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Monday, April 08, 2024

Why Is Biden Struggling? Because America Is Broken.

Why Is Biden Struggling? Because America Is Broken.

In an illustration, an eagle-themed logo is broken into pieces.
Ben Jones

By Damon Linker

“Mr. Linker, a former columnist at The Week, writes the newsletter Notes From the Middleground.

Seven months away from a rematch election pitting President Biden against former President Donald Trump, the incumbent is struggling. Mr. Biden suffers from persistently low approval ratings, he barely manages to tie Mr. Trump in national head-to-head polls and he lags behind the former president in most of the swing states where the election will be decided (despite some recent modestly encouraging movement in his direction).

The question is why.

When Mr. Biden’s defenders seek to answer the question, most of them tick off declining rates of inflation, historically low unemployment, strong economic growth, a list of legislative accomplishments and other evidence of a successful presidency. This suggests the problem is primarily a failure of communication — the thing flailing administrations always blame first, since it implies the path to improvement requires little more than doing a better of job of “getting the message out” about how great the president is doing.

It’s usually wiser to listen to what voters are saying — beyond the obvious concerns about the president’s age.

Recently, Gallup released the latest edition of its longstanding surveymeasuring “satisfaction with the way things are going in the U.S.” Three out of four Americans (75 percent) claimed to be dissatisfied. The long-term trend tells a clear story: From the mid-1990s to late 2004, the level of satisfaction bounced around between 39 percent and 71 percent. But in the aftermath of the Bush administration’s failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and during a yearslong violent insurgency challenging American military occupation of the country, numbers began to slide. They would reach a low of 9 percent satisfaction in October 2008, in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

What followed was a very slow 12-year recovery of satisfaction across almost the entirety of the Obama and Trump administrations, with a post-2004 high of 45 percent reached in February 2020, on the eve of the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. By January 2021, the level of satisfaction was back down to 11 percent, just two points off its historical low. Under Joe Biden, Americans briefly became somewhat more upbeat — but figures have sunk again from the mid-30s to the high teens and low 20s in recent months.

These findings mirror what other pollsters have found when they askedrespondents about whether they think the country is on the right or wrong track, and about their trust in government and confidence in American institutions. The latter number has been slowly falling since the 1960s, but it, too, really began to collapse in 2004, eventually reaching the low 30s by 2007. In 2023, just 26 percent of Americans expressed confidence in our institutions.

In January 2021, Alana Newhouse published an essay in Tablet, “Everything Is Broken,” that gave voice to this incredibly widespread (but underreported) sentiment. Why did so many people in the United States believe that, as Ms. Newhouse put it in a follow-up essay, “whole parts of American society were breaking down before our eyes”?

The examples are almost too numerous to list: a disastrous war in Iraq; a ruinous financial crisis followed by a decade of anemic growth when most of the new wealth went to those who were already well off; a shambolic response to the deadliest pandemic in a century; a humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan; rising prices and interest rates; skyrocketing levels of public and private debt; surging rates of homelessness and the spread of tent encampments in American cities; undocumented migrants streaming over the southern border; spiking rates of gun violence, mental illness, depression, addiction, suicide, chronic illness and obesity, coupled with a decline in life expectancy.

That’s an awful lot of failure over the past 20-odd years. Yet for the most part, the people who run our institutions have done very little to acknowledge or take responsibility for any of it, let alone undertake reforms that aim to fix what’s broken. That’s no doubt why angry anti-establishment populism has become so prominent in our politics over the past decade — with Mr. Trump, a political outsider, taking over the Republican Party in 2016 by running against the elites of both parties, and Senator Bernie Sanders giving the establishment favorite Hillary Clinton a run for her money that same year by taking on the banking and finance sectors of the economy, along with their Democratic and Republican enablers.

Mr. Biden has never been that kind of politician. Most of the time he speaks and acts as if he thinks American institutions are doing perfectly fine — at least so long as Mr. Trump doesn’t get his hands on them. Part of that is undoubtedly because Mr. Biden is an incumbent, and incumbents always find themselves having to defend what they’ve done in office, which isn’t compatible with acting like an insurgent going to war against the system.

