Saturday, 15 May 2021

Is Joe Biden better at policy than Barack Obama?

One of the consistent reactions from liberal Democrats in recent months has been a surprising, newfound respect for President Joe Biden. He seems to be governing in a much more aggressive and progressive manner than many anticipated and seems to be on a path to more substantive legislative achievements than Barack Obama had in his first two years. Which raises the question — is Biden better at this than Obama was?

While Biden had substantial support within the party during the Democratic nomination contest, he was hardly the first choice of many passionate Democratic activists. Many of them were concerned that he’d be more interested in commitments to bipartisanship and unity than to actually passing a coherent Democratic agenda. They backed him on the premise that even if he wasn’t their first choice (or second or third) he stood a decent chance of unseating Trump, perhaps a better chance than anyone else running.

For many others, Biden was simply running on a platform to lower the temperature in American politics. He stood apart from his general election opponent, then-President Trump, by being fairly decent, expressing pretty traditional presidential sentiments like empathy for the bereaved and a belief in service to country, and not being particularly dramatic or newsworthy. This seemed to be what a majority of the electorate was looking for.

And yet he has hit the ground running following his inauguration. In addition to a record pace for executive orders on immigration, the environment, health care, COVID, and more, he pressed a $1.9 trillion relief bill through Congress and signed it last month, and that appears to be just a warmup for an even larger infrastructure bill this year. He’s also considering a substantial amount of student debt relief and an expansion of health insurance options, among other longstanding Democratic goals. Moreover, while he’s made a bit of symbolic outreach to congressional Republicans on these proposals, he hasn’t seemed to pause much waiting for them to respond.

This all stands as a striking contrast to Barack Obama’s first two years in office. Obama spent a good deal of time and effort reaching out to Republicans and trying to give his achievements — including health reform, economic stimulus, and financial sector reform — the veneer of bipartisanship. He was even willing to reduce his initial ask, especially in economic stimulus, in the hope of getting some Republican senators on board. This proved not only ineffective, netting him no Republican support, but also weakened the stimulus provided to an economy that was more damaged than many realized at the time. The thinking today is that a larger stimulus might have righted the economic ship more quickly, both helping Americans get back to work and mitigating some of Democrats’ mid-term losses in 2010.

With the benefit of hindsight, yes, the approach Biden is taking today seems wiser in terms of both policy and politics than the approach Obama took in 2009. Massive cash infusion into a damaged economy will likely yield a much stronger recovery and help mitigate Democratic losses in next year’s midterm elections, while any benefit Biden would have received for appearing more bipartisan would likely be illusory. But back to the key question: Does this mean that Biden is better at this than Obama?

In many ways, that’s the wrong question. Biden learned from what are now seen as Obama’s shortcomings. Most likely, Biden would have governed very similarly to Obama had the former been elected president in 2008. He may have even had more commitment to bipartisan outreach, having developed decades of bipartisan friendships in the Senate. And he likely would have been met with the same obstructionism in response. Conversely, had Biden won in 2008 and Obama remained in the Senate until running for president in 2020, Obama likely would have governed this year much as Biden has.

In general, we tend to place too much emphasis on the personalities and histories of presidential candidates and not enough on the party systems that constrain and define their presidencies. Democrats in 2020 weren’t about to nominate anyone who didn’t take Republican obstructionism during the Obama years seriously. Biden has significant bipartisan cred over a long career, but he also knows how to read the Democratic room, and he’s not about to govern in a way that no one in his party wants.

Biden also knows something that might not have been quite as obvious to Democrats in 2009 — majorities are fragile. It may have looked to Obama back then that he had the comfort of a two year run of filibuster-proof majorities, but then (somewhat expectedly) Ted Kennedy died of cancer and (rather unexpectedly) a Republican won his Massachusetts Senate seat. Biden, governing with much more tenuous majorities, knows he only has a short time to get the work done that will define his presidency and the next several election cycles. If he’s governing differently from Obama, it’s because he saw what Obama went through, and because he knows that the clock is ticking.

Seth Masket is a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. He is the author of Learning from Loss: The Democrats 2016-2020.

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