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Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the editor of National Review, a contributor to CNN and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
The state of Joe Biden’s presidency is enfeebled. His popularity has been dropping for months. The left and right wings of his party blame each other for that — and for the fact that his legislative agenda is stalled in a Congress his party controls.
Judging from Biden’s State of the Union address, you can’t say the White House is panicking about any of this. Biden didn’t try to set a new direction, whether a moderate or a populist one. He didn’t even announce major new initiatives. With the exception of his opening section about aiding Ukraine against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion — the strongest part of the speech, which got the bipartisan applause it deserved — Biden stayed on familiar ground.
He said we could “end cancer as we know it,” just as he did in his first address to Congress last spring. His plans to make government procurement “buy American” made an extended return appearance too. The internal politics of the Democratic Party make it impossible for Biden to acknowledge that its push for new federal election laws, complete with restrictions on photo identification for voters, has been dead for months. So Biden called on Congress one more time to pass the bills as though they had a real chance.
Democrats have been telling themselves that Americans would like them better if only they knew more about the party’s policy agenda: Just look at how well its components poll. So he itemized the spending programs he has been seeking. After it became clear that we were going to have high inflation for a while, Democrats decided to rebrand their existing agenda as a way to bring prices down. Nobody appears to be buying it, but Biden is still selling.
He even expanded on this argument, claiming that his Donald Trump-lite goal of making more things in America would bring inflation down. That might be popular, but it doesn’t bear a moment of thought. To prefer a domestic to a foreign source is, after all, to downgrade low costs as a priority. It is to say that we would be better off with more expensive supply chains.
There is, nonetheless, a political case for Biden to keep slogging through. He can reasonably conclude that his policy achievements, from a bipartisan infrastructure bill to a massive COVID-relief package, are impressive given the narrow margins and severe partisanship in Congress; they look small only in comparison to the exaggerated expectations his party had after winning the Senate two weeks before his inauguration.
The midterm elections look like they will be brutal for the Democrats, but Biden’s two Democratic predecessors went through similar experiences and got re-elected. And what’s the alternative for Biden? Moving left wouldn’t get Congress to pass anything, and moving right would widen the fissures in the party.
And maybe staying the course will work. Biden was able to celebrate a decline in severe cases of COVID and take a bit of credit for the great unmasking of America. (Changing its mask recommendations right before Biden’s speech is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest gift to the prestige of public health.) He also touted job gains that COVID’s fading has made possible. Perhaps these trends will continue, and Republicans will find new ways to render themselves unlikable. Maybe the public mood will change before the election, and Democrats will suffer mild losses instead of a catastrophe.
But there is another possibility, one hinted at by Biden’s painfully failed ad-libs. (“You can’t build a wall high enough to keep out a vaccine.”) It is that the public is not merely in a sour mood, does not just have a negative opinion of Biden’s time in office. It is that the public has reached a judgment — and the judgment is that Biden isn’t up to the job.