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Larry Donnelly: Biden presidency report card - 'could do better'

Our columnist says Biden is doing OK but has taken a major hit on the back of Afghanistan.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

A CNN POLL conducted this week to gauge the American people’s attitude toward President Joe Biden was reportedly shared swiftly by the White House because it marked something of a comeback from late summer low points. At present, 50% of those questioned approve of the Scranton, Pennsylvania native’s tenure and 49% do not.

For obvious reasons, these numbers will fuel the narrative that the United States is hopelessly polarised. The binary nature of presidential politics, however, masks the truth that a better characterisation of the mood on the ground is splintered.

By way of example, in the same CNN survey, self-identified Democrats are divided equally over their party’s trajectory: half think it should follow the progressive wing’s lead; half believe the cautious approach of moderates is appropriate.

A country divided

A further recent poll, this one from Quinnipiac University, is more ominous for President Biden and illustrative both of the complex milieu in which he is operating and the political challenges he and his party face.

The key finding in it is that 60% of independents disapprove of his performance in office to date. Many of their votes alternate between the Democrats and Republicans. Hence, they form a crucial constituency

How did we get here? In the wake of four tumultuous years and an election result engendered in large part by the reality that enough of the women and men in the murky political middle had had enough of Donald Trump, Joe Biden was supposed to be the man who would take the temperature down and start to reunite the country. To his credit, he has done the former.

On the latter, in fairness to the president, much of the lingering discord stems from factors beyond his control. Again, the US is not in a great place; Trump never would have defied the odds in 2016 otherwise. And his defeat last year has only emboldened hard-core adherents who continue to turn out at boisterous rallies to demonstrate their devotion to the man whose second term they are convinced was stolen from him.

Although he has been stripped of his Twitter account and doesn’t command the same level of support within the GOP, Trump remains a force to be reckoned with.

Additionally, congressional Republicans, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, do opposition and obstructionism very well. They are hugely capable adversaries; McConnell is a master of the “dark arts” of political wrangling on Capitol Hill, where the Democratic majorities in the two houses are wafer-thin.

Heart and soul of The Capitol

In the US Senate, two of President Biden’s own party colleagues, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, due mainly to their centrist leanings as representatives of West Virginia and Arizona respectively, but also owing to what seems to be a fondness for the limelight, have impeded his signature initiative: an extraordinary $3.5 trillion expenditure on physical and human infrastructure that is intended to help stimulate the economy.

As an aside, those on the left who are vociferously attacking Manchin and Sinema ought to remember that there are inescapable political calculations to the fore in their manoeuvring. Indeed, Democrats are lucky that it is these moderates who are holding the legislation up.

Had the party’s standard-bearers not prevailed in two US Senate races in arguably fluky circumstances last January in Georgia, a bill with an objectively stratospheric price tag would have no chance of passing. Moreover, as Janan Ganesh opines in the Financial Times, Democrats actually win by having the “independent-minded” likes of Manchin and Sinema in red or reddish states.

That said, if President Biden can’t get meaningful investment in infrastructure through, it could both alienate and outrage progressives. More broadly, failure would provoke scrutiny of one of candidate Biden’s calling cards: that, having spent decades as a senator from Delaware, he is a widely-liked, experienced dealmaker willing to do whatever it takes to achieve his legislative goals, in contrast to the man he served as vice president, Barack Obama.

Afghanistan

Another of his frequently advertised strengths on the campaign trail in 2020 was that he was competent and steady, as opposed to his predecessor – especially in the area of foreign policy and international relations.

But President Biden’s first significant endeavour, the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, did not go well, to put it euphemistically. This has undercut that aspect of his appeal and may have contributed to his poor standing with independents.

A Marquette University poll in September showed that 2/3 of Americans did not favour the manner in which the US exited the war-torn country. This coincided with an overall drop in President Biden’s popularity. The move was in tune with an increasingly loud and unrepentant clamour from the citizenry that the focus be squarely on the home front, yet the disquiet at what everyone saw unfold in Afghanistan persists. Memories will fade, but political damage has been done.

This appraisal of the first nine months hasn’t touched upon Covid-19, which, despite the administration’s best efforts, is still afflicting and killing many. The pandemic has been politicised by some on the right who cast restrictions on behaviour or pro-vaccination advocacy as antithetical to the enjoyment of freedom or, even worse, un-American.

So, in terms of a letter grade, what does Joe Biden deserve at this juncture? My estimation is between a C+ and a B-. He hasn’t been as bad as his foes on the extremes of the ideological spectrum in the US assert, nor as duplicitous as some of America’s allies alleged after watching the chaos in Kabul.

But there have been missteps, a few of them surprising. It bears repeating that governing in a climate that is, frankly, toxic is an incredibly difficult task. President Biden has been and will be judged harshly for any perceived shortcomings nonetheless. All eyes are now fixed on the infrastructure package, given the potential benefits that might accrue to workers and the economy generally. Its fate will tell a lot.

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In the end, voters will mark the report card that matters most in November of 2022. And it’s just about “game on” for these mid-term elections, which are invariably a referendum on the incumbent POTUS, in the land of the perpetual campaign.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie. His new book – “The Bostonian: Life in an Irish American Political Family” – will be published by Gill Books on 15 October and can be pre-ordered here.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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