by congressional Democrats who don’t want to debate and vote on the infrastructure bill without considering the social and environmental bill, the so called Build Back Better plan – see more on the latter here: What's in the Democrats' $1.75 trillion Build Back Better plan (cnbc.com)

I have written before on this blog on the difficulties face by US Presidents.

To recap:

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. As Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, is reported to have said as the President arrives in Italy for a scheduled visit with the Pope at the Vatican, Biden can still try legislative arm-twisting by phone from Rome.

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