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Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Opinion Team Biden believed their own hype — and that has cost them

Opinion Team Biden believed their own hype — and that has cost them

President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris address the nation with victory speeches in Wilmington, Del., on Nov. 7, 2020. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

“President Biden, his team and some of his most prominent supporters convinced themselves of a fairy tale — that a major part of Biden’s 2020 victory was the political skill of the former vice president and his top advisers. Believing that hype and clinging to it are one of the main reasons that Biden’s presidency is, in my view, a disappointment right now — he is downplaying and even attacking progressive goals he once encouraged and refusing to strongly align with those who voted for him amid a right-wing assault against them; but his poll numbersare dismal and his agenda stalled, with conservative and moderate voters and lawmakers not rewarding his attempts at being centrist.

Biden’s victories in 2020 were not due to a brilliant strategy. He won the Democratic primary because of his support from two blocs: Black Democrats, who backed him because of his alliance with former president Barack Obama and their view that an older White male candidate was needed to defeat Donald Trump; and White Democrats, who rallied to Biden at the urging of the party establishment, which was convinced that his strongest rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), would lose to Trump. He won the general election because of the same intense anti-Trump sentiment that had carried the Democrats to victory in the 2018 midterms.

Nevertheless, the Biden presidency started with his advisers, the party establishment, pro-Biden voices in the news media and the president himself casting Biden’s approach and style as political genius: Biden and his team were successful because they uniquely understood the U.S. electoratethe story went. He was the Democrats’ whisperer to White Americans who didn’t have college degrees or worked in blue-collar jobs while understanding Black voters really well, too.

Americans desperately wanted, according to the narrative, a president who was kind of boring and would get the nation back to “normal” after the Trump years — and that was Biden. Bipartisan governance would be possible because of Biden’s persona and long-standing relationships on Capitol Hill. The Democratic Party would be fine as long as it didn’t veer too far left — and it wouldn’t with Biden in charge. His brand as a moderate politician was so strong that Bidencould push an agenda of progressive ideas in the mold of Franklin D. Rooseveltand still not face a backlash from more centrist voters. He wouldn’t “swing at every pitch” and get drawn into unnecessary partisan fights with Republicans.

“The Biden approach is working,” was the headline of an Aug. 5 piece by New York Times columnist David Brooks, whose work Biden has praised in the pastand who has been a prominent advocate of the president’s approach. That piece was tweeted by one of the president’s top aides.

In reality, August was when it became clear that Biden’s approach had real shortcomings — the administration wasn’t that competent in dealing with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan or the delta variant; couldn’t navigate the dynamics on Capitol Hill to get Biden’s agenda through; and didn’t have the pulse of the public, which started turning on the president.

But with the president, his team and their allies in the media having created a mythology of Team Biden’s political savvy, the Biden White House was slow to react to the collapse happening around them. Biden’s poll numbers were dropping, even among Democrats and Black Americans; the Build Back Better Act stalled; the Democratic Party started fracturing; and Republicans in state houses were passing aggressive legislation to disadvantage Democratic-leaning voters

Within the span of a few weeks earlier this year, Biden went from comparing congressional Republicans to Bull Connor to emphasizing his strong relationship with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). This was not political genius — it was approaching political idiocy.

In the past two months, Biden has tried to recalibrate by moving to the right on a number of fronts — emphasizing deficit reduction, his support of the police and his bipartisan proposals, as well as ending most covid-19 mitigation policies. I don’t see evidence that’s working.

But even if the pivot succeeds, real questions would remain about the political acumen of Biden and the people around him. Biden could have taken an aggressive, damn-the-polls-do-everything-I-can approach to his presidency. (In fact, some of Biden’s most important accomplishments as president — appointing a Black woman to the Supreme Court, fixating on covid-19 at the start of his term, helping rally the world in defense of Ukraine and passing a huge economic stimulus — were bold, aggressive acts that weren’t necessarily “savvy.”) Alternatively, he could have governed from the start like post-1994 Bill Clinton, obsessed with being centrist and popular with swing voters.

Instead, Biden and his team bet on their political genius — Biden could be both moderate and progressive, beloved by the Democratic base and by swing voters, a friend of congressional Democrats and also Republicans. It was magical thinking. It was believing their own hype.

And it is failing. America is deeply divided. So is Washington. Fixing everything or anything will be really hard — and perhaps impossible. We need politicians, politicos and pundits who will be honest about the challenges, instead of telling us reassuring things they probably know aren’t true —like saying there isn’t a Blue America or a Red America or a Black America or a White America — or actually believing things that aren’t true —like U.S. politics was one President Biden away from being normal.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a Washington Post columnist. Before joining The Post in May 2021, Perry had stints as a government and elections writer for Time magazine, The Post's national desk, theGrio and FiveThirtyEight. He has also been been an on-air analyst at MSNBC and a fellow at New America. He grew up in Louisville and lives there now. Twitter

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