Not too long ago, supporters imagined Joe Biden might be the next LBJ, and perhaps they were right — just not how they thought.
Biden bears no resemblance to the Lyndon B. Johnson who entered office after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 with a 75% approval rating and over the next couple of years passed a raft of historic legislation. No, if there’s any comparison it is to the LBJ who by 1967 had seen his approval rating dip underwater in a deeply riven country.
After a lot of happy talk over the past half year, the real Biden presidency has emerged. It is not a colossus bestriding the political universe, rather a middling administration, at best, that will have trouble imposing its will even on its own party in Congress.
Biden was always fundamentally a default president, elected in opposition to Donald Trump and initially buoyed by the contrast to his outlandish predecessor.
Now, he’s lost his foil in Trump, who is still issuing harsh and thunderous press releases but isn’t driving every news cycle or occasioning mass protests in the streets.
The best case for Biden was that he could ride in the slipstream of good economic growth and a receding pandemic.
Instead, the labor market is still rocky, and the Delta variant has surged, leading to headlines about overstretched health care systems that most people assumed that we’d left behind in the spring of 2020.
On top of this, Biden made the first major, historic decision of his presidency, and completely botched it. The White House may tell itself that his withdrawal from Afghanistan will come to seem farsighted, and it’s possible that the harmful political effect will wear off over time.
Leaving Americans behind in a foreign country after an enemy of the United States swept to power and chased us out with our tails between our legs, though, is not likely to be forgotten, certainly not in 2022 or 2024, if ever.
The prime directive for any president is, to the extent possible, to seem in control. Biden failed this test repeatedly during the evacuation crisis. Events moved faster than he did and his rationales for what was happening had to be constantly revised.
Privately, Democrats must know that his performances at his press conferences weren’t reassuring, let alone commanding. The problem Biden has is that any act of incompetence will, fairly or not, raise questions about his age, even if he would have done exactly the same thing at 38 that he’s now done at 78.
The most notable feature of the resulting Biden drops in the polls that have him underwater in both the RealClearPolitics and 538 polling averages is his awful standing among independents (in the mid-30s in reputable polls).
This isn’t a position of strength from which to deal with another structural problem that was submerged by his initial success getting new Covid-19 spending and by wishful press coverage — uncomfortably narrow margins in Congress.
Biden can’t lose anyone in the Senate and only a handful of votes in the House, giving both the relative moderate wing of the party and its leftmost flank the ability to kill off his spending plans for being too profligate or too stingy, respectively.
Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is a constant reminder of this. The fate of Biden’s presidency, or at least huge pieces of his domestic agenda, depends on a senator representing a Trump state who is largely immune to pressure from the national party, indeed may be helped if the national party calls him names for not going along with its priorities.
When all is said and done, Biden may get enough spending to allow Republicans to attack him as a wastrel and not enough spending to excite his own partisans.
Welcome to Biden’s reality. The heroic period of his presidency was always a mirage, and the effort to muddle through now begins in earnest.