The Astonishing Late Bloom of the Weak Joe Biden
The dramatic defection of Senator Joe Manchin on Sunday seemed to confirm what was once the impression of the now-oldest-president: that he might not be up to this.
Imagine yourself back in faraway waters: that is, primaveral 2020. Joe Biden is, of course, now president, and as Omicron eats the holidays, the pandemic mindset is seemingly a routine way of life.
So, flipping through articles with datelines like “March 2, 2020,” and “March 4, 2020,” is done with the same puerile interest as reading dispatches from September 10, 2001. But in this narrowest of narrow windows: Biden’s South Carolina primary explosion on February 29, 2020; the March 16, 2020, Trump White House announcement of “15 Days to Slow the Spread”; the career man’s career politician was able to solidify control of the Democratic Party after being an also-ran former front-runner.
When by early summer, it became clear Trump had mismanaged the pandemic, satisfying neither the fanatical wishes of the public health establishment and the Democratic Party base, nor the folk libertarian instincts of his own cadre, and then repeating that mistake and then some after the slaying of George Floyd, that is, warring with violent protesters in word but not in deed, Joe Biden’s heir apparent status was obvious.
It would be a cruel irony that the only affirmative measure proved to cleave cases from deaths—the miracle of the vaccine—would only be announced a week after Trump lost the election. Fast forward a little, and the elixir that Kamala Harris had said she wouldn’t take would in the coming months be championed by a Democratic White House at the point of the corporate bayonet, while Trump in embattled civilian life would go on to only sheepishly advocate for the uptake of perhaps his central accomplishment to the boos and literal detriment of his own supporters. It’s been a bad year.
But that truth has been felt more, politically, by Trump’s tormentor, President Joe Biden, than by anyone else on the center stage of American life.
“I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation. I just can’t. I’ve tried everything humanly possible. I can’t get there,” Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia on Sunday told the possible new frontman of “Fox News Sunday,” Bret Baier. Referring to the centerpiece of the “Build Back Better” agenda, the $1.7 trillion social spending megabill championed by the White House, Manchin told Fox, “This is a no on this legislation. I have tried everything I know to do.”
The Senate is effectively 50-50 Democrat (two technical independents, New England Senators Angus King and Bernie Sanders, are reliable White House allies… Sanders, the budget chairman, is the manager of the bill); Manchin’s defection, absent a change of mind, means this all is DOA. White House press secretary Jen Psaki called out Manchin, who tipped off the administration just before the appearance (Baier looked visibly surprised), as effectively a man of dishonor: “If his comments on Fox and written statement indicate an end to that effort, they represent a sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position, and a breach of his commitments to the president and the senator’s colleagues in the House and Senate.”
Others in his ranks were less charitable.
Vigorously diplomatic, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota said on television that Manchin’s rationale was “bullsh*t” and then re-advertised that claim officially on Twitter. Sanders on CNN all but accused Manchin of being bought off by American special interests. Republicans bathed on the bright side, with Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska divulging to Fox News backroom machinations: “My liver has given a decent bit for this cause. Because I actually talk to Joe Manchin.” But as Biden prepares to address the nation on Omicron and presumably the state of whatever his agenda is now on Tuesday ahead of Christmas, it’s incumbent on him to temper both his party’s rage as well as whatever a teetotal’s urge to drink is… It’s his presidency that’s now on ice.
The irony is Biden’s sudden, extreme travails have been a result of his sudden, astounding success.
“You don’t have to do this, Joe, you really don’t,” former President Barack Obama told Biden late last decade, trying for the umpteenth time—whether it was considering a ticket switch in 2012, or anointing Hillary Clinton his successor in 2016, and not even naming him as a possibility after Clinton’s stunning defeat—to muscle him out of presidential politics. Obama was wrong. Not only did Biden become the 46th president, he was very arguably the only Democrat who could have in 2020, given what ended up being quite a narrow margin… would the Democrats have fared just as well in a pandemic election with a standard-bearer, Sanders, promising actual socialist revolution? Could they have triumphed just the same putting forward a then-small-town-mayor, who would have been the youngest-ever and first openly gay president? It’s just hard to see it.
But Republicans were also wrong about Biden.
I remember late into 2019, when, despite Biden clearly leading in the polls like Trump had in the primaries in 2016, Republican congressmen dismissed to me any possibility of Biden being the nominee: too old, too putatively unimpressive… It was far more likely to be the grand ideological, psychosocial challenge of facing someone like Elizabeth Warren (remember?), an embodiment of modern progressivism, or Kamala Harris, the clear choice of woke corporate power, or even Sanders, who Republican wise guys would tell you had an insurmountable “ground game.”
That was also wrong, and that impression of Biden the unimpressive persisted into Titanic-like delusions about the essential stakes of the 2020 elections. That Republicans often think so little of Biden the man doubtless also fuels the manifestly unproductive paranoia that he didn’t actually win.
By spring 2021, a year after the North American dawn of Covid, Biden seemed to be riding high, betrothed with a true teflon of exceeded expectations. Trump had absurdly helped the GOP forfeit two Senate seats in Georgia, giving the Democrats control of Congress. Once in office, Biden was a better politician than the professorial Barack Obama, Democratic staffers whispered. With a pandemic as a mandate for action, the senator from “the credit card state” was poised to be an unlikely callback to FDR, something the technocratic and neoliberal Obama declined to be.
But the honeymoon abruptly ended, and Biden, the oldest president, was slow to pivot, at last exposing the weakness his opponents long declared he had.
The July rise of the Delta variant made embarrassing a previous mindset in the White House which held a “Declaration of Independence from COVID” celebration. That Biden clearly thought he could chuck the excess Covid-19 precautions that mar the memory of the last year of the Trump term revealed the fungibility of both the “expert” understanding of this virus, as well as Biden’s underestimation of the actual psychosocial zeal his political base has for the restrictions.
The next month, on Afghanistan, Biden’s overestimation of his own popularity meant he thought he could exit the country and not endure a torrent of establishment criticism for the first time in his presidency. History I think will record that he made the right decision to leave, but it may also record that his mismanagement of the politics of the situation, from Kabul to Washington, marked the beginning of the end of his presidency.
In Virginia, Biden was delivered a clear rebuke of the “woke” capital politics he rode to power in 2020. And now in Christmastime, Omicron and the senator from the Pioneer State have delivered a poison pill for the holiday. The irony is that had Biden and the Democrats never won those Peach State seats in January, he would never have attempted the largest social restructuring since the Great Society.
Biden’s position could be compared to a floundering Boris Johnson’s in the U.K. The British prime minister has likewise pushed a “Build Back Better” agenda, and finds himself potentially politically mortally wounded. Both men could plausibly hold on for years, up until the next slated elections in 2024, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that 2021 marked, at last, the beginning of the end for both of them.