Before Obama decided to intervene in the 2020 election— via South Carolina hack Jim Clyburn— to prevent Bernie from getting the nomination, Biden was bobbing back and forth between 4th and 5th place in the primaries. No one cared much about his campaign and most of the conservative Democrats were gravitating towards Mayor Pete, Amy Klobuchar and Mike Bloomberg. Biden’s campaign had no energy and no raison d’être at all. It was just a matter of time before he fell asleep on a stage somewhere and woke up and withdrew. Instead, thanks to Obama, Clyburn and Wall Street, he became “it’s either this old guy or 4 more years of Trump.” Trump lost by 7 million votes (51.3% to 46.9%) but Biden still lost 4 significant swing states a better candidate would have won— Florida, Ohio, Iowa and North Carolina. And Biden's wins in Arizona, Nevada, Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia and Pennsylvania were way too close and could have easily gone the other way.
Now he’s one of the most unpopular presidents I can remember and will probably fulfill my often-voiced expectations— the second worst American president in any of our lifetimes. Biden as president— who was an anti-choice Democrat in the Senate— didn’t give a damn about the absolute certainty that the Supreme Court would overturn Roe and because of that the White House was unprepared when they did.
“Now, two weeks after the Dobbs decision,” wrote Ryan Cooper in an essay about Biden’s failure as a president for American Prospect this morning, “top aides are still squabbling over what the administration should do. A conference of Democratic governors was arranged last Friday, so late that none could attend in person and some declined to do it at all. Initially, the administration dismissed ending the filibuster to pass a codification of Roe, though Biden did later reverse course. Instead, it turns out that the very day the Dobbs decision dropped, the White House was going to cut a spectacularly terrible deal with Mitch McConnell to nominate an anti-abortion Republican to a lifetime seat in the federal judiciary in return for McConnell not blocking the appointment of two U.S. attorneys. (This bargain appears to be on ice for the moment.) On the question of what to do about the Supreme Court, which is poised to strike down democracy entirely, Biden offers nothing. On the contrary, he dismissed the idea of expansion, and according to Reuters, is concerned that ‘more radical moves would … undermine public trust in institutions like the Supreme Court.’ He might as well just hand the Court a list of other cherished freedoms they can repeal without consequence.”
It’s why one Democratic member of Congress told CNN the White House is “rudderless, aimless and hopeless.” The views of more than two dozen party elites go “deeper than questions of ideology and posture. Instead, they say, it gets to questions of basic management.”
An instructive book in this area is The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins, by Jeff Connaughton, who was a Biden aide and D.C. lobbyist for many years. The book is blistering about Biden’s work ethic and his basic political orientation. He described learning from Biden’s top aides when he first started: “They knew Biden would ignore every task he didn’t want to do and every person he didn’t want to deal with.”
After years of loyal service, Connaughton asked Biden for help getting a job in the Clinton administration, only for Biden to blow him off. Another Biden aide explained this by way of a comparison to the late Ted Kennedy. Unlike the Massachusetts senator, “Biden is only about himself becoming president, he doesn’t care about force projection, so he never helps his former staff get jobs,” the aide said. Kennedy “cultivated and promoted staff not just because he was a decent boss, but because he had an ideological agenda and the staff served it across Washington,” Connaughton concluded. “In contrast, Biden is a pragmatist. His ambitions, I was coming to understand, were mainly about himself.”
With this perspective, a lot about how Biden behaves swims into focus. When he cares a lot about something, like getting out of Afghanistan, he can be determined and even endure tremendous pressure. But when he doesn’t— like on student debt forgiveness, facing up to what the Supreme Court has become, or evidently protecting the right to choose— he dithers and procrastinates even when it causes him great political harm. And because the president is the only one who can decide on priorities or pick between competing options, the White House ends up riven with indecision and squabbling.
When things go well, like in the beginning of his term with the passage of a $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, Biden can look good. But most of the decisions that rise to the president are hard, and Biden’s history has been to take his time on the hard stuff to the point of paralysis. Americans are starved for leadership, and don’t want to see a president carried away by events and unable to act.
Biden did get what he has long wanted— to be president. But if he wants to stay there for a second term, he is going to have to change many of his old habits.
I’ve heard from several people in Washington just what Matt Stoller tweeted today: “There's a similar problem with Kamala Harris, which everyone who has dealt with her knows. She's profoundly uncurious and totally uninterested in government. It's bizarre she was picked as VP.” Bizarre? Nah… a pure hakish Biden move, predictable. Just like giving Mayo Pete a cabinet position. Like my grandfather told me when I was a kid, there’s only one thing worse than the Democrats: the Republicans.