Biden’s ‘Bland Leadership’ May Be Getting Results

7 minute read

Joe Biden seemed caught off-guard. An aide had interrupted the President’s meeting with his economic team and a handful of CEOs on a stage in the basement of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Thursday to hand him a note. “You’re trying to tell me something, huh?” Biden said. The message informed Biden that the bill to boost semiconductor chip manufacturing in the U.S. had passed the House, prompting his teeth to emerge in a wide grin as his staff in the room applauded. “Been trying a long time,” Biden said.

The President may be starting to catch a few breaks. Just the week before, Biden had contracted COVID-19 and his ambitious campaign promises to beat back climate change and lower health care costs appeared dead in the water. But Biden recovered quickly from the virus thanks to protection from vaccine boosters and widely-available antiviral medication. And now, after months of dismal approval ratings and being blamed for the worst inflation in decades, Biden is poised to sign a raft of significant legislation that delivers on a sizable chunk of what he promised voters.

The CHIPS and Science Act will pump more than $52 billion into U.S.-based computer chip makers, create billions in tax credits to encourage more investment in the American chip industry, and pour tens of billions of dollars into cutting-edge scientific research.

In a separate deal, Senate Democrats are moving forward with a sweeping bill that includes massive investments in reducing carbon emissions and lowering prescription drug costs. The Inflation Reduction Act would also set a 15% minimum on corporate tax rates for the largest corporations.

If that bill makes it to Biden’s desk next month, it would join the CHIPS bill and Biden’s success in June ushering through the first gun safety legislation in decades and the $1 trillion infrastructure package he signed into law in November.

“There was clearly a commitment and a desire on the part of everybody in the Democratic Party—Joe Manchin, thank God, included—in trying to get as much of the big agenda items done before November,” says Ashley Etienne, a former communications director for Vice President Kamala Harris.

It is unclear if those legislative accomplishments would be enough to reverse the decline in BIden’s poll numbers. A CNN poll released on July 27 found 75% of Democrats wanted a Democratic candidate other than Biden to run for president in 2024. Biden’s approval ratings continue to hover around 40%. Young voters in particular have soured on him. An average of polls published by FiveThirtyEight found that Biden’s approval among 18 to 29-year olds has sunk to 37% from over 55% when he took office.

The climate and tax bill still faces significant hurdles to passing. And its passage may not be enough to help Democrats in the mid-term elections in November. While the job market and consumer spending remain strong, the U.S. economy has contracted over the past six months, and any economic impact from the climate change bill and the CHIPS bill would take years to be fully felt.

The deal falls short of the ambitious policy proposals Biden laid out during the campaign and when he rolled out his wishlist last year for the Build Back Better plan. Big portions of Biden’s agenda are all but dead for the foreseeable future. No measure with a pathway to passing touches on his campaign promises to make community college free, invest in eldercare and housing programs, or develop guaranteed paid-leave programs for those caring for loved ones.

Biden has been criticized from the left wing of his party for not pushing Congress harder and not taking more forceful executive actions on immigration, student loan debt forgiveness and protections for access to abortions in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

The Sunrise Movement, one of the most outspoken climate activist groups, is pushing for the climate and tax deal to pass while stressing the ways they believe it falls short. “Let’s be clear: this bill isn’t the Green New Deal. It’s not even @POTUS’ Build Back Better. This is the Manchin Climate Plan,” the group tweeted on Thursday.

It is up to Democrats and Biden to tell Americans what they have accomplished, Etienne says. And the major promises Biden hasn’t been able to land? “We make the argument that we’ve made great progress, and in order to complete the task or to continue even further on these big ticket items, you need more Democrats.”

Biden’s persistent and understated navigation around the far-left voices in his party may be what voters wanted when they elected him, says Timothy Naftali, a historian at New York University. “People have been quick to describe his presidency as a flop and as unsuccessful, but each time he choses that middle lane, it yields results,” Naftali says. That “bland leadership” has been frustrating for many Americans, but after the “tumultuous” Trump era, “Biden is delivering cool, calm leadership, likely too bland for young activists, but perhaps that’s what the country needed,” Naftali says.

The passage of these bills would allow Democrats to “flip the script” going into the fall, says a Democratic House aide. “This isn’t a referendum on Joe Biden, this is about what we’ve done and what we’re trying to do versus what we know Republicans have as their goals,” the aide says. Democrats will say they took steps to reduce inflation after having stimulated a struggling economy, overhauled the transit system, and helped get much of the country vaccinated and taken other bold steps to help end the pandemic. They will paint Republicans as wanting to take control of Congress to give tax breaks to corporations, launch investigations into Hunter Biden and further restrict access to abortions.

Congressional Republicans are portraying Democrats as soft on crime and indifferent to inflation, particularly high gas prices, which Republicans want to address by expanding oil drilling. The top Republican in the House, Kevin McCarthy, said this week at a conference hosted by the Trump-aligned America First Policy Institute that he planned to unveil a seven-point plan in September called the “Commitment to America.” Should they take control of the House next year, Republicans will hold hearings to “rein in” Biden’s cabinet secretaries, McCarthy said, as well as push for increased police funding, demand harsher border security policies, vote to pass a “parents bill of rights” in determining what is taught in schools, and create a House committee on China that works to reduce U.S. dependence on Chinese production of precious metals and medicine.

During his meeting with CEOs on Thursday, Biden grinned as his taciturn Treasury Secretary, former Fed Chair Janet Yellen, reported that despite the country’s gross domestic product shrinking for a second quarter, the economy is still adding jobs, American household finances are holding up, and consumers are spending money. “With skill and luck, it will be possible to maintain that strength,” Yellen said.

That prompted Biden to tell a family story. (It never takes much.) He recalled how his grandfather, a college football star who played for Santa Clara College in California in the early 1900s, liked to say that having “Lady Luck” on your team wasn’t enough—a team needed luck and skill on the bench. “We’re looking for both,” Biden said. Voters in November will decide if Biden and the Democrats have enough of either.

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