Is Joe Biden Going to be a Better President Than Barack Obama?

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The new Democratic president has a massive agenda on domestic policy, powered by the party’s progressive wing, which is more ascendent than it was the last time a Democrat was in the White House.  

Many of his policy goals must be somewhat deferred as the Oval Office occupant deals with a clear-and-present crisis that has to be addressed and tamed if his presidency has any chance to succeed.

While the Democrat would like to deal with the national emergency in a bipartisan manner (to fulfill a campaign promise and establish a fresh governing template after years of bitter, tribal warfare), it quickly becomes clear that the need for speed and the political realities of the base demands that come from unified majority control of Congress mean that the first big legislative action will be propelled by Democratic votes.

The White House basically decides to bet that Republicans will be punished politically for voting against the popular agenda of a newly installed Democratic president who is aggressively working to help the American people out of an historic hole.

As the administration makes it clear that Republicans in Congress won’t have meaningful input in the legislation, the opposition party, led by Mitch McConnell, makes a political bet (with an eye on the midterms) that is much different. The GOP believes that what polls suggest are popular policies will be seen by November the following year as both too far left and ineffective – leading to a midterm shellacking and a return to Republican control of Capitol Hill.

Those mirror-image decisions, early in the presidency prove to be fatefully decisive. 

Democrats: Republicans were never serious about working with us, so we will go it alone and prove we are right, thereby punishing the opposition for their recalcitrance and failure to address the needs of the American people. If there’s even more partisanship, that’s their fault.

Republicans: Democrats were never serious about working with us, so they can go it alone and prove we are right, thereby getting punished for their too-liberal agenda that fails to address the needs of the American people. If there’s even more partisanship, that’s their fault.

Most of you have already figured out that that the story told above is a brief history of the early years (and, really, the entire eight years) of the Obama presidency but, now, also, the reality of the Biden presidency.

The similarities are on one level sort of stunning, given the differences between Barack Obama and Joe Biden, and the differences of the pre-Trump and post-Trump eras.

But on another level, the Groundhog Day repeat is not a surprise at all, because almost nothing has been done in the intervening dozen years to circuit break the dynamics that saw Obama, and now Biden, choose to go it alone, with the corresponding reaction.

Which leads to this question: Will Joe Biden be a more successful president than Barack Obama was?

Which leads to this question: How should “success” be measured in this case?

For much of the Bluelands, Mr. Obama was a bit of (or a big bit of….) a failure because he fell far short on way too many issues regarding fundamental progressive change.

For much of the Redlands, Mr. Obama fell short by being too liberal.

Both Blue and Red forces also questioned Team 44’s general level of competence in getting stuff done.

Biden is clearly operating in an environment in which the Blue part of America is both more progressive and more demanding of progressive policies on a range of issues than in 2009: guns, climate change, immigration, taxes, judges, cultural issues, combating conservative media and Big Tech, and reviving union power.

It is fundamentally impossible for Joe Biden to achieve what progressives want on those issues and fulfill his campaign promise to make Washington work more cooperatively in achieving bipartisan consensus on problem solving.

The president can say, as he did at his Tuesday night Milwaukee town hall

"The nation is not divided. You go out there and take a look. You talk to people. You have fringes at both ends, but it's not nearly as divided as we make it out to be. And we have to bring it together.”

But there is no “unity” position on, say, immigration, if Biden insists on a path to citizenship (or, even, legal status) for those 14 million or so souls who entered the United States illegally.

There might be mythical Reagan-Tip O’Neill compromises on some of the issues listed above, but that catalogue is made up of some of the perennially thorniest American issues, which are in 2021 as zero-sum as ever.

On all of them, Barack Obama fell far short of his goals, and even farther short of what the progressives asked for back then and even farther short of what they are demanding now.

So, can Joe Biden succeed where his former boss failed – both pass a bold, sweeping liberal agenda and bring the country together?

Biden has less of a mandate than Obama, is not as great a persuader, and faces a more intractable opposition by most metrics.

In the day’s ultimate essential read, the New York Times, in trying to argue that Biden’s trump card in all this is his years in the Senate, actually makes the case for the alternative.

I say respectfully that I cannot fathom how this article got published.

The headline is “Biden Works to Leverage Senate Ties to Power His Agenda.”

