Joe Biden's underrated presidency
He's achieved a lot — with the notable exception of popularity.
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Joe Biden is the most underrated president in decades, and yet he’s also at risk of suffering the most significant electoral loss in the nation’s history. The contradictory nature of Biden’s presidency is not simply troubling; it could lead to a national crisis of historic proportions.
While the press obsesses over whether Biden’s age disqualifies him from serving another term, there’s been remarkably little attention paid to the question that should be most important to voters deciding whether to give him another four years in the White House: Just how good a job has he done?
When one disregards all the noise — including the baseless assertions from Fox News that Biden’s suffering from dementia — the answer to the question is remarkably clear.
Biden has not simply been an OK president. He’s been one of the most successful Democratic presidents since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, both at home and abroad, having shepherded the nation through the end of the pandemic, initiated historic changes in industrial and climate policy, and led a coalition of Western nations against the most dangerous threat to democracy in decades.
Yet almost all of Biden’s achievements are as fragile as they are substantial. If he loses the election in 2024, not only will virtually all of his achievements be at risk of being lost, but the nation’s democratic institutions could also be lost along with them; in that case, his presidency will likely be remembered as a colossal failure, and fairly so.
Unlike other successful presidents — FDR being the signal example — Biden has come up short in the critical task of building a direct, and substantial, connection to voters, including in his own party. And he seems chronically unable to win credit from the public for his successes, which the GOP has effectively portrayed as failures, or worse.
Biden’s experience and, yes, his age — together with the team he assembled — have repeatedly been the keys to his legislative, policy, and foreign policy successes, so much so that it is hard to envision a younger, less experienced president (including several of his Democratic predecessors) performing remotely as successfully over the past several years.
Let’s discuss some of the ways he’ll leave the country much better than what he inherited in January 2021.
In the wake of Trump’s disastrous pandemic response, Biden and his team — despite the exiting Trump administration’s aggressive non-cooperation — successfully implemented the vaccine program that, together with other mitigation efforts, ended mass death, and brought the pandemic to an end.
Despite some glitches due largely to a previously gutted public health system, Biden’s response amounted to a dramatically successful deployment of federal power and resources.
When Biden entered office, vaccines were in short supply. During the initial months of his presidency, the US went from having one of the worst responses to covid in the world to a leader in vaccination production and distribution. By the end of Biden’s first year in office, 75 percent of the nation had received at least one dose. The number of lives saved is impossible to reliably calculate, but certainly massive.
But in what would rapidly become a pattern for the next several years, Republicans — and, in many cases, the judges they installed — demonized the very public health measures that were saving lives. As now substantial empirical evidence has established, the most tragic result of this attack on medicine and public health was more avoidable deaths among Republicans and in red states. As reported by NPR, a 2023 Yale study found that "the excess death rate among Republican voters was 43 percent higher than the excess death rate among Democratic voters after vaccine eligibility was opened.”
The political and social cost of what amounted to a full on GOP attack on rationality and civil society may have been just as grave. The fact that Republicans have been willing to, quite literally, kill themselves and others in order to score political points against Biden — and what they have taken to routinely calling the “deep” or “administrative state” — was (along with January 6) a measure of just how willing they were to weaken the president by damaging the country as a whole.
Biden’s 2021 American Rescue Plan was the most successful stimulus program since the New Deal. Like Obama’s 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Biden’s response left the US in a far better economic position than that of any Western nation in the wake of the pandemic, as reflected in part by a stock market that hit a new high this week.
Unlike Obama’s stimulus program, and starkly contrasting with the Trump program that immediately preceded it — which were (properly) criticized for being centered on the wealthy and employers rather than workers — Biden’s program was deliberately focused on preserving the wages and the financial positions of the most vulnerable.
The rescue plan, among other things, provided direct cash payments to lower income individuals, a child tax credit, expanded unemployment benefits, and a student loan payment moratorium. In the wake of the program’s roll-out, real wages and employment levels increased and have continued to do so. Between January 2021 and December 2023, the economy added nearly 14 million jobs. And between January 2021 and October 2023, average national wages and salaries grew by nearly $3,500 above inflation (which has been dramatically decreasing).
Yet, once again, the successes of Biden’s program were often obscured by barrages of attacks, not only by Republicans, but also by members of the press who portrayed Biden’s innovative crisis response as a failure.
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Biden was widely blamed for a surge of inflation, yet inflation was a worldwide phenomenon during the pandemic. And while it grew more rapidly in the United States than in many peer nations, it has also abated here more rapidly.
In the meantime, the fact that Biden has realized a continuation of a trend of outsized increases in wages for low income workers, long sought by progressives and Democrats, remains largely unrecognized.
Infrastructure and the benefit of compromise
Biden’s success in enacting the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would have been of no moment in prior decades, when legislators — regardless of party — welcomed capital spending, particularly on transportation projects in their states and districts.
