Joe Biden and the Political Limits of Competence

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In August 2019, amid a Democratic presidential primary that seemed rife with uncertainty, Joseph R. Biden Jr. held a round table with several Black political reporters in Washington, D.C.

The stated purpose: extol his support among Black communities, highlighting the same constituencies that eventually helped him secure the party’s nomination. As Mr. Biden spoke for more than 90 minutes, he also outlined his governing philosophy.

When I pressed Mr. Biden about why his policy agenda would succeed in Washington after Republicans repeatedly blocked efforts from his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, Mr. Biden said flatly that those rules would not apply to him. He, unlike Mr. Obama, had decades-long relationships in Congress, would be succeeding the historically chaotic presidency of Donald J. Trump, and was popular even among Republican constituents, he said.

“Part of the role of a president is to persuade,” he said. If Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, were to block him, he said: “Guess what? I’m going to go to Kentucky, and I’m going to campaign.”

Two years later, amid sinking poll numbers, a stalled agenda and growing fears among Democrats that a Republican shellacking is inevitable in next year’s midterm elections, Mr. Biden is learning the limits of that strategy. Projecting competence has not persuaded enough skeptical Americans to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. His familiarity with Washington deal making — while crucial in passing a bipartisan infrastructure package — has not moved the needle on issues like voting rights, police reform or raising the minimum wage. Mr. McConnell, as Senate minority leader, is still playing the role of Democrat obstructionist in chief. And Mr. Biden, who prided himself on the ability to campaign in largely white, conservative areas, continues to lose ground among white voters without a college degree.

According to Pew Research, about six in 10 white adults now say they disapprove of Mr. Biden’s presidency.

The challenges help explain Mr. Biden’s subtle shift in recent months, which has caught the eye of activists and some lawmakers. Gone is the former talk of a Republican “epiphany” or the prospect of campaigning in Mr. McConnell’s Kentucky backyard. The White House, and its congressional agenda, rests in the hands of more centrist Democratic senators like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

In a town hall event with CNN in October that took place during a crucial period of negotiations for Mr. Biden’s “Build Back Better” social spending package, the president stunned some political observers by reversing his position on the Senate filibuster, the 60-vote threshold that has often hampered ambitious legislation.

Mr. Biden — who was staunchly opposed to removing the filibuster during his time in the Senate and during the 2020 presidential campaign — said he was open to shifting his stance, particularly concerning voting rights.

“We’re going to have to move to the point where we fundamentally alter the filibuster,” Mr. Biden said. It “remains to be seen exactly what that means in terms of fundamentally — on whether or not we just end the filibuster straight up.”

When Anderson Cooper, the host of the event, asked Mr. Biden directly: “When it comes to voting rights — just so I’m clear, though — you would entertain the notion of doing away with the filibuster on that one issue. Is that correct?”

The president responded, “And maybe more.”

His words will have little tangible effect in the short term (several Democratic senators, including Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema, are opposed to ending the filibuster), but they are another sign of a White House coming to grips with the scope of its political challenges.

Steve Phillips, a Democratic donor and strategist, said the party’s desire to appease white conservative and independent voters who are souring on them should not come at the expense of exciting their cross-racial liberal base.

“I think that the loudest and most influential voices in the White House and the Democratic Party do not believe in a base excitement and mobilization strategy,” Mr. Phillips said. “I think there’s still clinging to the whole myth that with the right language and vocabulary, that we’ll be able to win over some more white voters.”

Democrat leaders are bullish that the three-legged stool of the coronavirus relief package signed by Mr. Biden in March, the infrastructure law passed in November and the spending agreement still being negotiated are enough to motivate the party’s base ahead of the midterm elections. Some of Mr. Biden’s closest allies blame the news media, saying if voters feel underwhelmed with what the party has delivered this year, it’s because of how it has been reported.

“Why do we have to do the president’s entire agenda in his first year in office,” said Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, a top House Democrat and close ally of Biden.

But it was Mr. Biden who promised ambitious action on things like climate change, voting rights, the minimum wage, criminal justice and police reform. And members of his own party are worried that the White House is missing a critical window for boldness, not competence.

“It’s not that these things just didn’t happen,” said Representative Cori Bush of Missouri, a Democrat and House progressive. “We were talking about them. We were pushing these things, we were organizing around those bills and we still don’t have them.”


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