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Biden goes from a contrast to Trump to a contrast to competency

President betrays promise of his election with sharp turn left in first year

Joe Biden needs to accept that not being Donald Trump isn’t the same thing as being president, Winston writes.
Joe Biden needs to accept that not being Donald Trump isn’t the same thing as being president, Winston writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

After the election, Biden said, “The refusal of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate with one another is not due to some mysterious force beyond our control. It’s a decision. It’s a choice we make.” For the country’s sake, let’s hope both Biden and Pelosi make the right one. 

That was the closing paragraph of my last column of 2020. This is my last column for 2021, and so maybe a little reflection is in order on what has been a difficult year for the country and a disastrous one for President Joe Biden and his party. 

Looking back, there is little doubt that the Biden team and congressional Democratic leaders made the wrong choice at almost every point in this new presidency, starting on Day One by canceling the Keystone XL pipeline to placate Democrats’ strident progressive wing. 

In July, Biden, who called defeating the coronavirus job one, declared victory over COVID-19 only to see the delta variant emerge and the number of deaths on his watch surpass the numbers under Donald Trump, with another variant now in the headlines. His vaccine mandates and masking policies have only divided the country further and worse.

His team, apparently, gave little or no thought to the impact of COVID-19 on the supply chain and its ramifications on economic growth and consumer concerns. 

Economic relief dollars were pumped into the economy as new, intrusive regulations put the brakes on growth, but not on inflation. Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi then decided to tie passage of the infrastructure bill to their Build Back Better legislation, another bad choice. 

And then there was Afghanistan.

Now, as we close the door on this most miserable year, I think it’s fair to ask some tough questions:

“Has Biden lived up to the promises made in the early days of his presidency?”

“Has the Democratic Congress addressed the issues that people care most about?” 

“Have either gotten the job done for the American people?” 

Both public and private polls are clear: The answer to all of them is “No.” 

Going hard left

Biden, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer squandered the opportunity to move to the center, past the divisive partisan rancor that had characterized American politics for the previous four years. As leader of the Democratic Party, Biden could have insisted on a more moderate agenda that would not only have echoed his campaign promises but reflected the values and beliefs he has espoused for over 40 years in the political arena.

Pelosi could have done the same, standing up to the Congressional Progressive Caucus early, as most expected she would, and offering a smarter, if traditionally liberal, Democratic agenda. Instead, she sided with the progressives and sat on the infrastructure bill in a misguided attempt to pass Build Back Better when she could have secured a relatively popular legislative victory far earlier, at a time her party desperately needed it. This is what passes for success in Biden’s Washington.

Biden won the presidency not on policy issues, but by offering himself as a contrast to Trump. He ends his first year in the Oval Office not as a contrast to Trump, but rather a contrast to competency.

Pelosi began her likely last term as speaker with her reputation intact as a smart, tough legislative leader, always in control of her troops. She ends the year, and perhaps her career, as a shadow of her former self, bowing to an intransigent Progressive Caucus for short-term legislative victories and thereby throwing future prospects for Democratic control under the bus. She calls her divided caucus “beautiful dynamism.” This doesn’t sound like the same Nancy Pelosi who took back the speaker’s gavel in 2019.

Republican promise

For Republicans operating in the strange no man’s land that is the minority, it’s been a reasonably good year, all things considered. It began with twin losses in special Senate elections in Georgia, dominated by a Democratic strategy of tying the GOP candidates to Trump. On the positive side, House Republicans had an unexpected net 12-seat pickup last fall (14 overall, since the 2018 election), with exit polls showing the country moving center-right. The House GOP could take heart in the fact that its 2020 candidates outperformed Trump, getting 47.7 percent of the vote nationally to his 46.8 percent and more raw votes than Trump in 24 of 50 states, even though the presidential race received 5.86 million more votes overall.

And 2021 ended with a surprise victory for Republicans, this time in the Virginia governor’s race. Glenn Youngkin outperformed Trump among Republicans, independents, conservatives, moderates, women and suburban voters, and won a hard-fought election by keeping his campaign focused on his candidacy and ideas. 

So how will 2022 play out? Perhaps the better question is “Can anything go right for this president?” 

Here we are at year’s end with passage of the Build Back Better bill in Senate limbo. Inflation is showing no sign of going away anytime soon. Gas, food and heating costs are rising to new levels as the supply chain bottleneck continues to disrupt the economy. And COVID-19 continues to impact almost every aspect of society. 

The Russians and the Chinese are testing this president’s ability to lead while his vice president generates increasing concern about her ability to handle any of the many crises facing this administration. 

Republicans have their own challenges — first and foremost, to decide whether or not to follow the Youngkin example by not relitigating the 2020 election and offering voters a positive, kitchen table agenda with real-world solutions. What they need to deliver in the next 12 months, without the drama of the last few years, is a federal equivalent of Youngkin’s grocery tax cut and support for parental involvement in education, while focusing on conservative policies and communicating the progress those policies will bring. 

Biden, on the other hand, needs to accept that simply not being Trump isn’t actually being president. He’s had a bad year, and it’s time he stepped up and owned it. If he doesn’t, next year could be worse. 

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as an election analyst for CBS News.

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