The piece is full of quotes (most from Democrats) about how masterful Biden is at working the Senate room, but then concedes that Biden has nothing actual to show for his outreach and doesn’t make any real case at all that the gridlocked pattern that has been set has any hope of changing.

Here are my favorite parts:

[Biden] has leveraged his relationships with Republicans like [Senator Susan] Collins to create space and pressure for bipartisan compromises, even if none have yet materialized….

Mr. Biden has gone out of his way to court Republicans, treating them to his first official Oval Office meeting — an honor he knew, as a former senator, would flatter them — from which they emerged with no agreements, but a palpable sense of bonhomie.

So no policy deals yet of any significance “have yet materialized” but laid off workers can revel in the comfort that comes from “a palpable sense of bonhomie.”

As for competence, on paper the highly experienced Team Biden (led by the president himself) should be able to implement the heck out of its Democratic-only legislation and executive orders, firing on all cylinders in the states and the courts. 

But that part won’t happen on paper, and even some Obama-Biden veterans are skeptical.  (Make that “especially some Obama-Biden veterans are skeptical.”)

On national security and foreign relations, Biden should be hitting the ground in full sprint, given his longstanding ties to world leaders.

Those who argue that Obama-Biden left the world a more dangerous and unstable place, with its greatest successes constituting placeholding and unfinished business, have a pretty strong argument.

What did America get done from 2009 to 2017 in the Middle East, China, Russia, North Korea, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan?

What plans have been revealed that demonstrate this new group will be more successful in any of those theaters than the previous Democratic president?

Joe Biden has said often that his first term is not Barack Obama’s third term. 

That is true.

The ambitions are greater, the stakes are higher, the leverage is mostly lower – and Barack Obama didn’t have a former president named “Trump” waiting in the wings, primed to discombulate.

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There are two major pieces of Trump news to address.

First, 45’s influence in the nation and the party might wane, but it ain’t all that waney yet:

A Quinnipiac survey… found that only 11% of Republicans held Mr. Trump responsible for inciting the violence on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6. A mere 9% supported conviction. Only 16% would support even the symbolic rebuke of a censure motion. Not only do 87% of Republicans believe Mr. Trump should be allowed to hold office again; 75% want him to play a “prominent role” in the Republican Party.

Barack Obama talked about the fever breaking and Republicans suddenly coming to the table to negotiate.

As long as there are poll numbers like that, there will be no fever breaking in the GOP and, thus, no real cooperation, bonhomie notwithstanding.

Second, of course, is Trump’s blistering written denunciation of Mitch McConnell.

But/and if you think a McConnell-Trump tiff is going to help Joe Biden’s legislative agenda win bipartisan support, think again.

However the current marquee intra-Republican battle turns out, in the short term, the GOP’s congressional wing and grassroots is almost certainly going to return to a repeat of 2009 (when the party was also initially divided after Obama’s win and the realities of unified Democratic control): Republicans must all hang together in opposition to a Democratic president’s liberal agenda, or they will surely all hang separately.

There might not be another Tea Party, but this won’t be a tea party for the Democrats.

Biden’s great grandpa Edward Francis Blewitt might have had a witticism to put all this in the proper context and show the way to the light at the end of the train tunnel, but I don’t know what that would have been.

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Don’t hold your breath for a satisfying Mitch McConnell reply to Trump’s broadside.

As always, the Kentuckian will reply at a place and time of his choosing, in a manner that will maximize his chances of winning back the majority.

While most media outlets went with a version of “McConnell’s office declined to comment,” kudos to the New York Times for having this:

“Trump going total mean girl ought to feed the cable beast for weeks,” Janet Mullins Grissom, the senator’s first chief of staff, wrote on Twitter.

Others in Mr. McConnell’s intensely loyal circle of advisers, however, did not want such a bald attack to go unanswered.

“It seems an odd choice for someone who claims they want to lead the G.O.P. to attack a man who has been unanimously elected to lead Senate Republicans a history-making eight times,” said Billy Piper, another former top McConnell aide. “But we have come to expect these temper tantrums when he feels threatened — just ask any of his former chiefs of staff or even his vice president.”

We are on about Round 6 of Trump versus McConnell.  According to both Nate Silver and Nate Cohn, Round 9 will be the decisive one.

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ESSENTIAL READING FOR THOSE WHO MISS THE DAILY TRUMPIAN CHAOS

The New York Times on the cluster that was the Trump impeachment trial legal effort, all comforting for those who want to be surprised but not shocked.

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