Then there’s the fact that Mr. Biden has worked within our elected institutions since the Nixon administration, making him deeply invested in them (and implicated in their failures). Finally, as a Democrat who came of age during the heyday of mid-20th-century liberalism, Mr. Biden is wedded to the idea of using a functional, competent and capable federal government to improve people’s lives — whether or not more recent history validates that faith.

This places him badly out of step with the national mood, speaking a language very far removed from the talk of a broken country that suffuses Mr. Trump’s meandering and often unhinged remarks on the subject. The more earnest statements of third-party candidates Robert F. Kennedy Jr.Cornel West and Jill Stein also speak to aspects of our brokenness, taking ample and often nostalgic note of what’s gone wrong and promising bold, if vague, action to begin an effort of repair.

That leaves Mr. Biden as the lone institutionalist defender of the status quo surrounded by a small army of brokenists looking for support from an electorate primed to respond to their more downcast message.

There may be limits to what Mr. Biden can do to respond. For one thing, his 81-year-old frailty can’t help appearing to mirror the fragile state of our public institutions. For another, in an era of political bad feeling, when presidential approval ratings sink quickly and never recover, incumbents from both parties may no longer enjoy the kind of advantage in seeking re-election that they once did, at least at the national level.

Still, there are things the Biden campaign could do to help the president better connect with voters.

First, he should stop being so upbeat — about the economy in particular — and making the election entirely about the singular awfulness of his opponent. While the latter sounds evasive, the former makes the president seem hopelessly out of touch and risks antagonizing people who aren’t in the mood for a chipper message.

Mr. Biden should instead try to meet Americans where they are. He should admit Washington has gotten a lot of things wrong over the past two decades and sound unhappy about and humbled by it. He could make the argument that all governments make mistakes because they are run by fallible human beings — but also point out that elected representatives in a democracy should be up front about error and resolve to learn from mistakes so that they avoid them in the future. Just acknowledging how much in America is broken could generate a lot of good will from otherwise skeptical and dismissive voters.

Even better would be an effort to develop a reform agenda: Mr. Biden could declare it’s long past time for America to put its house in order, to begin cleaning up the messes of the past two decades, to face our problems and return to our own best national self. He might even think of adapting and repurposing for the center-left a few lines from Ronald Reagan’s first Inaugural Address: “It’s not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work — work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.”

In concrete terms, this means pledging to reform existing institutions and programs, not promising to build new ones on top of the ambitious legislation and substantial spending Congress passed during Mr. Biden’s first two years in office. It means, instead, a commitment to pause and begin assessing what government has been doing at all levels, under both Republican and Democratic leadership, over the past two decades.

It means, more specifically, a resolution to continue and expand existing reviews into what worked and what didn’t during the pandemic — in red states and blue states, in cities, suburbs and small towns — in order to prepare for a better response the next time we confront a public-health emergency. It means talking honestly about the surging and unsustainable national debt and what it will take to begin reining it in. It means trying to help government function better, including a concerted effort to increase state capacity, eliminate regulations that constrain the nation’s housing supply and build on the administration’s attempts at permitting reform to streamline or remove regulations that slow down and increase the cost of private as well as public development.

These projects will far outlast a second Biden term. But the president can promise to get them started, with the remaining work to be completed by presidents and generations to come.

Taking this approach may help to neutralize the populist advantages Mr. Trump enjoys (at least when he isn’t running as an incumbent). However much voters appreciate his denunciations of a corrupt and rigged system, as well as his management of the economy over the first three years of his presidency, they have no love for the G.O.P.’s obsession with pairing cuts to entitlement programs and upper-income tax rates with draconian restrictions on abortion — not to mention Mr. Trump’s focus on personal grievances and legal recklessness. That leaves plenty of room for Mr. Biden to make a case for himself as the guy who can enact the sweeping reforms American needs, and without all the unnecessary and dangerous drama a second Trump administration would surely bring.

Everything is broken — or so it feels to many of our fellow citizens. Denying this reality only empowers populist candidates whose message acquires its potency by pointing to an entrenched political establishment unwilling or unable to learn from (or even admit) its myriad mistakes. That shirking needs to stop. And it should do so with Joe Biden.

Damon Linker, who writes the newsletter “Notes From the Middleground,” is a senior lecturer in the department of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and a senior fellow at the Open Society Project at the Niskanen Center.“

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