In the early phase of his presidency, Biden often seemed to be acting without any credible strategic design, the opposite of smart. Insofar as he had a theory of the case, he amounted to, We’ll get through a lot of big stuff quickly and people will like it and the Trump era will fade quickly. All three assumptions proved shaky.
Biden is now believed to be passing the Rickey test: smart and lucky are reinforcing each other, as shown in recent surveys. In particular, there are five strategic ideas that were missing from his early presidency and that show up clearly in his recent revival.
1. Biden stopped being so intimidated by the ideological divisions in his party.
In his first days in office, Biden and his team constantly worried that they would “lose the left” if he wasn’t ambitious enough in his proposals. The $369 billion in spending to address climate change, as well as additional money to lower drug prices and other social goals, in the recently enacted Reducing Inflation Act, is a small fraction of what activists once once demanded. When Biden won the signature, the move was hailed as historic, and the old grievances were barely audible.
At the same time, many in the centrist wing of the party believe that $10 billion to eliminate student debt is bad politics and bad politics. Biden took a while to decide what to do. But, after the first howls from critics, there is mounting evidence that the move was welcomed by the young, lower-middle-class minority voters it was especially targeting, and there is little sign that it will be a factor. Major adversary for Democrats in swing districts. .
The lesson: Within broad limits, a strong president must have the power to define the party’s ideology based on his own needs and preferences. There is no reason to timidly navigate around aggrieved facts.
2. Divide the opposition, at least feigning respect.
Most Democrats do not believe there is already a meaningful distinction between the “Trump wing” of the GOP and the party as a whole, barring a few outliers. Furthermore, most of Biden’s party, surely most of his own staff, despise Republicans who hate Trump but allow it out of fear or the desire of conservative judges, as they do Trump himself.
That’s why it was remarkable how strongly Biden emphasized in his well-received Independence Hall speech last week that he still draws a distinction between “MAGA Republicans” and the GOP as a whole.
“I want to be very clear up front: Not all Republicans, or even most Republicans, are MAGA Republicans. Not all Republicans embrace his extreme ideology. I know because I’ve been able to work with these top Republicans.”
No, Biden is not really that naive. He doesn’t believe that in a viscerally partisan climate he will actually draw some Republicans to his side. But he does know that he can more effectively exploit Republican divisions with that kind of rhetoric, while direct attacks would unite the opposition. Recent polling also shows that independents who fled Biden and the Democrats are now coming back.
3. Don’t just denounce extremism: take advantage of it.
Biden’s original theory was that his success would make Trump irrelevant. His new and more plausible theory is that Trump’s continued relevance will boost Biden’s success or, at the very least, make voters more forgiving of his shortcomings.
Calling attention to Trump’s efforts to discredit the results of a legitimate election is not primarily a political move. It was Biden’s obligation as president and all conscientious public officials should join him.
But Biden didn’t stop there. He quickly pivoted to link Trump’s demagoguery to the broader conservative agenda. His obvious goal was to frame his own policies (support for abortion rights, spending on health care and infrastructure, and gun control) as patently mainstream.
This was the same approach that other presidents, such as Bill Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombing, have used to use extremism as a foil. This approach does not require a strategic genius. But it does require strategic discipline, appearing presidential, not partisan, even while promoting partisan goals.
4. Don’t be the chief negotiator.
What did Biden actually do to pass the health care and energy package as a replacement for the failed Build Back Better plan? Wasn’t Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer doing the heavy lifting with the once recalcitrant Joe Manchin? You haven’t read many stories of Biden grabbing people by the lapels LBJ-style. Ditto for the modest gun control legislation passed in late June.
But the person who signs a bill is never a fringe player. Biden’s refusal earlier this year to attack Manchin when many Democrats were foaming with anger at him was a critical factor in an eventual deal. Biden’s previous efforts to cut through the details of the deals himself were unsuccessful, effectively demoting him from commander-in-chief to lawmaker along the way.
5. The competition campaign must be wagered every day.
Americans do not expect presidents to be omnipotent. But they do expect them to be engaged and in command. The August 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan shattered Biden’s political position less because of his political objectives than because of the precise perception that events were spiraling out of control in ways that Biden should have anticipated. The key to his improving approval ratings, though still low, must surely be the increased confidence Biden has shown in mustering a Western alliance to help Ukraine resist the Russian agenda.
As for gasoline prices, Biden was unable to control the global markets as prices skyrocketed, and he doesn’t really deserve much credit for his recent easing. But his publication of the Strategic Petroleum Reserves showed Americans who felt oppressed by inflation that he was using their power on their behalf. In his early days as president, a career lawmaker sometimes struggled to remember that a presidency can be defined by these daily snapshots.
Does this image of Biden’s rebirth exaggerate the strategic coherence of a process that in practice was more haphazard? I probably will. Will much of his momentum dissipate if Republicans manage to win back both houses of Congress in two months? Undoubtedly. Is it a mystery why it took so long for an unusually experienced White House staff, filled with veterans of the last two Democratic administrations, to organize around a strategy? Emphatically.
At the moment, though, Biden looks smarter than many of the people who said he wasn’t smart enough for the job.