Joe Biden Did Not Inherit the America He (or His Voters) Thought He Would
America planned to turn the clock back to 2009; We ended up in a dark alternate 1979
“Joe Biden is going to be the most popular president of my lifetime mostly due to timing.” — @pareene, 3/11/21
There is no one reason why, in a country of 154 million registered voters, one presidential candidate wins the general election over the other. Election analysts and terminally online Twitter users can (and still do) relitigate the 2016 election to pin down the one reason that Hillary Clinton lost what should have been a layup to an admitted sexual assaulter with the personality of a Tom Wolfe antagonist and the body of Grimace from the McDonalds commercials. But after six years of cycling through the factors that contributed to a Clinton loss, a neutral observer would still come away with the answer that, in a polarized country where national elections are decided by margins of less than 50,000 voters, any one number of missteps could have cost Clinton the Presidency.
That being said, it’s a bit easier to pin down the reason, or at least, for whatever use it has for empirical study, the *feeling* that cost Donald Trump reelection and ascended 78-year-old Joe Biden to the White House: someone needed to turn down the noise. Trump’s Presidency was among the most polarizing 4 years in American history, and whether you were an ardent supporter or dedicated #Resister, you were always, 24/7, pissed. Your blood pressure was unhealthily high. Even if you were winning, you felt like you were losing, because you couldn’t understand why the social ills Donald Trump promised to eradicate (like liberal families in your suburb who drove hybrid cars) were still allowed to contribute to the decay of American culture. The volume was constantly at a 10. Then, in March 2020, the NBA cancelled the rest of the season because of the spread of the novel Coronavirus.
From thereon out, the volume was at 11. While Americans should feel some responsibility to carry out the civic duty of at least knowing what’s going on in their country (knowing the name of the Education Secretary is not a burden you shouldn’t have to deal with), the constant bombardment of hyper-politicized and polarizing news cycles that ran through the duration of the already morale-degrading 2020 lockdown was too much psychic damage for any American to deal with. No matter who you supported, it was a bombardment undoubtedly being led, or at least created in response to, the actions of the Trump administration.
The noise needed to be turned down. That’s how former Vice President and 3-time Democratic Primary loser Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was able to frame the 2020 election after a long-fought battle between the insurgent left/progressive wing of the party who warned the electorate that Biden’s “return to normal approach” wasn’t going to work. But, ultimately, Biden caught his white whale (an epic tale of an incredibly average guy from Delaware with ambitions that outmatched his actual skillset and charisma which deserves its own series of biographies) and achieved his lifelong dream the year he passed the average American life expectancy: he became the President.
Every President, through their messaging and coalition building, enters into a contract with their voters. Trump promised his voters to drain the swamp. Obama promised his voters hope and change. Both were radical (by modern political standards) promises that didn’t play out. Biden’s promise, much like his new grandfatherly personality, was much more subdued, and seemingly realistic: I’ll turn down the noise and you won’t have to pay attention to politics anymore.
This was a feasible promise: the American economy was in a pretty good place before COVID hit, and it was undeniable that Trump failed horribly in dealing with the one actual challenge he faced in his one term as President. Vaccines were on the way, which, in 2020, seemed like the final chapter in the COVID saga. If Biden, the elder statesman (emphasis on the “elder”) and bipartisan coalition builder, could keep his head down and create a viable vaccine distribution program and maybe pass a few milquetoast social spending bills which even conservative Americans agreed were long overdue after a year of economic annihilation of the working and middle class, he would, by default, be the most successful President since Clinton or Reagan.
It was a low bar and a pretty low-achieving promise, but it was what America desperately wanted and, importantly, all Biden could really do. The coalition that elected Biden, comprised of the traditional liberal Democratic base along with a high number of college-educated suburbanites who had voted for Bush and McCain, along with youth voters and people of color who decided Biden was a better bet than Trump, was so varied that it was impossible to come up with another feasible administration goal that everyone would be happy with. That should have been the first red flag.
