Following a pattern with long roots in his career, Biden is a bit like the student who fails his class for most of the semester, then sleeps all night and slips the paper under the professor’s door at 6 a.m. . Turns out the paper is actually pretty good. There’s no way he’ll get an A for the quarter, but no fair grader would give him an F either. A solid B is at hand.
The impending breakthrough on climate legislation probably puts Biden’s approach to the presidency in the best possible light. Importantly, even this better light still reveals wide gaps between the demands of the moment and his ability to meet those demands – or to use the tools of the modern presidency in a way that the most successful leaders have done. . Biden’s presidency has more life and more possibilities than 48 hours ago. But he’s still fundamentally defined by his limitations — mostly by his poor rhetorical skills and inability to tell a compelling story about where he would take the country.
Let’s start with the positive. Seen in merely practical terms, Biden has shown that his brand of politics — which was forged in a decades-old era and seemed outdated in this one — still has some use. He did not give up when it became clear that maximalist goals were impossible, but gave Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer cover to achieve important progressive goals. He did not cut ties, while many others were ready to do so.
The latest turn of events also invites one to look at Biden in the context of the larger rhythms of his professional life. Being left for dead, in political terms, is not a new experience for him. Perhaps these rhythms give him a sort of mystical confidence that things will eventually come true for him, even when others have lost all faith in him.
Biden, 79, has imagined himself in the presidency since at least his twenties. On several occasions, he had to face the overwhelming probability that this dream will probably never come true. That was true more than three decades ago – after his 1988 presidential campaign ended in embarrassment and he was then showered with criticism for his handling of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill showdown as a chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee – when his national reputation was shattered. It was true when he declared himself a candidate in 2008. It was true when he gave in to Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. It was true in February 2020. I remember seeing Biden campaign in Iowa, a few days before securing a fourth place. He looked frail, sounded discursive, and his campaign exuded an aura of doom that was almost painful to behold. A month later, after losing the early states, he won South Carolina and quickly became the presumptive nominee.
The possibility that Biden has some mystical capacity for renewal can do little to reassure Democrats — 64% of them, according to a recent New York Times/Siena College poll — who want Biden not to run for re-election. But the likelihood that Biden himself believes in that ability will likely inform his decision on what to do. Pulling an important victory from the hat three months before the midterms rightly encourages him to ignore skeptics and critics.
But those skeptics also came through with their doubts for good reasons — ones that aren’t negated by Biden’s likely win in the Manchin deal. It’s not just that the deal is only a fraction of the ambitious spending called for in Biden’s original “Build Back Better” legislation. The $370 billion spent on environmental measures still represents the US government’s biggest step yet in reducing carbon output. It’s historic.
However, successful presidents don’t just sign bills. They are reorganizing the politics of their time. As a 2008 presidential candidate, Barack Obama cited Ronald Reagan as an example of a president who “changed the course of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton didn’t.” Would anyone say that Biden revamped climate change politics, creating a lasting consensus? Has he changed America’s course, at a time when a recent Monmouth University poll found 88% of the electorate think the country is on the “wrong path”. Above all, is there any precedent in Biden’s half-century on the national stage where he demonstrated this kind of leadership — of transforming the way Americans view an important national moment or choice?
Joe Biden, like Joe Manchin, has shown his ability to surprise people. But it seems unlikely that he can transform or the limitations that have clouded his presidency to date.