President Biden’s first year in office has been frustrating for many of his supporters. He has disappointed his more leftist supporters by refusing to take aggressive unilateral action in some areas where he has discretion, and he has disappointed his more moderate supporters by choosing to take aggressive action in other areas.
That’s doubly true for the gaggle of youngish, college-educated, city-dwelling liberals who dominate the work force of the media, the progressive nonprofits and much of the Democratic Party itself — people who most likely didn’t back Mr. Biden in the primary and always suspected he wouldn’t deliver enough change for their tastes.
However, these are the banally normal problems of a normal presidency. Even the midterm wipeout that appears to be looming for his party is, by historical standards, a normal course of events.
But if Mr. Biden and his team want to give Democrats a fighting chance and turn his numbers around before electoral disaster strikes, they would do well to keep two slightly paradoxical thoughts in mind. First, Mr. Biden is governing in extraordinary times, but his presidency is still governed by the normal rules of American politics. Second, generating a feeling of normalcy around American politics and daily life — as he promised to do during the campaign — would itself be a transformative change.
The central contradiction of the Biden presidency is that he won the Democratic primary by running to the center, offering electability and normalcy rather than political revolution and big, structural change. But just as he was emerging as the party’s nominee, the Covid-19 pandemic struck, and we started hearing about plans for “an F.D.R.-sized presidency” — that is, big structural change. Had the U.S. economy completely collapsed over the course of 2020 the way it did under Herbert Hoover, that might have been realistic.
But mostly, it didn’t. Timely action from the Federal Reserve and trillions in bipartisan relief appropriations held things together. Not well enough to save Donald Trump’s presidency, but well enough to make the Electoral College race razor-thin and cost Democrats several seats in the House of Representatives.
Yet even when it turned out that the polls were off and his victory was much narrower than expected, Mr. Biden never really let go of the dream of a transformative 1930s-style presidency, though he clearly lacked the large legislative majorities to deliver on a New Deal or Great Society.
The disappointment of this failed effort at transformational policymaking tends to mask the extent to which, in his first year, Mr. Biden was in some ways surprisingly successful in his aspirational promises to restore a climate of bipartisanship to the legislative process.
Many progressives believe that Republicans voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill only as part of a ploy to stymie the Build Back Better agenda. But Republicans never attempted such a move during the Obama years, and the fact that they agreed to anything at all was contrary to some very confidently asserted predictions from journalists (myself included) who cut our teeth on Obama-era policy fights and expected total intransigence.
We’ve also seen bipartisan legislation to expand American science funding and independent supply-chain capacity — the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act — pass the Senate with a substantial bipartisan majority. The House passed similar legislation (in separate bills), and the two chambers are trying to hash out the differences in a conference committee, a venerable legislative institution that has largely fallen into disuse during the recent years of hyper-partisanship.
But alongside these reassuring springs of normalcy, Mr. Biden has had to contend with some unusually challenging situations. It’s extraordinary that his administration has been stalked by the specter of a defeated predecessor who refuses to admit that he lost fair and square. Yet as the political scientist Sam Rosenfeld writes, the most striking feature of American politics in 2021 was the “abiding sturdiness of electoral dynamics.” Swing voters responded to unified Democratic Party governance by swinging right and seeking to counterbalance.
Exacerbating this problem is perhaps the most normal political challenge of all — economic conditions deteriorated in the second half of the year, helping to drive down Mr. Biden’s approval ratings.
The inflation of 2021 is not especially his fault. There is no way to undergo a pandemic without some economic cost, and bearing that cost in the form of inflation is superior to the alternative of stabilizing prices at lower levels of employment and real output.
But the nature of the White House is that even things that are not the president’s fault are the president’s problem. The same goes for the virus. Mr. Biden perhaps set himself up for failure by over-promising (a very normal campaign sin) and implying that he would be able to “shut down the virus” and allow society to return to normal. That was not true when he promised it, and variants have made it even less feasible.
Vaccines greatly reduce the health risk associated with the virus, but they don’t eliminate it. And that makes the trade-off between economic output and virus control harder rather than easier. Because so many Americans are vaccinated, demand for goods and services is now much higher than it was during the Trump presidency. That means quarantine rules and other restrictions on business activity and public institutions do carry real costs. This winter, with the Omicron surge, we have more people who want to fly on airplanes than pilots who are cleared to carry them.
The Biden administration and executive branch have clearly been taking steps toward more prioritization of the economy and less of public health — for example, shortening the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance about isolation time — but the president has been reluctant to explicitly say in public that’s what’s going on, perhaps out of fear of sounding too much like his predecessor. And saying just “follow the science” is not the answer: The scientific method doesn’t answer questions about trade-offs.
When all is said and done, the frustrations of the Biden supporters who want a return to normal are more politically significant than those of the more progressive crowd who yearn for transformation.
That means more focus on the short-term economic situation. The good news on inflation is that the gasoline price spike of 2021 is unlikely to occur a second time, and the Federal Reserve is likely to pivot into inflation-fighting mode as well. But there are risks, too, from economic disruptions in China, and monetary policy efforts to curb inflation could do too much to curb real growth as well.
The fate of Mr. Biden’s presidency — and if you believe the dire warnings of many Democrats and academics, of the republic itself — hinges less on the fate of legacy items like Build Back Better or a renewed voting rights act than it does on the normal procession of macroeconomic events. Unfortunately for Mr. Biden, no president has control over them entirely — but pushing for a final version of the bipartisan U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which contains provisions to strengthen the semiconductor supply chain, could be helpful.
It means more attention to classic Biden themes of patriotism, bipartisanship and normalcy, and fewer headlines dominated by high-profile squeeze plays against moderate senators.
Most of what has happened to Mr. Biden has been very normal. But if Democrats take their own fears about the opposition party seriously, they should be very worried about the consequences of the normal cycle of overreach and backlash, and try harder to surprise the country by doubling down on normalcy.