Joe Biden's conditional optimism about America
Take his thoughts on national unity both literally and seriously
Joe Biden sees America as beset by a crisis of self-confidence.
He often offers a version of his line about how “We're the United States of America. And when we are united, there's not a damn thing we can't do.” There’s a hokey element to it, and being fearlessly cringe is part of Biden’s appeal.
But this conditional optimism about America represents a serious argument about the world and about Biden’s role in it — and the conditional part is quite important. Biden calls himself a “congenital optimist,” but his life has famously been marked by tragedy and he’s no Pollyanna. He believes the country has genuine concrete advantages — a favorable geographical location; abundant natural resources; a large, skilled, and highly-motivated population — and that with those advantages we can surmount problems and lead the world, if we are united.
And that’s where Joe Biden comes in.
Because Biden is a politician who really embraces politics as a vocation. Donald Trump was an amateur who waltzed into politics without ever having thought seriously about it. Barack Obama was a non-politician’s ideal, or perhaps what politicians would be like in a better world. But Biden is into politics and doesn’t pretend otherwise.
A lot of people seem to think that the politics of the presidency is about finding and articulating the one right answer, then making everyone implement it. But Biden, a true artist of the possible, is more focused on his conditional optimism: can political leaders reconcile our society’s varied interests, passions, and factions and unite us as a country? If so, I think he believes we can live with a range of outcomes on the details. But if not, we risk disaster.
The president of empathy
Biden’s ability to demonstrate profound interpersonal empathy in his interactions with everyday citizens and in addressing major national moments is well known.
But I think it remains underappreciated the extent to which this skill serves him in the work of presidenting.
There’s a realpolitik Twitter faction that tries to paint Biden as some kind of fanatical Ukrainian nationalist, which couldn’t be further from the truth. What Biden appreciates, I think, is that it would be bad for both Ukraine and for the United States of America if the Ukrainian military lost its courage or the Ukrainian people lost their resolve. As the Afghan National Army showed us, no amount of materiel or training can transcend the loss of morale in a military conflict.Ukrainians are the ones dying, and the extent to which Russia is punished for its aggression largely depends on their bravery and willingness to continue doing so. So Biden doesn’t want to be at odds with Zelenskyy or badmouthing aspects of the Ukrainian cause. At the same time, he was angry about Zelenskyy pushing him for things like a no-fly zone that he obviously couldn’t give, and part of his diplomatic effort was establishing that solidarity required Zelenskyy to check himself somewhat.
Most of the points Biden’s critics make about the course of the war are things the White House is fully aware of: peace will likely come via a negotiated settlement, and an important part of that settlement is that Putin is going to need to save face. That’s going to mean Ukraine agreeing to some stuff Ukraine doesn’t want to agree to. But Biden also sees this from Zelenskyy’s point of view — that the Ukrainians will face their own difficulties in making concessions.
Biden’s critics, I think, are experiencing tunnel-vision and literalism, while he can see what they can’t about the need to manage all aspects of the situation and only get into dealmaking mode when it would be constructive. To an intellectual, that’s frustrating. You want to just articulate an analytically correct view of the situation and say “that thing Zelenskyy said there, that’s not true!”
But the politician’s job isn’t to state the unvarnished truth, it’s to understand the truth and behave constructively.
The art of the possible
This extends to domestic legislation, where even without exaggerating the scope of Biden’s achievements, I think we can say that he’s gotten a lot more done than most observers trained on Obama-era politics expected.
And I think his success here comes not just from understanding Congress, but in a sense from his empathy. Obama’s negotiations often reflected a sophisticated understanding of conservative policy arguments. If GOP economists said that Democrats were underrating the long-term growth impact of marginal tax rates, Obama would propose tax increases that didn’t increase marginal tax rates. If Republicans said they were worried about the trajectory of future spending, he proposed a healthcare bill that “bends the curve” of healthcare costs and thereby reduces future projected Medicare outlays.
A top advisor to a senior congressional Democrat once told me that Obama liked to win the argument. And these tactics were very good at that — Obama made his opponents look hypocritical or ignorant, and he beat them electorally.
Biden’s approach is more based on understanding Republicans’ actual needs. On the face, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the CHIPS and Science Act don’t make sense. Republicans say the big problem in the country is inflation driven by irresponsible spending, so why would they agree to a couple of spending bills paid for with gimmicks? And also a series of big arms packages to Ukraine? And then largely give Democrats want they want on domestic spending in the omnibus in exchange for a big boost in military spending? Do they even know what their own ideas are? But instead of embarrassing them, Biden worked with them and got the deals done. If Republicans had wanted these bills to be paid for with prudent tax reform, Biden probably would’ve done that. If they’d wanted a $3 billion investment in domestic pickle manufacturing, he probably would’ve done that, too. For Biden, the job isn’t to out-debate the other party, it’s to work with their genuine desires — whatever they may be — and see where that gets you.
