What was Joe Biden supposed to do in his first year?

President might have promised too much, but being unambitious wasn't an option

President Joe Biden speaks to the media after attending a Senate Democrats luncheon in Russell Building to discuss ending the filibuster to pass voting rights bills on Jan. 13. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
President Joe Biden speaks to the media after attending a Senate Democrats luncheon in Russell Building to discuss ending the filibuster to pass voting rights bills on Jan. 13. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 26, 2022 at 6:00am

OPINION — We have now entered the phase when political observers on both sides of the aisle are chiming in about how and why President Joe Biden screwed up during his first year in office.

Republicans generally agree that Biden went too far to the left. As former George W. Bush campaign operative and White House aide Scott Jennings said in a Louisville Courier Journal op-ed piece:

“Perhaps Biden’s most stunning failure is his complete misjudgment about why he was elected in the first place. He didn’t win because he had some amazing ideas. He just appeared to be less crazy than Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. His entire mandate was to replace Trump, operate the government competently, and lower the temperature in Washington. The country wasn’t looking for a mind-bending jerk toward progressivism. If Americans (or even Democrats) wanted that, they would’ve gone with Bernie. Instead, they elected Biden, along with a 50-50 Senate and a nearly 50-50 House. The voters were clear: don’t do anything drastic or stupid.”

Another Republican strategist, campaign consultant Brad Todd of OnMessage Inc., echoed those views in arguing that Biden received only a “caretaker mandate.”

To maximize Democrats’ chances in the midterms, Todd said in an interview, Biden needed to “show strength by proving he could stand up to people who made the voters’ ears hurt on both sides of the aisle.” Biden’s age and a likely one-term presidency made him uniquely able to focus on COVID-19 and to govern “in a non-controversial manner,” Todd insisted.

Instead, the GOP consultant said, “Biden became a less successful, equally partisan, male version of Nancy Pelosi — non-stop controversial, confrontational, and ideological. He has not turned the temperature down, and he has focused on controversial subjects (like his speech in Georgia), not non-controversial subjects (like supply chain). He has indulged his base in inflammatory rhetoric. He has declared every legislative project an Armageddon.”

Those criticisms have some merit. With a 50-50 Senate and a very narrow House advantage, Biden was always going to be limited in what he could do. He needed to explain that to his supporters, and he needed to build legislative coalitions around key members, getting as much as he could even though that would fall short of what many in his party had hoped for.

Jennings and Todd were also correct when they argued that Biden didn’t win primarily because of his agenda but, rather, because Trump alienated so many moderate, swing and suburban voters. Biden’s “mandate” wasn’t what he assumed.

But winners invariably exaggerate the mandate they are given by the voters, and the Republican critics of Biden assume that he needs to please only swing voters during his tenure in office. 

Just let Biden sit in the Oval Office, make nice with Republicans in Congress and stay away from anything ideological or controversial, they seem to be arguing. That would give him the best chance of holding the House and Senate during the midterms.

Sorry, but that dog won’t hunt. No, Biden was not elected to be Franklin Roosevelt, but he also wasn’t elected to be Herbert Hoover or Calvin Coolidge.  

Biden won by some 7 million votes and ousted an incumbent president of the United States, but he should avoid “ideological” issues? 

Is that what George W. Bush did? Or Trump? Hardly.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell could keep one Supreme Court seat vacant for a year and ram through a nominee for a different seat weeks before an election, but Biden needed to avoid being “controversial, confrontational and ideological” at all cost?

Biden would have looked weak and risked splitting the Democratic Party apart if he hadn’t tried to do something about climate change, child care, Medicare expansion, income inequality (through taxes) and other core party goals. 

If you think Democratic voters are lukewarm about Biden now because they believe he didn’t push hard enough on voting rights (which Republicans are blocking), imagine how they would feel if he shied away from even promoting more money for universal pre-K, home care, prescription drug costs and the other items in the Build Back Better plan.

In a sense, Biden was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.

His efforts to push the Democratic agenda made it easier for Republicans to brand him as very liberal. But not pursuing the Democratic agenda at all, as Jennings and Todd suggest, would have fractured the Democratic Party.

Biden’s biggest problem is that he made lots of promises — promises that he couldn’t keep without the cooperation of Capitol Hill. Given the makeup of the House and Senate and the refusal of a couple of Democrats to change Senate rules, that was never in the cards.

Biden is now stuck in a nearly impossible position. Swing voters and moderates think he is too liberal and that he is responsible for inflation, hasn’t handled the coronavirus well and hasn’t dealt effectively with a range of other issues. Democrats and progressives, on the other hand, are frustrated that many of his promises are unfulfilled.

The president now needs some luck, especially on inflation and COVID-19, and an opportunity to change the public’s focus. He may not get either, which could well result in a bloodbath for Democrats in November. But governing like a Republican or a political eunuch was not a serious option for Biden.