Importantly, carrying out this promise depended on Biden inheriting the America that pretty much everyone thought he would- a polarized but exhausted electorate ready to turn the TV off for a while and let Obama’s BFF get rid of COVID, ushering in a boring four years which would hopefully turn back the clock to the “golden” years of Obama’s first term. The 2008–2010 environment, at the time, seemed like the height of modern political polarization, but it was a welcome setback after living through… whatever the fuck this was. If the biggest threat to democracy was a crank tea party radio show host instead of the guy who ran the QAnon account whispering advice into the President’s ear, that was okay.
For the first few months of Biden’s administration, everything seemed to be going pretty okay. Yes, the Capitol had been stormed by thousands of lunatics who almost stole the box holding the electoral college votes and tried to lynch the Republican Vice President, but Trump was banned from his Twitter megaphone, should-be SCOTUS Justice Merrick Garland was locking up the hot-tub business owners who broke into the Capitol building, and Biden was sitting at a cool 55% approval rating, the highest since the beginning of Obama’s second term in office.
Then we had to think about politics again.
Someone had to take the fall for Afghanistan eventually. There was no world where, after 2003, a withdrawal from Afghanistan wouldn’t result in an immediate takeover from the Taliban and the fall of the US-propped up government. Bush, Obama and Trump demurred, and the latter smartly kicked the can down the road in his last year of his administration knowing any Democratic successor would have to either pull out for good or take on the negative news coverage of extending the useless occupation of Afghanistan.
So Biden, who had wanted out of Afghanistan since his Vice Presidency, took the fall. The details are a little sketchy as to who told Biden what — and which intelligence agencies from which Western allies may or may not have deliberately fed him false information about the staying power of the Afghan government, why he shouldn’t pull out and a suspicious group of ISIS-K fighters who magically disappeared from international headlines after a horrific attack on the Hamid Karzai Airport which killed 13 American soldiers — regarding the Afghanistan pull out, but Biden remained committed to ending the 20 year occupation that most Americans agreed had become a pointless waste of money and American lives.
Polling for hypothetical situations rarely matches public opinion for when the real thing happens, though, and a concerted effort by the mainstream media, war hawks and the Joint Chiefs of Staff spun what was an inevitable embarrassment to the American Empire into a blunder committed by the Biden administration’s poor planning to get out of Afghanistan.
The mainstream media, particularly outlets like CNN and MSNBC, usually play softball with Democratic politicians, but even they went in hard on Biden for this perceived catastrophe, and for good reason- he had broken the contract he made with the American people. They had to think about politics again.
Along with a bumpy start to vaccine distribution, growing distrust in the efficacy or safety of the vaccine driven by the increasingly loud group of right wing conspiracy theorists who believed Biden had stolen the election from Trump (a brilliant plan which allowed him to win barely Georgia but somehow lose Florida, destroy his margins in the RGV and only win 3 Senate seats), the Afghanistan catastrophe marked a turning point for Biden’s administration. His steady approval numbers plummeted, for the first time, into the red, at about 45% approval, and they’ve never recovered.
The venial sin Biden had committed, in the literal sense, was allowing 13 dedicated members of the Armed Forces to die at the hands ISIS. But the mortal sin, which goes beyond individual events and the lives of Americans, was that the Biden Contract had been broken, and Americans had to live with the noise turned back up to 11. We had to pay attention to the news again, relieve the same old fights between MAGA die-hards and #resistance liberals who, despite holding tripartate power in Congress, was having some trouble getting their important legislation passed. Speaking of…
There’s not much you can do with a 50–50 Senate, especially when the geography of America and the structure of the Senate so clearly benefits one party. Biden had no problem getting his judicial nominees past the Senate, but Biden came into office trying to convey the message that he was not the Thatcherite austerity-loving Joe Biden of the 1990's- Biden comms tried very hard to plant the seeds into the American myth machine that Joe was not Obama, and not even Clinton- he was the next FDR.
His social spending plan, encapsulated in the clunky Build Back Better plan, did blow away any social welfare agenda of any past President since Lyndon Johnson. Biden planned to spend over $6 trillion to invest in infrastructure, protections against climate change, financial relief for struggling families, a legislative change to the US Code which would guarantee Americans’ rights to unionize, and Biden’s middle-America policy goal since his Vice Presidency: a $15/hr minimum wage, nearly double the current $7.25 national minimum wage.
