Written by Bret Stephens
The view that the Biden presidency is flailing — and failing — has now moved from the opinion pages to the news pages, from right-wing criticism to Beltway conventional wisdom.
“With the White House legislative agenda in shambles less than a year before the midterm elections,” my colleagues Lisa Lerer and Emily Cochrane reported last week, “Democrats are sounding alarms that their party could face even deeper losses than anticipated without a major shift in strategy led by the president.”
Some of us have been sounding that alarm for months. What to do? Herewith, some suggestions for change:
1. The president needs a new team, starting with a new chief of staff.
The most surprising fact about the administration’s first year in office has been its political incompetence.
Why did the infrastructure bill languish for months in an intramural Democratic Party squabble? How did President Joe Biden give his fire-breathing speech on voting rights in Georgia without first checking whether Kyrsten Sinema was going to cut him off at the knees? Why couldn’t the administration work out a deal with Joe Manchin on Build Back Better — and where was the political wisdom in having White House press secretary Jen Psaki publicly accuse him of breaking his word? Why has the president spent the year making overconfident predictions on everything from Afghanistan to migration to inflation? How was the coronavirus home test fiasco allowed to happen?
Ron Klain is a loyal assistant. But the president needs a chief of staff who’s a peer — what James Baker was to George H.W. Bush or Howard Baker to Ronald Reagan. What’s Tom Daschle up to these days?
2. The president needs to focus on American needs, not liberal wishes.
No, the two are not synonymous. Universal pre-K might be popular. But Americans have spent the past two years suffering from the government’s inability to meet basic needs. Public health. Price stability. Safe streets. Secure borders. Functioning supply chains. Public schools that open their doors to children.
Not all of this is the responsibility of the executive branch. But why has Biden outsourced the border issue to his overmatched vice president? Why is he nominating a progressive ideologue to the Fed at a time of spiraling inflation? How is it that he could unveil a package of crime-fighting measures last June and then basically drop the subject?
The president needs to communicate that he’s a step ahead of these problems. So far he’s been a perpetual step behind.
3. The president should remember that he won as a moderate and a unifier.
Biden’s performance thus far is sometimes compared with Jimmy Carter’s. Maybe the better source of comparison is Bill Clinton, who ran as a centrist, tilted left in his first year, saw his signature legislation blow up in Congress, suffered military humiliation in Somalia — and then figured out how to recapture the center and save his presidency.
Liberals have urged a floor vote for Build Back Better, as if a political kamikaze mission is going to win them a place in some future progressive pantheon. Biden would do better to move on from defeat and draft legislation with bipartisan appeal. Regulation for Big Tech is one good area. A bill that trades greater border security for citizenship for Dreamers is another. It could also help blunt GOP inroads with Hispanic voters.
Standing up to the left on an issue or two wouldn’t hurt the president, either. Should noncitizens be permitted to vote in municipal elections, which is what New York City now allows? Presumably not, unless the administration is eager to confirm every Tucker Carlson caricature of Democrats as the party of open borders.
4. The president also won office as a trusted steward of American power.
He hasn’t been. Biden’s poll numbers have never recovered from an Afghanistan withdrawal that he called an “extraordinary success” but that most Americans witnessed as a national humiliation.
The administration now faces two near-term foreign policy emergencies. The first is over nuclear negotiations with Iran that so far promise either a bad deal or no deal at all. The second is over a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine that could turn into a debacle for NATO.
Biden may be eager to seize on any deal he can achieve, but he needs to be careful about stumbling into a world where adversaries don’t fear us, allies don’t trust us and Americans conclude their president is weak. The United States should meet Russia’s mobilization of forces on Ukraine’s borders with large-scale deployments of U.S. forces in the Baltics and Poland. And Iran should know there’s a sharp limit to U.S. tolerance for its nuclear brinkmanship.
5. And yes, the president should announce he isn’t running for reelection.
It isn’t just the administration that’s been enfeebled by a year of stumbles. It’s the Democratic Party at large. Biden can still rescue his presidency. But rising above the political fray so that a younger generation of Democrats can spark enthusiasm is part of the formula for his own renewal.