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Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the editor of National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Democratic discontent with President Joe Biden is boiling over into the press. His polling is abysmal, his age is showing and the Democrats are facing a potential wipeout in the midterm elections in November. Democrats are taking their complaints, mostly off the record, to reporters.
“To many increasingly frustrated Democrats, Biden’s slow-footed response on abortion was just the latest example of a failure to meet the moment on a wave of conservative rollbacks,” the Washington Post recently reported. Democratic commentator Ed Kilgore forecasts that “if things go as badly as expected for Democrats on Nov. 8, many in the party will be quietly and not so quietly urging the 46th president to retire at the end of his term.”
The bad news for Democrats is that Biden is too old and that voters may have concluded he isn’t up to the job. The worse news is that they have deeper troubles.
His victory in the Democratic nomination contest in 2020 was itself a sign of the party’s weakness. Everyone knew the risks of picking a gaffe-prone septuagenarian. But Barack Obama’s presidency had left the Democratic bench thin. The other candidates who seemed capable of winning the primaries, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, looked like riskier bets for the November election. Even today, it’s not obvious how the Democrats could nominate someone stronger than Biden in 2024. Vice President Kamala Harris registers even lower approval in polls.
Inflation is eating away at Democrats just as it is at purchasing power. Would it be any lower if one of Biden’s 2020 Democratic rivals had won? It’s more plausible that the giant government spending initiatives favored by Sanders would have pushed it higher. Biden started his presidency with the view that he needed to go big on spending to avoid Obama’s alleged error of providing too little fiscal stimulus to the economy. In retrospect, that judgment was mistaken. At the time, though, most Democrats held it.
Biden has always been close to the center of his party. Unsurprisingly, then, the basic political mistakes of his presidency have been party-wide ones. Expectations of liberal policy gains rose too high after January 2021, when Democrats gained control of the Senate by the narrowest possible margin. Biden and his team did too little to manage those expectations, but they didn’t produce them in the first place — and there were more Democrats urging boldness than realism.
Democrats generally, not just Biden, wrongly assumed that accusing Republicans of backing a new version of Jim Crow would put pressure on them to acquiesce to Democrats’ ideas about election law. Few voices in the party warned the White House and congressional Democrats that it made no sense to spend months trying to enact a grab-bag of spending proposals with no sellable rationale.
Liberal frustration at Biden over abortion is especially misplaced. Maybe the administration should have had its executive order ready for the day the Supreme Court discarded its 1973 abortion-rights precedent instead of waiting two weeks. But any order would have been underwhelming: There is almost nothing a president can do on his own to replicate the broad right established by Roe v. Wade. There’s little he can do about it with a narrow congressional majority, either. That’s why progressives have been so adamant about keeping Roe.
Democrats would almost certainly be in better political shape on the issue, and better able to defend the core abortion right, if they moderated their position. They could have pushed for legislation with the backing of every senator who favors Roe, for example, instead of trying for more. Again, though, this isn’t a Biden-specific problem. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is no more willing than the president to break with the abortion maximalists.
A recent gaffe by First Lady Jill Biden offers an illustration in miniature of the party’s current plight. She stepped into the guacamole by saying that Hispanics are as diverse as breakfast tacos. That’s on the White House. But it probably hurts Democrats more that it has embraced the bizarre linguistic fetishes of a narrow activist class by associating with a “LatinX IncluXion Luncheon” in the first place.
Dana Milbank, a liberal columnist for the Washington Post, is defending Biden from progressives’ sniping. The president is saying and doing nearly everything they want him to say and do, Milbank points out, without seeing that maybe that’s part of what’s gone wrong. Democrats, he says, should train their fire on the real culprits: Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and a “broken political system” that won’t yield the results contemporary progressives want.
The truth is that Biden is a problem for the Democrats. But they’re a bigger problem for him.