It was certainly a tall order, but one that Biden — who built his image as a master of the Senate who had long-lasting connections on the other side of the aisle whom he could get on board for bipartisan negotiations — promised he could make. Even if the GOP abandoned any prospect of working with Biden, there was still the yearly reconciliation opportunity to pass large packages with only 50 votes.
No one would have guessed that, out of the $6 trillion Biden wanted to spend on the American welfare, not a single dollar of it, outside of the American Rescue stimulus plan (which would have likely been passed no matter who was President) and a slimmed-down infrastructure bill, would pass.
Trump learned the hard way that a slim Senate majority puts any major legislation into jeopardy- and he had 52–53 votes over the course of his administration. Biden only had 50, and two of those votes were Joe Manchin, the conservative Senator from the crimson red West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Senator who seems to have both her first and last named spelt wrong on her birth certificate.
And so, as Biden struggled to come back from the Afghanistan story, a failed effort to pass the Voting Rights Act and electoral failures in Virginia and New Jersey, Biden’s legislative and presidential agenda received another huge blow when Joe Manchin told Fox News that he was killing Build Back Better, citing concerns over runaway social spending (sure) and creating a culture dependent on government money, lest the American public turn out like Manchin’s entire family of pharma-fuedal lords who survive off government subsidies.
And so, entering 2022, Biden was underwater in the polls, had lost the Governorship of Virginia (and nearly New Jersey), had an embarrassing foreign policy blunder under his belt, had not passed any meaningful legislation, and his vaccine plans were being battered by right-wing backlash and unexpected COVID waves from the Delta and Omicron variants.
No one, except for everyone who was paying attention to global health and vaccine initiatives, predicted that once COVID was under control in the US, it could return in a new, more vaccine-resistant form. But now twice in Biden’s one year in office, COVID had come back swinging and sent several parts of the country back into pseudo-lockdown.
Not only were Americans having to think about politics again, but they were exhausted and feeling defeated, too weary to get as angry as they were under Trump. A new word to describe the American psyche arose in the media circles covering the American electorate, a deliberate callback to the failed Carter administration: malaise.
They were right, in more ways than one.
It was, admittedly, a little naive to think that after a year and a half of a global pandemic which impeded or shuttered economies and markets around the world, that after batting off the first wave of COVID, the economy would just spring back to normal.
When talks of runaway inflation, stagnant wages, skyrocketing housing prices, insane gas prices and supply chain shortages began to appear on 24/7 news cycles, the true economic consequences of COVID began to set in.
America has long been a consumer society, ever since we outsourced our labor and manufacturing to third-world countries where American corporations could make the same products for cents on the dollar thanks to loosened wage conditions in the global South. So when Americans started to notice that there were impediments to consumption- whether it was small pleasures like snacks or daily needs like baby formula- our senses were egregiously offended. Sure, we had to live in lockdown for a year. Sure, polarization is constantly reaching a fever pitch thanks to the blessing/curse of social media. Sure, Biden’s government was proving itself unhelpful to anybody. But at least we were able to consume freely.
Politicos who had made the premature comparison of the 79-year-old Biden to Carter were vindicated when the same economic woes that Carter proved unable to effectively take on in his one term began to spring up for the equally powerless Biden. If Biden truly were the next FDR, he would overstep the traditionally accepted powers of the Executive to put economic safety nets into place and prop up arms of an administrative state to create a robust welfare system across the country and alleviate the economic pain. But no President has dared to do so since the 1970’s, when the power of labor was severed from the machinations of political power and the country fell into a narrow lane of neoliberal governance.
And so in 2022, as Biden was floundering on every front, he was “powerless” to take on the myriad economic issues facing the American people. And so his approval rating began to slip further and further into the low 40’s, putting him on par with Trump for the least popular President of the modern era when the first trustworthy pollsters set up shop (it’s generally accepted that Truman is the first President with a historically accurate approval rating that can be tracked over his tenure).
There hasn’t been a land war in western Europe since World War II. I won’t even begin to go into the factors that led up to the thing you know I’m going to talk about, but, yes, Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. While the decision to invade Ukraine was a result of a conflagration of factors that moreso involved NATO expansion, a prolonged civil war in the breakaway regions of Donestk and Luhansk, decades-old tensions between the increasingly West-friendly Ukraine and the increasingly Soviet-nostalgic Russia, blame was still put on Biden. Two countries gone in less than two years.
