Biden did too much with too small a mandate

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There is no such thing as a popular US president. Each one enters office with the suspicion or ill will of almost half the electorate now. Once the routine wear and tear of governing sets in, a low approval rating is so natural as to almost be proof that one is doing the job.

The plight of Joe Biden has to be seen in this context. His dire ratings have to be weighed against the near impossibility of being widely liked in so riven a country. Not since George HW Bush in 1988 has someone won more than 400 out of the available 538 electoral college votes (a once banal feat).

Biden’s situation isn’t unique, then, much less unsalvageable. But if he is to recover, Democrats must understand his central problem. It isn’t, or isn’t just, old age. It isn’t — that eternal conceit of doomed governments the world over — a failure to “communicate” his achievements.

Biden over-interpreted his mandate. While voters don’t get to scribble precise instructions on their ballot papers, we might infer from the margin of his win, and of the Democrats’ retention of Congress, that 2020 was not a licence to reinvent capitalism. His brief was to end the dark carnival of Donald Trump and lead the US out of the pandemic. What followed — profuse spending, subsidies on a scale that might scandalise a Gaullist — was not just startling. It also allowed Republicans to draw a circumstantially plausible (even if you think ultimately false) link between the administration and rising consumer prices.

There is nothing like inflation to expose the generation gap between those who lead the US and most of those who live in it. The median American, who is not even 40, had no direct experience of high inflation until 2021. Their lives had coincided with the era of cheap Chinese imports and relative peace. Biden, in contrast, like other Washington eminences of a certain vintage, saw the oil shocks of the 1970s come and go. He might not fathom what a psychic trauma it is for the middle-aged and the young to see basic goods jump in price, and savings deplete in value. This is their first rodeo.

Since his cavalier early months, the president has grown more sensitive to concerns about inflation. But members of his government still talk with messianic bombast about a “new economic order” for the world, as though price rises are so much collateral damage in a grand experiment on behalf of the People. The case for technological self-sufficiency in some fields isn’t silly. But there is a head-in-the-clouds quality to the administration that was hard to see coming from the Scranton straight-talker.

Democrats point out that most of their interventionist ideas poll well. Must we go through this again? Policies that are popular on their own terms can be unpopular in combination. It is the impression of zeal, of pounding away at an ideological programme, that unnerves voters, unless they have sanctioned it in advance. Biden has been likened to Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt in his unapologetic statism. But those presidents (like Ronald Reagan going in the opposite direction) won crushing mandates.

In cast of mind, the Democrats are less Marxist than most parties of the left. They tend not to believe that our species is on an ordained path towards something and (the more grandiose conceit) that we can somehow know where we are on that course. This is changing, though. Even mild US progressives now say, as though reading from some Hegelian flowchart, that we have come to the end of a stage called Neoliberalism, and are now proceeding neatly to the dialectical counterblast.

Even if you take such a clockwork view of history, I’d say just this. During the “neoliberal” era, the Republicans got drubbed at regular intervals — 1996, 2008, 2012 — for misreading the public demand for the market, notably with regard to healthcare and social security. In other words, it is possible to have the mood of the times broadly in your favour, and still get too far ahead of it. Ask Paul Ryan. As fluent as he is on TV, this isn’t what he had hoped to be doing.

Democrats seem convinced the recent past was a Steinbeckian hellscape of downtrodden workers and cackling bosses. This not only trashes their own record — Clinton, Obama — but jars with public memory. The neoliberal age included low inflation. It needed reform, not rupture. Had Biden governed more modestly, it would be harder to frame him for high prices. There are water-treading presidencies and wave-making presidencies. To attempt the second with the mandate of the first is a mark of one-term presidencies.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

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