Joe Biden: From hero to zero… to hero again? American president negotiates a quagmire of shifting political allegiances

Joe Biden: From hero to zero… to hero again? American president negotiates a quagmire of shifting political allegiances
US President Joe Biden. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Al Drago / Pool)

The first massive infrastructure bill’s passage, and the fate of the second one, may — just may — contribute to rebuilding Joe Biden’s reputation as a president who gets things done. Otherwise, the newer image of a president overwhelmed by events will increase its hold on Americans. The stakes for the 2022 mid-term election are high.

The election of Joseph R Biden as president of the US followed the four chaotic years of the Trump presidency. Despite his substantial victory, Biden’s administration has been the recipient of a barrage of criticism ranging from the incessant howling by delusional Trumpians — the kinds of people who wore bison horns on their heads as they stormed the Capitol building — to those now attacking local school board members because their poor students had been assigned one of Toni Morrison’s novels in their advanced placement courses… or because their children must follow Covid protocols. 

There has also been, inevitably, that gaggle of self-serving Republican politicians eager to corral the Trumpians’ voting support for their own purposes in coming elections. 

Nevertheless, with that Biden triumph, at least initially, there were sighs of relief among the greater portion of Americans, along with much of the rest of the world. Not so much, perhaps, among leadership cadres in Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, Jerusalem or Tehran, but certainly among those in the country’s longtime allies and the general populations of those nations. 

The hope was that the incessant drumbeat of jejune, narcissistic tantrums and non-stop lies about everything from the Covid pandemic being cured by bleach to a mythical stolen election would finally become a thing of the past in American public life. Much of the country felt a respite from the madness, with an appreciation that adults were now moving into positions of authority and trust.

The Biden case was made that, despite dangerous obstructionism from the Trump team in their attempts to halt even the presidential transition, here was an old-style leader and his team who were steady in a crisis, and wise in the ways of an obstreperous, divided Congress. Moreover, they were experienced and knowledgeable in dealing with international issues. Americans could rest easier while living in a troubling world.

At least initially, the new president’s polling numbers showed solid, if not remarkable support. And at least initially, too, many of the new administration’s first moves seemed to bear out that optimism. Or at least sighs of relief. 

The massive American Rescue Plan passed in Congress, leading to those substantial relief payments directly to a majority of Americans — many of whom were finding themselves with unexpected losses of income as a result of the economic slowdown coming from the countermeasures against the pandemic. Then there were also encouraging signs of a rebound in the economy, with strengthening employment numbers (and growing numbers of “employees wanted” signs and drops in unemployment), a rise in overall economic growth, and — importantly — a fast-growing total of Americans vaccinated. The latter gave rise to hopes the disease would, soon enough, be finally put in its place.

In foreign affairs, there were moves representing positive signalling too, stemming from a public announcement of an intent to re-establish American participation in the six-party agreement over Iran’s nuclear ambitions and an immediate return to the Paris climate accord. Allies largely found the style and manner of the Biden administration much more to their liking as well. A good start there.

But then the clouds began to roll in for Joe Biden. The national patience with the permutations of the pandemic lockdown regulations wore increasingly thin, going into the second year of the crisis. Increasingly, the Biden administration found itself assailed by its Republican opposition over the regimen of Covid regulations, as the disease itself — and the vaccinations, the masks, the social distancing and the closures or partial closures of public institutions like schools — became weaponised by Republican opponents. 

They came to be reframed by many, not simply as restrictive, but necessary public health emergency mechanisms, but rather as odious restrictions on personal freedom and liberty by an evil, rapacious government intent on destroying basic rights. The more the administration pushed to get control of the disease and drive the vaccination rate upwards, the more its opponents took advantage of that resentment on the part of many, especially since all the restrictions had not yet crushed the disease.

Besides Covid and its associated agonies, though, the Biden administration has been pummelled by opponents (and that has contributed to increasing citizen unease or mistrust) over the continuing unemployment circumstances, even though the actual unemployment rate has now retreated to 4.5%, and new monthly hiring figures are now reaching a half-million or so per month. 