The U.S. government did manage to find a lot of money to send to Ukraine in the form of (mostly) weapons and some humanitarian effort — it’s unclear where that money was when the Child Tax Credit needed to be expanded — though little action was taken in the way of planning an end to the war- rather, the invasion quickly became a proxy war between the West (particularly the U.S.) and Russia down to the last Ukrainian.
Biden and European leaders managed to impose plenty of sanctions on Russia to prevent an all-out nuclear war and instead lay economic waste to Russia. To Biden’s credit, despite initial pushes to impose no-fly zones over Ukraine and other brilliant ideas that would have been one-way tickets to a nuclear holocaust, Biden kept his offensive on Russia reserved to economic warfare.
Did it work? Well, as of last week, the Russian Ruble is the most successful currency in the world, and energy prices are still skyrocketing across the Western world, which may have something to do with the fact that Russia is the greatest energy exporter to all of Europe. Biden has tried, unsuccessfully, to blame inflation and rising gas prices on Putin, and argued that increased gas prices are worth fighting for the freedom of the Ukrainian people. It hasn’t worked, and in the summer of 2022, Biden’s approval rating, for the first time, fell below 40%. It’s yet to recover.
Biden did get one small political victory early in 2022- Trump had the insane luck of getting three Supreme Court appointments in his short time as President, though under very shady circumstances. As a result, the once slightly right-leaning court made a very far right-wing jump from 2017–2020 as Trump packed the Court with Federalist Society prop-ups who were singularly focused on unravelling the post-FDR protections established by the Stone, Vinson, Warren and Burger Courts.
Justice Stephen Breyer, a Clinton appointee, was by far the oldest member of the Court, and it was clear that, post-2016, no President would be able to confirm a Supreme Court Justice without a majority in the Senate. There was no guarantee that Biden would retain his 50–50 split past the midterms, and no guarantee that the 83-year-old Breyer would live long enough to see another Democratic administration.
Though Breyer is a proud non-partisan, and did not want to leave the Court at the whim of the political forces of the Executive, he saw what happened when his friend and long-time colleague Ruth Bader Ginsberg stuck to those same principles prior to her death in 2020. And so Breyer agreed to step down after the 2021–2022 session. He was quickly replaced by D.C. Circuit Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who had long been the frontrunner for the next Democratic SCOTUS appointment. Though her confirmation hearing was rife with absurd and demeaning grandstanding from Republican Senators (some of whom may just be mad that Jackson was more popular than them when they were in college together), Jackson was confirmed without any issue.
But the court was still a 6–3 conservative supermajority. And the Court was hearing a case between Mississippi’s only abortion clinic, Jackson Women’s Health Organization and the State Health Officer, Thomas E. Dobbs, regarding a newly-passed abortion restriction in the state which banned all abortions after 15 weeks.
We all know how the story goes from here- the 6–3 Court was long expected to overturn the seminal cases of Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood, and observers figured that this would be the case where the Conservative activists on the Court would take action.
In May 2022, a leaked draft of the majority opinion, overturning Roe, was leaked to Politico. Biden, who, like his Democratic predecessor, had promised to codify Roe, knew he had to take some action- but any attempt to codify Roe would either require getting 10 Republicans to agree to vote for cloture to pass the filibuster, or convince all 50 Democrats to override the filibuster and write Roe into law. Everyone knew that wasn’t going to happen- not only were Sinema and Manchin staunchly against overriding the filibuster, but Manchin is outspokenly pro-life.
A symbolic vote went to the Senate, like a vote for Medicare for All and the Voting Rights Act before it, to codify Roe, and it failed.
And so, on June 22nd, 2022, the Court overturned Roe and Casey. Biden told the American people that his administration that it would do what it could within the legally defined limits of the Executive, but that the only solution was for Americans to vote. For the 23rd federal election in a row, Roe was on the ballot again. It’s the most important election of our lifetimes.
