Where Have You Gone, Joe Biden of the Primaries?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- With President Joe Biden’s approval ratings mired in the low 40s, and in the aftermath of last week’s worse-than-expected election results, the question of whether he’s gone too far left was all but inevitable. Equally unsurprising is that someone such as Representative Abigail Spanberger, who holds a very difficult House seat in suburban Virginia, would answer in the affirmative.
“Nobody elected him to be FDR,” she told the New York Times. “They elected him to be normal and stop the chaos.” It’s a common view among centrist Democrats, and understandable, but the formulation isn’t quite right. In large part, Americans elected FDR to be normal and stop the chaos.
Voters who paid attention to the 2020 Democratic primary probably thought that, with Biden, FDR was exactly what they were getting: an old-fashioned, patriotic, labor-union Democrat with moderately populist economic policies and no particular affiliation with avant-garde cultural politics. In fact, Biden’s television ads and campaign rhetoric emphasized the idea of taxing the rich to expand the social safety net and invest in made-in-America zero-carbon energy.
That was Primary Candidate Joe Biden. President Joe Biden is different, and that difference may be the key the understanding what happened to Democrats last week — and how they might improve their showing a year from now.
After a primary campaign marked by high-profile clashes with the left, President Biden has seemed reluctant to be visibly at odds with elements of his base. Primary Candidate Biden was constantly making “gaffes” that revealed how out of touch the White male University of Delaware graduate born in 1942 was with the young, highly educated urban progressives who dominate the media.
Primary Candidate Biden reminisced fondly about working with segregationist senators in the 1970s. During one debate, he mangled an explanation of the so-called “word gap” in terms that got him lambasted on the left. “Joe Biden’s answer on how to address the legacy of slavery was appalling — and disqualifying,” scolded the progressive writer Anand Giridharadas. “It ended in a sermon implying that black parents don’t know how to raise their own children.”
In fact, his answer featured explanations of his plans to provide federal child care and pre-K programs — core elements of today’s Build Back Better legislation. In some ways, the left’s righteous fury at Biden illustrated part of what swing voters liked about him: He was an old man who talked like an old man, rather than a woke 25-year-old, and he wasn’t so much immune from cancel culture as oblivious to it.
But President Biden doesn’t have some of the advantages Primary Candidate Biden had. There is no campaign to dramatize his differences with the left, and his administration is largely staffed in the middle layers by younger, more liberal people who didn’t support him until he locked up the nomination.
Primary Candidate Biden would have blurted out some half-remembered Christopher Columbus hagiography from 50 years ago. President Biden, with his more professionalized White House operation, seeks and achieves headlines as the first president to make an Indigenous People’s Day proclamation.
It’s challenging, to say the least, for an administration to commit itself to more presidential gaffes. But White House staff members ought to consider that the typical primary-season Biden gaffe was the kind of thing that, while embarrassing to them personally, played just fine with the country’s median voters — who tend to be older people with no college degree living in the suburbs of smaller cities.
More broadly, it wouldn’t be such a bad idea for Biden to be seen as at odds with leftist elements in his own party.
I’m fairly certain, for example, that Biden does not personally agree with diversity consultant Tema Okun that individualism, objectivity and worship of the written word are distinctive characteristics of “white supremacy culture.” But her work has been used for training in public school systems from New York City to Seattle and is a recommended resource of the National Education Association.
Biden would not need to accept the idea that “critical race theory” is an anti-American plot to simply state that he thinks some nutty stuff is being done in some places in the name of equity. If he is worried about optics, he’s got a Black vice president and a Hispanic education secretary who could back him up on the basic need for children of all races to learn to read and write. And they could talk about the importance of his preschool initiatives to accomplish that.
Primary Candidate Biden was lambasted by environmentalists for, among other things, refusing to commit to a ban on fracking. President Biden’s unpopularity is due in part to high oil prices, but he doesn’t want to publicly cheerlead (privately is a different matter) for more domestic oil production for fear of picking a fight or seeming to contradict himself. But there’s no contradiction between wanting to have more oil and gas available this winter and wanting a more long-term future of heat pumps, electric vehicles and less worry about oil prices. You just need to be willing to have some environmentalists yell at you.
Primary Candidate Biden was routinely hectored by leftist activists and media personalities. He got yelled at by then-rival Kamala Harris for not supporting school busing, and by the media for calling Harris “kid.” Primary Candidate Biden stood on stage and refused to raise his hand in support of the idea of decriminalizing illegal entry into the U.S., when all the more fashionable candidates came out in favor of it.
President Biden is not so different in terms of policy — immigration activists are furious that he hasn’t been more welcoming to people seeking asylum at the southern border. But he doesn’t seem eager to let the public know that he’s fighting with activists about this even while, on another front, he is fighting to reverse his predecessor’s crackdown on legal migration.
These instincts to suppress conflict undoubtedly served Biden well during the general election. He already had a strong brand as a moderate Democrat, and sniping from the left could have depressed turnout or driven voters to third parties. But now he’s president, and the longer he goes without reminding the public that he really is more moderate than some other figures within the party, the more his brand erodes.
Back to FDR: By the time he ran for re-election in 1936, economic growth was torrid. Under Biden, the economy recently seems to have stalled somewhat and been overtaken by inflation. There’s some reason to believe this will turn around over the next few months, with inflation falling and job growth accelerating, and if it does that will help Biden. If it doesn’t, no political message is going to salvage a presidency afflicted by slow job growth and falling real wages.
As a politician, Biden is a happy warrior — the opposite of his predecessor, who continues to be an angry right-wing culture warrior. Primary Candidate Biden had genuine but respectful differences with the cultural left and was a throwback populist who promised to invest in public services. To get his mojo back, President Biden needs a bit more FDR, not less.
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