You could imagine a world in which this backfired,but it's worked well for Biden. His party secured a historically strong midterm performance, and he was able to wring a considerable amount of legislative juice out of unpromisingly small majorities. Some of that was good luck, but some of it is a healthy perspective on partisan politics and a recognition that you can't crush the Republican Party and make it vanish, but you can find areas of collaboration.
A non-zero world
A wonkier, less folksy version of Biden might say that he believes that the world is not zero-sum and that maintaining a friendly disposition with rivals can lead to significant gains.
That extends to the burgeoning competition with China. Biden is attempting to maintain a strategic advantage for the democratic bloc in key areas like chips and artificial intelligence. But he's not hoping for the collapse of the Chinese economy. He’s capable of seeing the world through Xi Jinping's eyes, and he knows that threats to the CCP’s grip on power will only tempt their leadership to engage in dangerous acts of nationalist adventurism.
Nobody in the White House is particularly optimistic about the prospects of getting things done with the new House Republican majority. Biden was a deficit hawk his whole career in the United States Senate, and the Obama-Biden administration put a lot of time and effort into trying to achieve a grand bargain on deficit reduction back in 2011-2012. Today, that kind of grand bargaineering would be more appropriate to the macroeconomic situation than it ever was under Obama. But you don’t hear about big hopes for getting it done or any tremendous optimism about permitting reform or anything else.
That’s not because Biden is uninterested in dealing with these subjects, but because he sees Kevin McCarthy as fundamentally in a bind with his own caucus. It’s a narrow GOP majority, and Biden believes in bipartisanship and would like to work out deals. But that can’t happen if the GOP leader is paralyzed by fear of a back-bench revolt. Unlike some, Biden’s instinct isn’t to goad or dunk on McCarthy. He sees the new leader as being in a genuinely difficult position that’s bad for the country, and I think Biden sincerely hopes the intra-caucus GOP dynamics improve. A party that takes positions is a party you can work things out with. A party that’s taking a stand on pure oppositionalism is bad news for everyone.
I think conservatives themselves are somewhat underrating the opportunity at their disposal to push for public policy changes that would make them happy. There are a whole bunch of topics — immigration is probably the most salient right now — where Republicans have complaints about Biden administration policies but no actual legislative proposal that they are pushing. I think if they set priorities and tried to be proactive, they might find willing partners.
Can the Biden presidency get bigger?
Biden has the smallest cultural footprint of any American president of my lifetime.
That’s in part a deliberate and welcome contrast with the in-your-face style of his predecessor. By the end of Trump’s term in office, I don’t think anyone — including his most die-hard supporters — denied that there was something exhausting about the combination of celebrity attention-seeking and presidential politics that Trump foisted on the country. Everybody wanted a breather, Biden gave us one, and we all respect and appreciate that.
At the same time, the project of unifying the country has to take place on a social and psychological level, not purely politician-to-politician. We need a society in which not only is Congress getting things done but in which people primarily think of “politics” as the kinds of debates that take place in Congress. In Joe Biden’s Washington, Democrats and Republicans continue to be profoundly divided over questions related to taxes. At the same time, they’ve found zones of consensus around trade, infrastructure, China, and efforts to promote domestic manufacturing. Asylum claims are broadly recognized as a problem, and some efforts are being made to address the situation. Police funding is rising in Biden’s Washington, and the murder rate is falling — not enough to reverse the 2020 murder spike that occurred before Biden was president, but by a real amount and as a result of a solid bipartisan consensus that cops’ jobs are important.
But participants in The Discourse remain sharply polarized on topics of consensus, and the genuine brass-tacks disputes about taxation that are at the core of the parties are consistently downplayed.
Some of this is opportunism and liars at work. Some of it is the disproportionate media clout of unrepresentative activists on the left and a media class whose demographics are far from the American center. But some of it is Biden’s relatively small presence in our lives. Biden himself — an older guy who went to public college and values his personal relationships with Republican colleagues and thinks it’s important to find points of collaboration rather than see politics as a twilight struggle that ends with your enemies vanquished — is a very appealing figure in a hysterical age. But I think to maximize the value of that figure, he needs to be more present in our lives. More outspokenly normal, and more encouraging of other people to be more outspoken about their normal views. I continue to think that in important ways, the peak of Biden’s political appeal came before he wrapped up the Democratic nomination, when his fundraising was bad and his staff was small and the “Joe Biden” brand was dominated by Joe Biden rather than by his merger into the generalized goo of progressive politics.
It’s inherently difficult in the contemporary media landscape to avoid a situation where the shrillest voices dominate. But the President of the United States always has access to a big platform, and I think we could use more Biden and more Bidenism in our lives.
One of Biden’s big takes about Afghanistan is the converse of his conditional optimism about the United States — that the country is too congenitally divided for reasons not just of ethnicity but geography — for any national leadership there to run the place effectively.
Suppose that instead of facing Dr. Oz and Hershel Walker, Republicans in Pennsylvania and Georgia nominated basically normal GOP House members with hard-right views on taxes, abortion, and health care, but who also had a patina of moderation thanks to stray votes for second-tier bipartisan Biden bills?