Even as the Senate was poised to consider the question of instituting a talking filibuster last evening, President Biden was effectively making the case against oneat least, if one hopes that such extended off-the-cuff remarks wont end up with our nations leaders sounding ridiculous.
Biden was actually doing fairly well in his one-year-in-the-White House press conference, even coming off a little like a similarly embattled president, Harry Truman, who won an upset victory in 1948 by contrasting his agenda to the non-agenda of what he termed a Republican do-nothing Congress. But Biden let the questioning drone on and on, to nearly two hours in length. In the process, he let slip a rather devastating remark, that the U.S. response to a Russian invasion of Ukraine depends on what he [Putin] does, suggesting that a small military action wouldnt necessarily be met by significant sanctions, because NATO member nations werent unified on this point.
It may be that embattled presidents should simply avoid talking about Eastern Europe. During his 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter, President Gerald Ford suddenly opined that Poland wasnt really in the Soviet bloc, a remark that came as a surprise to every one of Fords advisers, not to mention the Poles. Ford was not re-elected.
Bidens sour note, which aides immediately sought to clarify by saying that any Russian invasion would result in immediate and severe sanctions, spoiled what had been a decent, though not brilliant, effort to reset the terms of debate for the midterm elections. The president reeled off all the popular policies that he was endeavoring to push through Congresslower drug prices and affordable child care in particularand vowed that he and his fellow Democrats would run on their support for such programs and the Republicans opposition. Name me one thing theyre for, Biden said. It was the kind of Trumanesque taunt hell need to make repeatedly if the current political trajectory is to be reversed at all.
It would also help, of course, if the Democrats can pass some version of Build Back Better, and Biden conceded that hed have to accept breaking it into chunks that Joe Manchin could live with for the bill to pass. Bidens wording was ambiguous enough to encompass both paring the bill down and forcing separate votes on the left-out popular particulars that Manchin wont go for, so that swing-district Democrats can run against their Republican opponents who oppose those particulars.
My hunch is that attacking Republicans in this manner will get more traction and attract more voters than the other case Biden made repeatedly: that his presidency is an unqualified success. To be sure, he acknowledged the mass frustration at the seeming endlessness of the pandemic and the current bout of high inflation, but he hailed his administrations response to COVID, with some justification, and tackled inflation with the most trust-busting rhetoric the nation has heard from a president since the days of Teddy Roosevelt. At times, Bidens defense of his record was nuanced and plausible; at other times, however, it was over the top. He challenged one reporter whod asked about it to name one other president whod accomplished as much in his first year. The reporter could have answered, Franklin Roosevelt, but discreetly opted against it.
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Biden needs reality to catch up with his rhetoric. The Democrats prospects of surviving the midterms require a diminution of both the pandemic and inflation, changes that Biden can tout if and when they occur, but sound shakieras they did yesterdayso long as both persist. The timing here is tricky. As he acknowledged, Biden needs to be out there more, making the case for his achievements. But its a hard case to make until he can show real results in significantly dispelling or diminishing these mega-dilemmas. He can credibly attack Republicans for exacerbating them, by opposing vaccine mandates and cost-of-living reductions in drugs and child care, but even here, his ability to shift the publics focus depends on the nation returning closer to normal.
Bidens challenge reminds me of one that Lincoln encountered in the summer of 1862. With neither the war nor his presidency going very well, Lincoln drew up what was to become the Emancipation Proclamation, which would both directly help the Union armies and give new meaning to the Union cause. When he showed it to William Seward, his secretary of state, however, Seward counseled him not to release it until the Union armies, then on a losing streak, could claim a major victory. Otherwise, Seward said, the proclamation might look like a desperate effort to win more support for a failing cause.
Lincoln agreed. He declined to issue the proclamation until just such a victory, which came that September at Antietam. Lincoln was a far more eloquent and persuasive speaker and writer than Biden (in fairness, more eloquent than perhaps any national leader in recorded history), but he realized that until reality made his case more plausible, hed keep that case locked away in his desk drawer. Biden clearly needs to start making his case now, but he and his party need a more benign reality if their case is to get a fair hearing.