Democrats should cheer up about Biden

Jonathan Bernstein
Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)

President Joe Biden is running for re-election. A lot of Democratic voters have been telling pollsters they wish he wouldn’t.

To the extent that voters are wary of having a president in his 80s, their discomfort is understandable. But if it’s a question of how Biden has handled the job of president, Democrats should cheer up about their likely nominee.

Biden’s challenge throughout his presidency has been to make good on two very different promises he laid out in 2020: to restore normal government following the chaos of Donald Trump’s presidency and to govern as a mainstream Democrat in a party that has become increasingly liberal over the last decade. For the most part, he has found ways to walk that line.

U.S. President Joe Biden meets with his Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, April 4, 2023. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)

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He has succeeded in large part by running a highly professional — albeit strictly partisan — White House and administration. The team has mostly avoided scandal. Just as important, the administration has dodged the kinds of leaks over policy in-fighting that often signal internal divisions. It’s a sharp contrast with not only the constant chaos of the Trump administration but also with some troubled periods of the George W. Bush and Bill Clinton presidencies, when such clashes often foreshadowed policy failures.

Biden himself is still prone to the gaffes that have always plagued him; that may be why he has been less likely to take questions from the media than any president since Ronald Reagan.

Performance vs. popularity: But the importance of the public performance of the presidency is generally overrated even in its effect on presidential popularity. Reagan is a good example: His public performance was largely the same in his first, second and third years, when he was unpopular; in the next three years and final year, when he was extremely popular; and in his seventh year, where he was only moderately popular. What drove his standing with voters were events — scandal, inflation, recession or boom, Cold War or diplomacy.

And Biden, like George H.W. Bush, another former vice president turned president who had his own problems with the public portion of the presidency, has demonstrated the advantages of knowing how the White House and the executive branch really work.

That understanding has paid off when Biden had opportunities. Given Democrats’ tiny majorities in Congress in 2021-22, a surprising number of Democratic priorities, including climate and health policies, were signed into law, along with bipartisan deals on infrastructure and the first gun safety measure to pass in a long time.

It’s far too early to gauge how Biden’s approach will work now that Republicans have taken control of the House. Biden’s first two years certainly don’t compare to, say, 2009-10 or 1965-66, two especially productive terms where Democrats controlled both chambers in Congress and the White House. While Biden’s occasional declarations that he was going to solve Congress’s partisan polarization by the sheer force of his decades of experience in the Senate were, ahem, malarkey, it’s fair to give him strong marks for working with Capitol Hill, including with Republicans.

Similarly, Biden assembled strong, well-managed teams to run foreign policy, domestic matters and the economy. Having talented staff and good process didn’t prevent problems such as the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan or surging inflation last year, nor has it solved longstanding policy stalemates in areas such as the border, drugs or guns. (1) But Biden and his team have done a first-rate job keeping the alliance together in supporting Ukraine. And presidents don’t have much sway over the economy, especially in the short run: Biden was no more responsible for the painful acceleration in inflation than he was deserving of credit for the buoyant job market.

Pretty dull: All of this has also gone a long way toward fulfilling the other half of Biden’s pledge, to return to normal government. He won’t fully achieve that without Republicans doing their part, and conservative media is determined to make it seem that Biden and his allies can’t be trusted. But in truth, White House politics have been pretty dull since January 20, 2021, which is exactly how “normal” should be. It’s no surprise that the scandal that Republicans are pushing the hardest — the president’s son’s laptop — isn’t about the Biden presidency at all. (2)

We’re in an era of partisan presidencies, and with the partial (and complicated) exception of Trump, most recent presidents have followed their party’s policy preferences. Biden has pushed Democratic ideas on health care, climate, voting rights and guns — just as almost all of the 30-odd candidates who sought the nomination would have done had they been elected. And he’s done it ably. Age is his most significant negative, with its threats of a lack of innovation and diminished energy levels. Yet experience is a real plus, and so far, the balance has clearly been on the good side.

Whether that will last if Biden, now 80, spends another five-plus years in the White House is anybody’s guess. The hard truth for Democrats is that they made this choice long ago. A party isn’t going to repudiate its incumbent president, so nominating Biden in 2020 meant that Democrats would likely be nominating him again in 2024.

But for now, all parties can ask of their presidents is that they represent the party well — and that they are good at the job of president. Biden has accomplished both.

(1) Anti-war Democrats, in particular, should be giving Biden high marks for actually ending the continued involvement in Afghanistan that previous presidents didn't seem to believe in while also not being willing to take the heat for withdrawing.

(2) Yes, yes, for true conspiracy theorists the laptop means that Biden has been compromised and is acting on the instructions of manipulative foreign interests as part of a complex quid pro quo. But the reason that the focus is on Hunter Biden's attempts to cash in on his name is that there isn't any actual evidence or even a sensible theory to suggest illicit activity within the administration.

— Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.