Joe Biden and the dangers of inbred optimism

For an experienced Washington player, president’s missteps in his first year have been surprising

We expected President Joe Biden, here with Senate leader Charles E. Schumer in July, to be a trifle cynical about the realities of 21st-century Washington, but his first-year actions say otherwise, Shapiro writes.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
We expected President Joe Biden, here with Senate leader Charles E. Schumer in July, to be a trifle cynical about the realities of 21st-century Washington, but his first-year actions say otherwise, Shapiro writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 19, 2022 at 6:00am

Americans like their presidents to exude optimism — as candidates.

Think of a smiling Franklin Roosevelt, with his cigarette holder held at a jaunty angle. Think of Ronald Reagan claiming it was “Morning in America” in 1984, even though unemployment was over 7 percent. Add to the mix Barack Obama during his “hope and change” 2008 campaign. 

But for the most part, these upbeat presidents governed as realists. 

FDR, in his desperation, was willing to try almost anything to stanch the Depression. The Gipper, whose approach to the Soviet Union was “trust, but verify,” agreed to raise taxes in 1982 to modify his 1981 rate cuts. Obama, to the consternation of some Democratic activists, erred on the side of caution, beginning with the size of his 2009 stimulus package.

When presidents allow hope to replace careful planning — especially in foreign policy — the results can be tragic. That is the story of Vietnam and, more recently, George W. Bush’s disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq when American troops failed to be greeted as liberators. 

Joe Biden came to office with more relevant Washington experience than any president since the early days of the republic, with the possible exceptions of Lyndon Johnson and George H.W. Bush.

With that background, Biden might have been expected to be a trifle cynical about the realities of 21st-century political power and the pace of change in Washington. 

Biden has had his successes as president, beginning with the booming economy despite the pandemic. But looking back on his first 364 days in the Oval Office, it is startling how many of the president’s missteps flow from a buoyant optimism reminiscent of a gambler who thinks he’s on a lucky streak. 

Big and bold

Determined not to repeat Obama’s 2009 mistakes, Biden championed an ambitious $1.9 trillion stimulus package that passed Congress in March. But in his resolve to be big and bold, Biden ignored the warnings of Larry Summers and other prominent economic figures of the dangers of a burst of inflation.

The causes of the current 7 percent inflation rate bedeviling Biden are complex — and do not lend themselves to simple moral sermons about the virtues of governmental austerity. But the Biden team, perhaps gulled by the price stability of the last four decades, optimistically blamed everything on temporary supply-chain glitches rather than longer and more serious trends. 

With omicron raging and depression about the pandemic dominating the polls, Biden undoubtedly now wishes that he had not sounded so triumphant at an early July White House celebration. Inadvertently echoing George W. Bush’s ill-fated “Mission Accomplished” sentiments about Iraq, Biden said on July 6, “The virus is on the run, and America is coming back.”

His Panglossian response to the pandemic contributed to a lack of preparedness. The continuing shortage of high-quality masks and instant COVID-19 tests might have been averted with realistic planning over the summer. Instead, Biden opted for hope over experience in grappling with an unprecedented public health crisis.   

At almost the same time Biden was declaring victory over the virus, he was also radiating a degree of public optimism about the consequences of his decision to withdraw the last U.S. forces from Afghanistan. At a July 8 news conference, Biden said, “Do I trust the Taliban? No. But I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped and more competent in terms of conducting war.”

Trust, but verify. 

Six weeks later — with the TV screens filled with wrenching images of desperate Afghans unable to enter Kabul airport — Biden tried to justify his decision-making at another news conference. “I took the consensus opinion,” he said. “The consensus opinion was that, in fact, it would not occur, if it occurred, until later in the year.”

In theory, a president with Biden’s Washington experience should have understood that consensus assessments tend to blur all sharp edges. A little more cynicism about these forecasts might have led to the rescue of more of the Afghans who trusted in our protection. 

A year into the Biden administration, nothing is more baffling than the president’s clear misreading of the willful determination of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. If ever there were a president who should have been able to count votes in the Senate, it would be Joe Biden. 

But into October, the White House nurtured the fantasy that the $3.5-trillion version of the Biden’s Build Back Better agenda was somehow attainable. The result of that misplaced optimism: bitter discouragement by party activists that could cut into Democratic turnout this November. 

Now Biden has fallen into the same trap with voting rights and the inability to corral a Senate majority to modify the filibuster. It is as if the White House theater were continually showing old-time Peanuts cartoons featuring Lucy, Charlie Brown and an elusive football.

What is it about Biden that perpetually sees every half-filled glass overflowing with possibility? 

Maybe it is a sense of destiny since Biden and Reagan are the only presidents since the 19th century who attained the White House on their third try. 

Maybe it is that Biden — having endured the loss of two children and a wife plus having survived a life-or-death operation for a brain aneurysm — has the freedom of a president with nothing left to lose.

Or maybe as the nation’s oldest president — taking office at one of the worst moments in our national history — Biden simply feels that he doesn’t have time for caution.  

Whatever the root causes of this ingrained optimism, Biden and the Democrats had better hope their luck turns before the November elections.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 11 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.