ECONOMY

It is far too soon for people to write off Joe Biden

Joe Biden updates

Put it down to a hyper-caffeinated media. A few weeks ago, Joe Biden’s presidency was widely hailed as a triumph. Coronavirus was in retreat. The US economy was roaring back. And Democrats looked on course to pass Biden’s ambitious economic bills by early autumn. Rash comparisons between Biden and Franklin Roosevelt were being bandied about. 

A few weeks of setbacks have changed everything. The rampaging Delta variant has dented consumer sentiment and created a bad jobs report. Forecasts of a Democratic defeat in the midterm elections next year are now commonplace, which would turn Biden into a lame duck. All of a sudden people are proclaiming Biden’s “failed presidency”. Others are chronicling “How Delta beat Biden”. 

Writing him off now is just as overwrought as reserving a premature slot on Mount Rushmore. The turning point came on the July 4 weekend. That was when Biden failed to meet his target of inoculating 70 per cent of Americans against Covid-19. He missed it by a few weeks. America’s vaccination rate is now at 75 per cent, which is not a disaster though it trails most of Europe. But a missed deadline is unforgivable, particularly if you work in the media. 

Biden’s biggest setback, however, was the botched nature of the Afghanistan withdrawal. The July 2 pullout from Bagram air base occurred in advance of his self-imposed deadline of August 31. But the way it happened undermined Biden’s reputation for competence, which was probably his most important quality in defeating Donald Trump. No amount of White House special pleading can alter the fact that America’s exit has damaged US interests. Since then Biden’s approval ratings have fallen by roughly six percentage points, which is steep. In terms of media narrative, his presidency is now in freefall. 

Afghans outside Kabul’s airport on August 26 struggle to reach the foreign forces to show their credentials and flee the country © Akhter Gulfam/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

That narrative should not be taken too seriously. Those with medium-sized memories will recall the proclaimed death of Bill Clinton’s presidency after his 1994 midterm defeat. Clinton even had to remind Americans that the US president was still relevant. He served another six years. Barack Obama’s demise was also pronounced several times before he was re-elected. Sometimes such obituaries are well-grounded. There was little doubt, for example, that Trump sunk his re-election prospects in the early stages of the pandemic when he sided with quack medicine amid a mounting death toll. 

Nothing that Biden faces yet compares with that. For all its flaws, the Afghanistan exit is still popular with the US public, though the president has personally taken a hit over its handling. The real test of his fortunes will come in the next few weeks when we find out whether he can push through his $1.2tn infrastructure bill and $3.5tn “American families plan”, both of which would have a big impact on working Americans. One of the reasons most Republicans oppose the first bill and are unanimously against the second is because they know how popular they would be. 

There is a serious risk Biden will fall at this hurdle. The Democratic party is split between the left, led by Bernie Sanders, who believe the bills are too small compared with what Biden promised, and centrists such as Joe Manchin who believe they are too large. Manchin recently called for a “strategic pause” on the larger bill in favour of passing only the infrastructure one. That will not wash with the party’s left, which has linked the passage of one to the other. 

In practice Manchin, whose vote is essential in a 50:50 Senate, is playing hard to get. No major domestic legislation in US history has passed without being written off as hopeless on the way. Biden’s larger bill will probably be scaled down by a trillion dollars or more then enacted before the end of this year. There will be plenty more thunderbolts and lightning between now and then. Would Biden then revert to being the next FDR? 

The answer is no. Talk of him resetting US capitalism was always fantastical. These bills would improve America’s safety net rather than change its nature. But they would also make the lives of millions of Americans less precarious, which is good in itself and helpful at the ballot box. Whether that would be enough to stave off Trumpism is another matter. In the meantime, Biden should neither be written off as hopeless nor proclaimed our age’s saviour. Like most presidents, he is somewhere in between. 

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