Yet Trump was notoriously unable to enact similar legislation even when Republicans had control of both houses of Congress. And Biden passed his legislation with razor thin majorities at a time that, even more so than during the Obama administration, Republicans were determined to make a failure out of a Democratic president.
The success of the effort was a product of what many in his party, including and especially self-declared progressives, derided, in some cases openly — a willingness to compromise. Some progressives in the House even voted against the bill out of anger that it did not include social programs they favored, a fact that is (luckily for them) now largely forgotten.
But the far more numerous Republicans who voted against the infrastructure bill learned a politically valuable lesson from the legislation — that in what has become essentially a fact-free world, they can continue to attack Biden for signing it even as they take credit for the projects in their districts that were funded by it.
Accordingly, rather than opening the door to further such compromises, the infrastructure bill was a one off, and was followed by even more resolute Republican opposition to the slightest hint of compromise — as evidenced by the fall of Kevin McCarthy from the speakership for the sin of not allowing the nation to default on its debt.
Therefore, Biden’s now-rare skill of achievable compromise may actually have come with a substantial political cost despite the fact it yielded critical public policy achievements.
Industrial policy and climate change response
The now accepted portrayal of Biden as a tired old “moderate” is strikingly at odds with his actual record, as is the claim that Biden has been a roadblock for the achievement of progressive policy goals.
As discussed above, the American Rescue Plan was grounded on progressive, worker-centered policies. And Biden’s ambitions for what was initially to be the Build Back Better bill were largely to expand on (and preserve) the progressive initiatives that had been included in the stimulus bill, as well as pursue a new industrial policy focused on renewable energy.
The bill that actually passed in August 2022 (along with the 2022 CHIPS and Science Act), of course, failed to meet many of those lofty goals. But for too many progressives, the in retrospect inevitable fact that Biden could not get the original bill passed in a Senate that only nominally had 50 Democrats obscured the scope of what Biden did pass, and how extraordinary it is that it did.
The Inflation Reduction Act was actually the product of extraordinary cooperation between Biden and Bernie Sanders, a progressive who, prior to the Biden administration, had achieved virtually no substantial legislative successes during his Senate career.
While Sanders, as chair of the Budget Committee, pushed, sometimes cantankerously, to preserve as many progressive priorities as possible, Biden and his team focused on the difficult job of getting Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (as well as some less vocally opposed Democratic senators and House members) to vote for priorities they had long refused to support.
In retrospect, it is hard to believe that Manchin, a resolute advocate for the coal, oil, and gas industries, ultimately voted for a bill containing historic renewable energy investments — after repeatedly balking.
Biden, the supposedly out-of-touch “traditional” Democrat, turned out to be the first president since Carter to propose a comprehensive approach to the nation’s energy challenges — combined with a long-sought set of complementary industrial policy reforms, including in the areas of semiconductors and renewables — and the first president to succeed in enacting one.
Yet, once again, even as the policy successes promised by the Inflation Reduction Act are beginning to be realized, including through investments in factories in red states and rural areas, Biden is receiving virtually no political credit for the achievement from Democratic voters, let alone Republicans and independents. The consistent gap between policy reality and public perception is frustrating to Biden, sometimes visibly, as when he recently remarked to reporters: "You all are not the happiest people in the world — what you report."
The most telling demonstration, in domestic policy, of the value of Biden’s age and experience may be his reinvigoration of the Democratic Party’s support for the labor movement. In the decades since the Johnson administration, the party had moved away from its historically stalwart support for organized labor, even as the percentage of the workforce that belongs to unions shrank.
At a time when younger Americans are rediscovering the value of unions, Biden campaigned as a strong supporter of labor, a position that has been reflected in the pro-labor policies of his administration in areas such as wage theft, improper classification of employees, and interference with union organization efforts and elections.
But beyond that, Biden’s historically unprecedented visit to the picket lines during the UAW’s ultimately successful strikes against the auto companies placed the office of the president on the side of unionized workers in a way that has never happened before.
While it is too soon to declare that the union movement is in the midst of a sustained resurgence, such a development is a distinct possibility — and if that occurs, Biden, the old Democrat, can take the lion’s share of the credit.
All that said, progressives and some union leaders are reluctant to recognize Biden’s historic support for the labor movement. Some can’t stop sniping over Biden’s failure to support rail unions that wanted to hold out for greater concessions, which could have come at the cost of serious disruptions to the nation’s transportation networks. And UAW President Shawn Fein is still holding out on endorsing Biden in next year’s election for reasons that now seem more grounded in recalcitrance than substance, given the extraordinary support the president has demonstrated for the labor movement in general and auto workers in particular.
While the UAW’s ultimate endorsement of Biden is a virtual certainty, the delay in providing it is emblematic of Biden’s consistent inability to achieve political credit commensurate with his achievements, a failure that has left room for Trump — the most affirmatively anti-organized labor president since Reagan — to (absurdly) pretend to be a friend of labor.
While his domestic achievements to date have been historic, Biden’s most important role may be as the linchpin preserving democracy in Europe.