What has undermined support further has been a rise in inflation (up to 6.5%, a 30-year high), widely publicised supply chain difficulties and complications, and — potently — a rise in petrol prices just as people are returning to work, beginning to travel more and trying to resume more and more elements of their normal lives. 

In historical terms, the inflation is not severe but it is a harbinger of higher interest rates on consumer debt and mortgage loans. Those supply chain problems are, in fact, partially due to the return of global trade, coming off a low base during the past two years of Covid restrictions and the consequent congestion in key ports, as well as a new scarcity of the truckers who can take newly landed containers from ports of entry to wholesale and distribution centres — and then on to retail outlets all across the country. 

The rise in petrol price, meanwhile, is significantly a result of restrictions on production by Middle Eastern suppliers in their efforts to drive up the price of crude oil, rather than any specific decisions or actions by the Biden administration. This petrol price rise is another of those things — just like the fear that purchases for the impending Christmas season may be difficult because of supply chain problems — largely beyond any specific action by government. (Even so, the cost of petrol at the pump remains lower than in European markets, or in South Africa.)

Trying to explain this, or at least offer some deeper context, economist Paul Krugman argued in the New York Times the other day, “By the usual measures, the US economy has been booming this year. Employment has risen by more than five million since January; a record number of Americans say this is a good time to find a quality job, a sentiment reflected in the willingness of an unprecedented number of workers to quit (yes, high quit rates are a good sign).

“Yet Americans are, or say they are, pessimistic about the economic situation. For example, here’s the widely cited Michigan index of consumer sentiment, which has slid to a level not seen since the depths of the pandemic slump.

“How can people be feeling so bad about a seemingly good economy?

“One answer is that Americans are upset about inflation and disrupted supply chains. And that’s surely true. But I’d suggest that it’s only part of the story — that to an important extent, when you ask people about the state of the economy, their replies don’t necessarily reflect their actual experience. Instead, they respond based on what they imagine is happening to other people, a perception that can be shaped by news reports and their own political leanings.

“That is, I’m suggesting that public views about the economy are a bit like public views on crime, which many people said was rising even when it was steadily falling.”

There have been yet other highly publicised issues.

One of these has been the continuing crisis of US border controls and flows of undocumented/illegal immigrants. Reportedly, large numbers of would-be immigrants from Haiti and Central America have been lured northwards because of the implicit (but incorrect) understanding by would-be entrants (an idea often fed by unscrupulous human traffickers) that the US is relaxing its border controls.

These numbers have given the sense to Americans fearful of new immigration (and the Republican false narrative of “replacement”) that the Biden administration is unwilling to crack down decisively on the flow of such people and may even want such immigrant flows. For those who believe immigrants are a source of social unrest and the decay of traditional national values, cause unemployment, and bring crime, disease, drugs, and worse, the public perception that the Biden team is soft on immigration has also helped to lower public support for the president. 

In international security affairs, of course, the unedifying spectacle of the final withdrawal from Afghanistan by the last American military forces, the entry of the Taliban into Kabul without a fight, and the chaotic scramble to evacuate thousands of Afghans tied to the coalition forces during a 20-year conflict was all broadcast live on television and online, as it happened. For days on end.

It didn’t really matter that the withdrawal had been negotiated by the previous president, or that there was virtually zero enthusiasm for maintaining a US military presence in a country that would now have a hostile regime in charge. The charge was that the Biden administration had botched the job, showing that they were amateurs in international affairs when it came right down to it.

Republicans eagerly rode that charge for all it was worth in speeches and during hours of congressional hearings where top Pentagon officials and generals were called to account. How it could have ended any other way was never really addressed, but memories of a final, last-stand evacuation by helicopters from Saigon in 1975 became the story. That and the lingering question of what it had all meant. 

But perhaps the single most unedifying aspect of the Washington scene, and one contributing significantly to the idea the Biden team is incompetent or worse, has been the months-long wrangling in Congress — largely between Democrats rather than between the two parties — over the passage of the two infrastructure bills.

These proposals were core items in the Biden campaign, plans he insisted would be essential for national success.

