Inflation is mostly to blame for Biden’s catastrophic approval rating, of course. But I think what Axelrod describes here is an underrated reason for flagging left-wing support. It’s not (just) that his policies aren’t progressive enough.
It’s the sense that he doesn’t “fight,” to borrow a term from righty populists. And when he does make a gesture towards fighting, like when he endorsed creating an exception to the filibuster for abortion rights, he’s destined to end up losing that fight.
It doesn’t help either that he’s 79 years old. Watch two minutes of Axelrod here, which picks up with him discussing Biden’s call for a filibuster carve-out.
Biden’s age has always been a double-edged sword. If his first 18 months as president had gone well, Democrats would be trumpeting the wisdom that comes with experience. America needed a steady hand on the wheel after the volatility of the Trump years and shrewdly elected a man who’d spent more than 40 years in the Senate and White House as VP. Who better to restore normalcy and serenity to the country than a grandpa?
Because his first 18 months haven’t gone well, they’re stuck with a different narrative. He’s too old to fight anymore. He’s overwhelmed by events because he’s no longer nimble enough to keep pace with them. Those 40 years of experience he brought to the White House have only affirmed populists on both sides in their belief that the American political establishment is incompetent, unequal to the country’s challenges, and needs radical replacement.
On Earth 2, where things are going well in America, I wonder how much better Biden’s polling is on the question of whether he’s mentally fit for office.
Matt Continetti echoes Axelrod’s point in a piece today arguing that it’s not so much that Biden is doing a bad job (although he is) as that it seems he isn’t doing the job at all.
Lately, though, I have been having second thoughts. Not that Barack Obama or Ron Klain or Dr. Jill are running the show in secret. What I have been wondering, instead, is whether anyone is leading the government at all. There is no power, either overt or covert, in or behind the throne. The throne is empty…
[E]ach of these elements—the president, his staff, his spokesperson, his vice president, his policy—comes across as disconnected, discombobulated, as if each inhabits a separate sphere of activity. Whether because of Biden’s age, or his weekend trips to Delaware, or years of remote work, or lower-level staff turnover, or a painstakingly slow decision-making process, or ideological stubbornness, or a lack of a strategic plan, this administration drifts from crisis to crisis, and from one bad headline to the next. And nothing improves.
Biden and his staff sure do seem to be reading from different scripts much of the time, to the president’s annoyance. But equally bad, says Continetti, is when there appears to be no script at all. No one’s happy with Biden’s border policy, for instance, yet there’s no real attempt to defend — or even explain — what the policy is. Nor is there any attempt to adjust it, such as by pushing for an immigration deal in Congress. “[H]e is either satisfied with the situation or simply overwhelmed by it,” Continetti writes. “Neither option is reassuring.”
There’s a shrewd piece today at the Atlantic by Ron Brownstein identifying another problem with Biden, one in which age also plays a factor. Part of the reason he’s reluctant to throw an AOC-style tantrum about SCOTUS rulings or go berserk about ending the filibuster is because he’s an institutionalist at heart. He served in the Senate for decades and appreciates the value of the filibuster. He chaired the Judiciary Committee for years and respects the Court. All of that befits a man approaching 80, whose formative years were spent in an era when American institutions enjoyed wide respect. But it’s grossly out of step with the post-Watergate, post-Iraq, post-Trump electorate, particularly on the left. The base on both sides wants to burn down the country’s institutions, but the man we elected isn’t an arsonist at heart.
Biden’s Democratic critics express more fear of demoralizing their own voters. For them, last week’s Supreme Court decision put an exclamation point on the feeling that Republicans are driving the national agenda even though Democrats nominally hold unified control of the White House, the House, and the Senate…
Compounding those anxieties, Undem said, is “almost despair” among left-leaning voters that Democratic leaders seemingly have no plan for how to respond to this multipronged offensive. Jentleson likewise said that Biden has created an “enormous disconnect” and “feeling of powerlessness” among Democrats by failing to make a broader case against structural problems such as the Senate’s small-state bias or the skewing of the Supreme Court bench that the GOP may exploit for sustained minority rule.
“They feel the system is fundamentally corrupted; they are experiencing a crisis of legitimacy in our institutions,” he said—and they want the party to “craft a message around that. The failure to do that explains where we are right now.” Indeed, polling released this week by a coalition of liberal groups led by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee found strong agreement among Democrats, and even many swing voters, for the argument that the Supreme Court is “broken” and “facing a legitimacy crisis.”
“Can you imagine being the president when women lost the right to abortion, and election subversion [is advancing], and the whole country is worried about democracy, and you are like, ‘The Supreme Court is just fine’?”, one Democratic pollster told Brownstein. That sums up the perception on the left — Republicans are on offense at the state level and among the judiciary and will soon be on offense in Congress, and there’s not much of anything Biden can do about. Brownstein offers a biting premortem for his presidency, calling him the right man for stopping Trump but the wrong man for stopping Trumpism.
I continue to think that Democrats winning both seats in the Georgia Senate runoffs last year ended up being more of a curse to Biden than a blessing. If McConnell had had a 51/49 majority, the COVID relief bill that ended up turbo-charging inflation wouldn’t have passed. Biden still might have landed some major bipartisan victories with infrastructure and guns with Republican help. And meanwhile, he’d have a ready-made excuse for why he can’t make the left’s fondest institution-destroying dreams come true: To do that, he’d need control of the Senate. The story of the Biden presidency would be divided government, not ineffective government. As it is, it may be a long time before his party has control of the Senate again.