People like to amp themselves up after a win, so it’s not that surprising to me that with Joe Biden notching a couple of bipartisan legislative wins this month along with the Inflation Reduction Act, his once dead-in-the-water presidency is now being hailed in some quarters as the Second Coming of Lyndon B. Johnson.
I want to push back against this puffery for a couple of reasons.
One is that I think it’s factually wrong. Biden is getting some good things done for the country, but his policymaking record is not equal to that of Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama.
The other is that wishful thinking in this regard is going to teach people the wrong lessons. Comparing Biden’s legislative achievements to Obama’s, I think you can make a strong case for Biden once you adjust for the degree of difficulty. But in absolute terms, it’s just not possible to do as much with narrow majorities as with landslide wins. And it’s important to remember that and to continue trying to win big.
But also, I think this kind of progressives-psyching-themselves-up is politically counterproductive. Relatively few people self-identify as progressive or share the commonly-heard-online criticism that Democrats are insufficiently left-wing or don’t do enough stuff. Joe Biden’s falling approval ratings were driven by things like harsh coverage of his Afghanistan policy, rising commodity prices turning real income growth negative, and the fact that instead of “beating the virus,” his team managed to disappoint Covid hawks while annoying Covid doves. Responding to a big win on reconciliation by running around telling the country that Biden is doing sweeping policy change isn’t going to help — it’s far better to describe these changes as modest, common-sense reforms.
It’s also important to move away from high-profile discussions of climate change and toward a laser-like focus on doing everything possible to improve the supply side of the economy.
Biden’s genuine achievement — a chiller vibe
I’m not sure that Joe Biden has actually healed the soul of America. But he’s absolutely shown that many of us over-learned the lessons of the Obama administration and it’s still perfectly possible for Congress to function in a bipartisan way.
That’s the story of the infrastructure bill, the burn pits funding bill, the CHIPS and Science Act, and much more. We even got a gun control bill out of this Congress. It’s a really small-bore gun control bill that nobody thinks is going to make a serious dent in the problem because Republicans are very skeptical of gun regulation. The controversial aspects of the Endless Frontier Act were ditched, so the less controversial ones got done. CHIPS and Science is good, but it’s a huge retrenchment of ambition relative to what had been a bipartisan bill all along. Here, it’s the opposite of the gun control problem: some Republicans wanted to do a genuinely big science funding overhaul, but though the White House was supportive, they weren’t willing to burn political capital, and the path of least resistance in Congress was to reduce the ambition.
And I’m happy to see veterans get health care funding. But even though it’s in everyone’s interests to make a big deal about it, the burns pits bill is ultimately pretty minor legislation.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is a much bigger deal, in terms of dollars spent and lives impacted. But I don’t think this is something we’re going to see discussed extensively in the history books of the future.
What’s significant about all this in terms of Biden’s promises and legacy is that it comports roughly with a normal person’s sense of how Washington ought to work. A weird dynamic persisted for years with a cross-party consensus on boosting infrastructure spending, but it kept not happening as the parties quibbled over fiscal offsets. Under Biden, they got a deal done, paying for it mostly with smoke and mirrors.
This all amounts less to a historic bout of policymaking than to a historic vibe shift, one that owes at least as much to decisions made by Senate Republicans as to Biden personally.
But I think it does turn out to be true that Biden understands the Senate and the legislative process very well, and grasps that less is more. Obama liked to argue both sides of an issue, conclude that he understood what the conservative position on it was, incorporate that into his proposal, and then proclaim that Republicans “should” like the Affordable Care Act because it reduced the deficit and slowed the growth of Medicare’s unit costs. Biden has done better at letting Republicans speak for themselves and make the deals they actually want to make (an infrastructure bill with fake pay-fors) rather than the ones that theoretically comport with their ideology.
Still, the fact is that Obama swept in with huge majorities and passed a lot of laws.
The 111th Congress was a huge deal
Even though Biden has played a difficult hand skillfully, I just don’t think you can get around the fact that more gets done with a better hand.
The Affordable Care Act was a bigger, more impactful bill than the IRA. And that’s true even though the ACA in many ways fell short of its authors’ biggest hopes. But Medicaid expansion brought health insurance to millions of people. The ACA exchanges, despite their flaws, are one of the main reasons I’m able to do this job. The insurance market reforms have made life better and more comfortable for millions of people. The health care cost curve did bend in accordance with Obama’s plans. They closed the “donut hole” in Medicare Part D coverage and made prescription drugs cheaper for almost every senior citizen in America.
The ACA was such a big bill that it contained a sweeping overhaul of the student loan industry as an afterthought. Obama’s stimulus bill contained tens of billions of dollars in clean energy subsidies that jump-started the American renewable energy industry. Mitt Romney famously accused the stimulus legislation of propping up “loser” companies like Tesla, now one of the most successful businesses in the world. And of course the Obama administration enacted a major overhaul of the financial regulatory system.
Most importantly, though, he had a ton of wins on the scale of the burn pits bill — stuff people talked about a lot at the time but that aren’t discussed much today. Here’s a list:
Repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, allowing gay and lesbian service members to work openly in the military
The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act
An S-CHIP re-authorization and expansion that also raised cigarette taxes
The biggest public lands bill in decades
A law giving the FDA the authority to regulate tobacco products
A credit card consumers’ bill of rights law
An enhancement of the federal school lunch program
A law creating special benefits for 9/11 first responders (this was Jon Stewart’s big thing before he took up burn pits)
An update to food safety regulations
That’s all over and above several small follow-on economic relief bills that were added to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Now I think a lot of people, especially people on the left, look back at the 111th Congress and mostly feel disappointment. They served at a moment when the material and political circumstances of the country felt much friendlier to large-scale policy change than they did in 1977-78, 1992-93, or 2021-22, and there’s a sense that Democrats sort of fumbled the ball. And I sympathize with that. If congressional Democrats had correctly understood the depth and severity of the recession and the implications of secular stagnation for their situation, they could have done a lot more.