One bill — valued at around a trillion dollars and represented in today’s dollars about as much as the construction of the national highway system back in the 1950s — dealt with some very standard things like the repair, renovation and upgrades for bridges, railroads, roads, harbours, national high-speed internet and airports.

The other brought together a whole roster of social welfare-style programmes, ranging from free community college education, improvements in Medicare coverage, paid parental leave and so forth. Proponents argued that these were, in effect, the soft side of infrastructure — social infrastructure. 

These two halves of a key presidential campaign promise, have for months been subjected to an increasingly angry, arcane, sometimes dispiriting, often incomprehensible posturing and a three-way struggle among Democrats, with the Republicans largely on the sidelines watching with glee. 

The struggle has been taking place between the left-wing Democrats’ caucus demanding passage of both bills simultaneously; the mainstream Democrats led by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, desperate to achieve forward motion of at least the hard infrastructure bill and then move carefully on the second; and the constantly shifting demands from two hold-out Democratic senators, Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema. 

Precisely because the Democrats’ control of the Senate rests on gaining the support of every single Democratic senator so that the vice president can vote a bill into passage, there has been an extraordinary amount of horse-trading to keep every senator on side, and to keep the Democrats together with their similarly slender majority in the House on board as well. As a result, for weeks and even months, it was virtually impossible for anybody — even the principal protagonists — to be precisely clear and accurate over which elements of the original proposals remained fully agreed upon.

Public cynicism over the Biden administration’s seeming ineptitude in controlling the passage of its premier legislative agenda items grew amid the unsightly legislative sausage-making and the potshots from Biden’s opponents as Republican leaders took great glee in the Democrats’ seeming shambles. Eventually, though, enough horse-trading ensued that, in a near miracle, the trillion dollar-plus infrastructure bill was actually passed by both houses, with even some Republicans supporting it. 

It has now gone on to the president to be signed into law — and thus getting the dollars distributed through contracts and other spending mechanisms. Passing an infrastructure bill like this was supposed to be a Trump plan too, but his administration was never sufficiently engaged with it to make it more than a talking point. This modern legislative event has now come into being, practically a loaves and fishes moment, probably made possible by more arm twisting than anyone wants to imagine or reveal just yet.  

Of course, this bill’s passage only happened after the 2 November off-year election, and thus after the narrow, but alarming defeat of Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe by Glenn Youngkin to be governor of Virginia. Many commentators believe if the bill’s passage had happened prior to the election, it could have provided just enough additional lift for Democrats so that they would have eked out a narrow victory in that race. Others, however, argue McAuliffe’s own campaign was so mistargeted (see: America’s off-year election brings surprises and some scary news for Biden and Democrats) that no national legislative victory would have buoyed his chances sufficiently to be elected any way. 

At this point, it is unclear what precise fate awaits the second bill and its ever-changing array of social infrastructure measures through compromises designed to hold together Democrats sufficiently for the bill’s passage so that it can at least pass by the reconciliation mechanism. That allows straight majority rule votes to pass a measure under the idea that it is simply a reconciliation of previously passed, but different Senate and House measures. The fate of this social infrastructure measure, in turn, may come to have much to do with how citizens view the Biden presidency by the time the 2022 mid-term election comes into view.

The biggest danger for Biden and his party is that history suggests mid-term elections, such as the one coming up next year for the full House of Representatives and a third of the Senate, is the way voters punish a party holding the presidency to account for its sins — real or imagined. In that sense, first, the passage of the infrastructure bill and then, passage of the second measure might begin to help the Biden forces repair some of the damage to public perceptions of their leadership brought about by both circumstances beyond their power and by the way they have handled things they can control. 

If the pandemic finally recedes, if the economy continues to grow, if all the Christmas toys can be purchased after all, and if the international climate stays reasonably calm, the Democrats may yet have a chance to redeem themselves in voters’ eyes — and perhaps even hold onto legislative majorities. 

But if there are further speed bumps with regard to Covid, or if a crisis in the Middle East, a real ruction with China over Taiwan or something similar happens, the Democrats will have much to worry about, come November 2022. Come to think of it, so will the rest of us. DM


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