Biden and his team came to office with a full understanding of the nature of Putin’s long assault on Ukraine, as well as of how far Putin might be willing to go to prevail. As many have already forgotten, it was Biden’s unorthodox and unprecedented decision to release intelligence regarding Putin’s planned invasion that was critical to convincing Western European countries — and even some skeptics in Ukraine — that an invasion was imminent.
And the United States, from the outset of the war and at every point thereafter, has played a critical role in building and sustaining the coalition that has allowed Ukraine — against all initial expectations of putative “experts” — to successfully defend itself.
Of course, Ukraine has also been the subject of the most audacious GOP effort to ally with Putin, Hungary’s Orban, and other authoritarians to undermine Ukraine, and with it Western democracy.
And because the war in “far off” Eastern Europe is, predictably, not top of mind for most voters, Biden has not received any political credit for his extraordinary success in forestalling the loss of Ukraine. Meanwhile, Republicans legislators believe that it is in their political interest to pander to the Putinist and isolationist wings of the party that are associated with Trump.
Accordingly, it is entirely possible that — despite the fact that majorities in both the Senate and House favor Ukraine funding — Putin and Trump may succeed in their goal of strangling Ukraine into submission in a matter of months, regardless of whether Biden ultimately wins reelection.
Israel and the Middle East
Biden’s support for Israel in the war declared against it by Hamas has hurt his polling among Democrats. Yet it may well be that — as with the case of Ukraine — Biden’s response to the second great foreign policy crisis of his presidency is a measure of his understanding of the region, as well as his confidence in his own policy goals.
At this time of crisis, it is sometimes hard to remember how bad a job each of the previous three presidents — each of whom lacked any substantial knowledge or experience with Israel and its neighbors before taking office — did in dealing with Israel’s government, or with the panoply of autocrats who rule its neighbors.
Trump’s affinity for autocrats and venality made him both sympathetic to — and readily manipulable by — such rulers, but did not lead him to effectively tackle any of the deep challenges in the region, including and especially the increasing danger posed by Iran or the festering crises on the West Bank and in Gaza.
Progressives, who increasingly argue in favor of Biden setting out to “restrain” Israel, overlook that just such a strategy was attempted, with terrible results, during the Obama administration. Obama left office with remarkably little sway over a longtime ally, and only reinvigorated Netanyahu and the far right in Israel.
By contrast, Biden’s immediate support for Israel at a time of great national tragedy has left him a far more popular political figure in Israel than is Netanyahu. It’s a remarkable reversal of fortunes. And now, at a time when Biden is urging Netanyahu to alter some of his war policies — and also set the stage for a likely post-Netanyahu reinvigoration of the peace process — Biden actually has influence over Israeli policy to a degree that no recent president, including Obama, has come close to having.
True to form, Biden is not receiving any political credit, or support, at home for the foregoing. Republicans profess to back Israel while dithering over providing it with needed aid, just as they are doing regarding Ukraine. Some progressives, meanwhile, are joining right-wingers in Arab American and Muslim communities in an attempt to undermine Biden’s reelection prospects, particularly in Michigan. But if Biden is not returned to office next year, implementing a plan to reinvigorate the peace process will be even more difficult than it is now.
Next year will be huge for Biden’s legacy — and the country as a whole
While Biden has been a remarkably effective president, he is also at risk of losing the next election to the same proto-authoritarian figure that he saved the nation from several years ago.
The fact that Biden is as or more unpopular than Trump, despite his policy successes, is a failure of grave proportions. After all, there is no such thing as a successful president who is voted out of office. And Biden must be assigned substantial responsibility for his dangerous unpopularity, just as he is owed credit for his public policy achievements.
Here the contrast with another consequential presidency, FDR, is striking. From the outset of his presidency at the height of the Great Depression, through the darkly challenging years of World War II, FDR relentlessly focused on maintaining his deep connection with the American people — as evidenced by his remarkably effective use of then-new media through his radio “fireside chats.”
And his political heft with voters was, repeatedly, key to FDR’s success — including pressuring the right-wing Supreme Court to give up on its effort to judicially nullify the New Deal, as well as supporting the UK with Lend Lease resources when it was fighting Germany alone, despite the then broad unpopularity of US involvement in the war.
Biden has never come close to achieving such a direct, charismatic, connection to the American people. Because of Biden’s lack of such a connection, Trump — despite being despised by huge swaths of the nation — sometimes manages to make himself look like a popular leader.
Of course, it’s possible, and I believe likely, that Biden will prevail over Trump, given the nation’s muscle memory of just how bad a president Trump was, as well as his open and notorious promise to be worse the second time around.
One can’t help but wonder, however, how things might be different had Biden devised and implemented a plan to try to be a charismatic figure in the life of the nation. In that scenario, perhaps he wouldn’t be facing the prospect of another uncertain election — and hence the country wouldn’t have to worry as much about the future of democracy at home and abroad.
That’s it for this week
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