When joe biden bangs on about bipartisanship and compromising, some Democrats roll their eyes, thinking him out of touch with modern politics. But the accumulating evidence suggests he understands how to make progress better than they do. That may not strengthen his political standing in the short term, but it holds out some hope for his presidency, and American governance, over the long haul.
After a midsummer burst of Senate affirmation, Mr Biden can point to a series of bipartisan accomplishments, now including a bill to subsidise America’s semiconductor industry on top of the first gun-safety legislation in almost 30 years and a $1.2trn infrastructure law, achievements that by definition are also a credit to Republicans. Mr Biden’s patience for talks and tolerance for compromise, not qualities associated with the previous president, have also yielded breakthroughs (for now, within his party) on fighting climate change and restraining drug costs.
Congress has been more productive in recent years, including under Donald Trump, than it generally gets credit for. In quieter corners, incentives still exist for lawmakers to make law. They need achievements to tout back home, and, believe it or not, most also came to Washington to accomplish something meaningful. Some of these legislators mark their progress with proud displays on their walls of the pens presidents used to sign their bills.
Where Mr Biden has had more impressive success is in realising high-profile agenda items. In such cases, the perverse incentives of polarisation tend to kick in, as the opposition party unites to deny the president a victory. That dynamic makes it more critical for the president to hold together members of his party, empowering those politicians, like Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who sit at its extremes. Talks within a party can prove more fraught than ones between the parties; a president looks particularly pathetic when his shot is blocked by his own teammates.
On such core agenda items, Mr Trump succeeded only with members of his party, and even then really just once, in passing a conventional Republican tax cut. By contrast, Mr Biden can point to victories on both fronts. He won enough support from the opposition to carry the day on infrastructure, guns and chips, and he held his party together to pass his $1.9trn covid-relief package without a Republican vote (which did not prevent some Republicans from boasting about how the law would help their constituents). He now has a chance at the wins on drug pricing and climate because Mr Manchin, long a holdout against the bloated “Build Back Better” legislation, has agreed to the skinnier, rebranded “Inflation Reduction Act”. “They’re shooting for the moon, and they’re falling far short of their aspirations, but they’re achieving a lot,” says Frances Lee, a professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University who studies the productivity of Congress.
This is good news for Democrats running in the mid-term elections. But Mr Biden’s legislative wins, his deft management of the Ukraine crisis, and even the killing of Ayman Al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s leader, seem unlikely, for now, to improve his own dismal approval rating. His standing was lower in July than that of all but one of the presidents tracked by Gallup at that stage in office (the exception being Harry Truman). Democratic and Republican lawmakers advance many theories for this.
One is his hubris. After Democrats rammed through the covid-relief bill, Mr Biden suppressed his centrist reflexes, relishing the idea that he would be seen as more ambitious than the president he served, Barack Obama, and imagining he might be the next fdr. He dreamed the progressives’ wild dream, a $3.5trn package to combat climate change and expand the welfare state. He inflated expectations and bickered with members of his own party. Now even some Democrats irritated by Mr Manchin’s grandstanding feel he was more right than wrong.
Second, his communication. Some Democrats think Mr Biden could learn from Mr Trump about storytelling. They find it hard to summarise what this administration stands for. They are baffled by its failure to flog achievements like the infrastructure law.
Third, his decision-making. Some officials who also served under Mr Obama worried this White House would engage in eye-glazing rumination, too. Their fears have been realised. Mr Biden is said to be slow to reach decisions. He has repeatedly put off some tough calls, like whether to cancel student debt (a bad idea).
Fourth, his competence. The agonising withdrawal from Afghanistan, which deepened the slide in Mr Biden’s approval rating, is Exhibit a. But lawmakers of both parties complain about the quality of Mr Biden’s appointments and his slow pace in making them. With the exception of a few stars like Gina Raimondo, the commerce secretary who championed the semiconductor bill, his cabinet members have not distinguished themselves.
Last, there is Mr Biden’s age: enough said.
The economy, stupid
As the participants in this Washington parlour game recognise, such criticisms are speculative and possibly irrelevant. Occam’s razor might shave them all away to reveal just the price of petrol and the plain fact that almost no Western leader registers as popular today. Like George H.W. Bush, another vice-president who ascended to the Oval Office, Mr Biden lacked a solid political base of his own. He was the not-Trump candidate, as Mr Bush was the kinder, gentler Ronald Reagan. Both ideas were vague and inevitably disappointing. Despite his victory in the first Gulf war, Bush’s thin support crumbled as a recession took hold late in his single term. Though experienced in government, Bush was often portrayed back then as wimpy, hypocritical and clueless. He is remembered now for decency, steadiness and the toughness to compromise in the interest of the environment, national security and deficit reduction. Not a shabby sort of legacy to hope for. ■