Still, that was the Congress for which one has to go back to the heyday of the Great Society or the New Deal to find a precedent. Biden’s achievements are more pedestrian because his majorities are smaller. Which is fine.
There’s no upside to exaggerating here
What I think is weirdest about Democratic Party choices in this regard is that one of the main reasons their legislative majorities are so narrow is that lots of people don’t particularly want sweeping policy change. Chuck Schumer’s claim that the Inflation Reduction Act features the “boldest climate package in U.S. history” is factually true, but it feels like a message aimed at Schumer’s donors rather than the constituents of his frontline members.
I think what the constituents of Catherine Cortez Masto, Maggie Hassan, Raphael Warnock, Michael Bennet, and Mark Kelly want to hear is that this is a very prudent energy bill that is going to reduce emissions without upsetting too many apple carts while retaining America’s strengths as a fossil fuel producer.
I’m not really saying anything controversial here. Democrats out on the campaign trail are pretty clearly all getting advice to emphasize the prescription drug provision and the moderate nature of the energy proposals, and those who are actively campaigning in contested races seem to be doing more or less this.
But most nationally prominent Democrats aren't in frontline races, and they are running with a message that isn't so helpful to their colleagues who are.
This speaks, I think, to a larger problem in Democratic Party politics where the leaders generally work hard on identifying the right things to emphasize in their paid advertising but then don’t bring that same energy to their public-facing communications and earned media. The problem is that while paid media is good, ultimately earned media is more important in shaping people’s perceptions. Unfortunately, the people who do paid media are happy to let elected officials overestimate how influential they are. And the people who work on the communications side seem to enjoy being free from the burdens of message discipline. But the result is you end up with Democrats seeking coverage that emphasizes how progressive they are and then receiving coverage that emphasizes how progressive they are.
I think the right way to talk about the energy provisions publicly is probably to use the messages that worked privately on Joe Manchin, since Joe Manchin is actually a really good example of a person who doesn’t like Republicans but also isn’t sold on the progressive movement. That would mean emphasizing that this is a moderate, balanced approach that, for the first time ever, makes our energy policy technology-agnostic with equal support for nuclear, geothermal, hydrogen, CCS, and direct air capture alongside wind and solar power. The bill breaks with a lot of the dogmas of the neopastoralist and degrowth wings of the environmental movement and fundamentally refutes the notion that overthrowing capitalism is necessary to address climate change.
If Democrats want to make some brags about the energy title of this bill, that’s what they should brag about — they are ultimately much more pragmatic and much less beholden to left-wing groups than many people think. But messaging as if the groups themselves are the target audience is pointless and counterproductive.
Avoiding midterm backlash
The biggest factors in the upcoming midterms, by far, will be the general state of the economy and Donald Trump’s proclivity for picking bad candidates.
Whatever Biden can do to make the price of food and energy commodities go down relative to wages will help him a lot. And anything he does that doesn’t impact that just won’t change things very much.
But to the extent that messaging matters at all, the key thing to keep in mind is that midterm backlashes are mostly driven by people who voted for President X but are now concerned that X and his co-partisans are going too far and changing too much. Above all else, you have to reassure people that Biden and the Democrats are not enacting sweeping ideological policy change, that in fact a huge share of their time has been spent on uncontroversial stuff like aid to veterans or admitting Finland into NATO, and that they are the only thing standing between you and very radical Republicans.
One reason Dobbs has been very good for Democrats is it’s created a situation where the right is on offense, policy-wise, even though Democrats hold the majority. Defending the status quo is just always much politically easier than going on the attack.
Of course that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pass laws when you have a chance — governing is the whole point — but leave the bragging and LBJ comparisons for your memoirs. Practical politics is about minimizing the extent to which you are pushing big change while talking about how the other side is full of morons who want to defund the FBI.
As Yglesias has said repeatedly, a lot of this comes down to Democrat staffers being far more progressive than the median Democrat voter; let alone the median voter. This strong bias filters what accomplishments that they focus on and shapes their own perception of events. The result is counterproductive messaging.
I’ve been hoping that fear of electoral victories for Trump and his compatriot politicians would focus Democrat staffers on winning at all costs; even if that meant compromising and moderating on policy and messaging. My personal thinking has definitely been influenced that way. It’s one thing to lose due overly ambitious political goals when the downside is four years of Romney and a Republican congress cutting taxes and deregulating. When it's Trumpism the cost of losing is higher.
Yet such a change in strategy and tactics among Democrat staffers hasn't happened. And I think a lot of that can be attributed to the “progressive mobilization” delusion. As long as staffers and activists continue to believe that there is a large number of demotivated potential voters yearning for revolutionary progressive changes then I don’t think we'll have a more productive messaging discipline. We need to do anything and everything that we can do to push back on this false narrative and correct staffers’ mental model of the American electoral landscape.
The part about the earned media reminded me of my frustrations with the child tax credit. Instead of framing it as "a tax cut for families with children" it was talked about as this broad, sweeping, transformative, anti-poverty program that was *so progressive* (squeeee!), which is not what most people wanted to hear.