This was not what Biden was expecting when he became the 46th President. It’s not what the American people expected when they elected Biden: runaway inflation, soaring gas prices, an oncoming recession, stagnant wages, a land war in Europe, three variant waves of COVID, extreme vaccine hesitancy, an uncooperative Senate majority, a Taliban victory in Afghanistan and the Supreme Court ruling that, because abortion was illegal in most states in 1876, women in red states in 2022 will have to die from pregnancy complications if their Governors are okay with it.
And plenty of people are pissed that Biden isn’t doing anything about it. Which raises two important questions:
First- do we have a right to be pissed? Remember the contract we made with Biden when he was voted in. He promised to turn the noise down. He made it explicitly clear during the general election campaign that he was not going to be a transformative President, was only there to get rid of Trump, and anything beyond that, you’re on your own (except when he was cornered into saying he was “open to considering” alleviating some student debt, which has never, and never will, materialize). Biden was very clear that he was here to only do one thing, and the world changed quickly enough that it made that thing impossible. Biden did not come equipped to handle the challenges we’re currently facing, and we were very explicitly told that he wasn’t going to come equipped for it. 81 million people, including myself, voted for him.
Of course, this question is sort of a hypothetical- of course every American has the right to be angry that their President refuses to take substantive action to alleviate the economic and social pain they’re facing, whether you voted for him or not. It’s just worth looking back and keeping in mind that Biden’s promise to the American people did not take into account what many could have predicted were going to be obvious fallouts from extreme wealth inequality, social pressures, missteps in gross imperialism and decades of austerity in a faltering neoliberal system. At the very least, it’s worth keeping in mind what we’re told by Biden, Harris, Buttigieg or whomever in 2024 when they try to conjure up enough voters to beat back Trump or DeSantis.
Second- Can Biden do anything about it? What can you do with a 50–50 Senate when you’re not willing to take the Executive action necessary to meet the extreme moment of distress facing the American people, which in the past, has required Presidents to overstep their “traditional constitutional responsibilities”- Lincoln and FDR took measures that were unquestionably unorthodox and arguably unconstitutional in order to save the country from Civil War or complete economic collapse.
There’s a hard line Presidents face when dealing with the inevitable consequences of American inequality and capitalism- to work within the system (like Herbert Hoover, who, despite his brains and best attempts, was confined in his efforts to deal with the Depression through a weak series of economic reforms that did nothing to combat historical economic disasters because he could not step over that line) or to take bold steps and experiment with the often restrained power of the Executive (like Lincoln, Roosevelt, or, for the worse, W. Bush).
Biden has signaled since the beginning of his presidential campaign that he would fit squarely within the former category in response to Trump’s egregious misuse of Executive Power. And, going into the election, that seemed to be fine- all Biden needed to do was hand out vaccines.
But the problems facing America now cannot be effectively tackled with executive restraint- they require something new. The Right has shown that they’re ready to try something new, and it looks a lot more like Orban’s right-wing authoritarian theocracy in Hungary than any American experiment in democracy. The Democrats, and the left in general, have not shown any enticing alternative to the rabid right-wing death spiral that emerges in crises of capital. The Weimar Germany comparison is old and perhaps not fit here, but… you can see where I’m going.
Biden’s promise was never enough, and no politician making a similar promise will ever do enough. This proposition ignores, willfully, because there’s only so much I can write, the necessity of organizing, building back labor, local elections and rebuilding solidarity with progressive civil rights movements and re-empowered trade unions. This only focuses on the myth of the restrained executive, the one who promises to turn down the volume.
Something is bubbling underneath, and it grows stronger, louder and more thirsty for blood every time we tune it out. No candidate for President deserves your support, much less your vote, if they cannot promise to take direct, responsive action to counter the unavoidable contradictions of capitalism and the frenzied right-wing undercurrent that arises when those contradictions are exposed. That will require stepping out of bounds, offending some sensibilities, and, worst of all, casting aside honor and decorum, the only values the modern Democratic party has left.
If all of that makes you uncomfortable, that’s fine and totally normal- I’ll gladly meet you where you’re at. But to start, ask yourself honestly if the Biden Democrats are truly fit to meet this moment, or the worse moments yet to come. What have they done so far?