the national interest

Joe Biden Is a Mediocre Liberal

But he’s proved to be a successful president anyway.

Illustration: Tim O’Brien; Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images
Illustration: Tim O’Brien; Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The Biden presidency is over now. Or, at least, having lost control of the House of Representatives, its legislative-accomplishments phase is. If we go by either modern history or the professed goals of the House Republican majority, the remainder of Biden’s first term will be spent fending off debt-ceiling blackmail, government shutdowns, sundry investigations, and possibly some revenge impeachment.

Of course, there’s always the chance that the pattern will break. In addition to winning a second term, his party could conceivably gain back full control of Congress. Still, in all likelihood, Biden’s legislative record is close to completed, and it’s not too early to venture some assessments as to how he did. The ledger suggests he has had success — though not in the way he and his supporters expected and not as much as they would like you to believe.

The bar was set impossibly high from the outset when, after securing the nomination, Biden began likening his ambitions to Franklin Roosevelt’s and outlined a sweeping domestic-reform agenda, including a public option for health care, a lower eligibility age for Medicare, closing the Medicaid gap, universal prekindergarten and child care, and an expansion of the child tax credit and Earned Income Tax Credits, among other reforms.

Elated Democrats have since described his works as though he came close to achieving an FDR-size legacy. “The only dispute: Is it the most productive two years in 50 years since the Great Society, or the most productive in 100 years since the New Deal?” asked Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. “He has done everything he has said he was going to do and more. And he doesn’t get the credit he deserves,” claimed South Carolina Democratic Party chairman Trav Robertson. Happy days are here again!

The truth is that Biden fulfilled a small fraction of his campaign goals. The biggest surprise of his presidency may be that he has left almost no mark at all on the social safety net. Since Roosevelt’s time, the creation of durable new benefits has generally been the main measure of a Democratic presidency. Bill Clinton’s administration expanded the EITC and created the child tax credit and a children’s health-insurance program. Barack Obama’s administration permanently expanded all three of Clinton’s programs, in addition to creating the Affordable Care Act, which bolstered Medicaid for the poor and created a new regulated, subsidized insurance market for people who couldn’t get insurance through their job. It was, as Biden said at the time, a big fucking deal.

Biden had a grand vision to complete the welfare state, but as Joe Manchin and other centrists lowered the ceiling for new social spending, Democrats couldn’t decide which initiatives to keep and which to scrap. They wound up abandoning nearly all of it when Biden’s Build Back Better program floundered in the Senate. Instead, he settled for a scaled-down program to allow Medicare to negotiate the cost of some prescription drugs and an incremental hike in subsidies for Obamacare insurance plans, and even those will expire within a few years unless extended by Congress. It is a small fucking deal.

Where Biden has enjoyed unexpected levels of success is in driving new public investment. Three huge laws — the CHIPS and Science Act, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act — plowed hundreds of billions of dollars into funding for scientific research; manufacturing of semiconductors, advanced batteries, and other items; and internet, public transit, and electric-vehicle chargers. The first two of these measures passed with support from Republicans, reflecting a consensus on the need to make the American economy more self-reliant and to rebuild its manufacturing capacity.

What is most ironic about this is that it was Donald Trump who campaigned on grandiose promises of reopening the factories that began closing in the 1970s and turned towns across the middle of the country into economic wastelands. But Trump delivered only culture war for his hopeful and desperate supporters, while Biden devised and passed measures to actually bring that vision of new opportunities for blue-collar workers into reality. As a column in the conservative City Journal notes, Biden’s program has already “sparked big new investments in plants and workers by businesses,” many in red states.

While Biden fell short in those aspects of the presidency where Obama and even Clinton succeeded, he succeeded where Trump had failed. He has turned out to be a mediocre liberal but a surprisingly competent nationalist.

This turnabout has visibly flummoxed the opposition. After Biden touted his bipartisan accomplishments in the State of the Union address, his critics seemed to recognize that he had captured the high ground. The speech “concentrated on a doubtless poll-tested economic agenda,” sniffed a National Review editorial. “Poll-tested” is what you say when you’re trying to turn “popular” into an insult.

Whether this political identity translates into public support depends on the fate of the ongoing recovery from the pandemic. Biden initially bet his presidency on a huge economic stimulus plan in his first few weeks. At first it seemed triumphant — rather than suffer the painfully slow recovery that hampered Obama, Biden would immediately pump enough demand into the economy to launch a boom. As months went by, this began to look like a ghastly miscalculation, as racing demand for goods and services outpaced the economy’s ability to supply them, and inflation (which didn’t seriously concern Biden’s advisers) returned.

More recently, however, his fortunes have improved. Biden deftly worked the levers available to him to manage inflation, untangling knots in the supply chain and using the strategic petroleum reserve to smooth out gasoline prices. Prices have settled back down even as job growth has remained strong. Just four months ago, Republicans were gloating over a recession most economists thought unavoidable. (In October, the Bloomberg model, which obviously consulted no epistemologists, somehow forecast a 100 percent chance of recession within a year.)

It now seems possible, perhaps even likely, that the Federal Reserve will succeed in bringing inflation down for a soft landing and that the recovery will proceed. There are already hints of what this could look like: Unemployment is at its lowest level since the 1960s, giving workers the bargaining power to demand and receive better wages and working conditions, and the inflation that has perturbed the middle class is receding.

Obviously none of this would even slightly curtail the Republican Party’s endemic derangement. (The last time a Democrat presided over peace and broad-based prosperity, he was impeached.) And it would not create the kind of transformational change that Biden hoped for. But it might at least affirm the core promise Biden made to the country. His presidency could prove that, contrary to the toxic lies spread by his predecessor, democracy still works. A president can still advance the interests of the entire country — not just use its powers to wage tribal political conflict — govern competently, and make life better.

Joe Biden Is a Mediocre Liberal