With Biden sliding to 38 per cent approval in the polls, it’s finally time for everyone to stop calling him 'the new FDR'. That preposterous moniker was always misplaced. Biden’s ambition for 'transforming' the country has never extended beyond removing Donald Trump from the White House, inserting his patronage picks into important jobs and, most importantly, crushing the intra-party insurgency led by Senator Bernie Sanders. He has been spectacularly successful in all three of these goals given his meagre talents. But comparing him to Franklin D Roosevelt — America’s most transformative president since Abraham Lincoln, and a man of immense energy — has always been downright absurdity.
Mercifully, the media's Biden-is-FDR hype has come to a screeching halt over the past two weeks. Unexpected Republican victories in off-year elections — most notably in Virginia’s gubernatorial race — have underlined the weakness of Biden’s relationship with the electorate. But it’s his legislative manoeuvring over two massive bills — the $1 trillion infrastructure bill and a $1.85 trillion spending plan to address social welfare and climate change — that has laid bare the small-minded goals of what may well be a single Biden term. For months, the Sanders-inspired 'progressive' faction of the House Democratic caucus had, surprisingly, refused to be bullied into approving the infrastructure deal — a classic pork-barrel mélange of spending for roads, bridges, transportation and sewers — without a simultaneous guarantee that their more FDR-like bill addressing poverty, health care, school funding, tax inequality and carbon emissions would pass the Senate with unanimous Democratic support.
The Democratic majority in the lower chamber is only eight, so with nearly unified Republican opposition to both bills, the 95 progressives held up the infrastructure bill in an effort to force all 50 Senate Democrats into signing on to the welfare bill. But two Democratic Senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, refused to go along with the progressives.
So where did Biden, 'the new FDR', exert his allegedly brilliant skill at crafting legislative compromise? Squarely on the side of Manchin, his venal crony, an adjunct of the coal business in his impoverished home state, and a steadfast party apparatchik of the Biden ilk. As summer turned to fall, the social welfare spending bill, which was intended to be spread over ten years, shrank to about half its original size — mainly, it appeared, to appease Manchin, but it also pleased Biden. Throughout the legislative process, Biden touted pieties about the virtues of compromise, but in the end it was the progressives who bent, ultimately cracking in the face of pressure from the Congressional black caucus. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent black caucus chairwoman Joyce Beatty of Ohio (who last year defeated a black female primary challenger allied with Sanders) to apply pressure. That worked a dream.
The New York Times, official organ of the Democratic party, described Pelosi’s 'deft' power play: 'House leaders figured the liberals would be more receptive to African American members than them — even though most of the group of black members who carried the compromise forward were also members of leadership of Ms. Pelosi’s lieutenants.'
As the progressives caved, so did any leverage they had on the 'centrists' Manchin and Sinema to get a significant remnant of their social welfare bill passed, or even brought to a vote. The infrastructure bill passed 228 to 206, with 13 Republicans supporting their Democratic colleagues — proof again that though there are differences between the two parties, when either side is threatened by insurgents they bury their differences. It seems almost certain that the House Republican leadership 'released' the 13 representatives to ensure the defeat of the progressive caucus. All that was left of 'progressivism' were six holdouts in the so-called 'squad' led by New York Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. The irony is heavy. The social welfare bill in its original form would have disproportionately benefited the poorest black constituents of the black caucus.
A befuddled and lazy American media continues to spout nonsense about the slaughter that has transpired on the altar of party politics and power. Biden, they say, was desperate for a legislative 'win' to counter the 'wake-up call' that was Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s defeat in Virginia at the hands of Republican Glenn Youngkin, a wealthy financier and a political novice. Most of these narratives share the assumptions of a 'guest essay' published online in the New York Times by Bill Clinton pollster Mark Penn and Andrew Stein, a former president of the New York City Council, two regular Democrats who think Biden should emulate Clinton. They warn of a decisive Republican takeover of the House in next year’s midterm elections 'if Democrats remain on their current course and keep coddling and catering to progressives'. The infrastructure bill 'is a first step', but 'only a broader course correction to the center will give Democrats a fighting chance' in 2022 and 2024. McAuliffe, they say, hurt himself by bringing in to his campaign the President, Vice President Kamala Harris and Barack Obama as well as 'an icon on the left', American Federation of Teachers President Randy Weingarten.
This is disinformation on a grand scale. Biden isn’t coddling the progressives — quite the contrary — and neither did Clinton, who moved to the right long before he lost his Democratic congressional majorities in 1994. McAuliffe made his name as a Clinton toady, promoting the self-serving 'centrist' politics of Bill and Hillary for nearly 25 years. He has built his career on nothing beyond his fundraising prowess (he once wrestled an alligator to pry $15,000 out of an Indian tribe) and his credentials as a constant friend and golfing partner to the morally and politically corrupt Clinton. Trump’s narrow victory in 2016 was a repudiation of the Clintons and their selfishness, not an endorsement of Trump. Weingarten is just another veteran of the once-powerful Clinton machine, a thuggish union boss, not a class or culture warrior. I don’t doubt that the culture wars — especially the teaching of critical race theory in public schools — pushed independents in Virginia to vote Republican.
McAuliffe’s declaration in a campaign debate that 'I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach’ would have infuriated voters. This comment was interpreted by opponents as woke claptrap, but what he really meant was that parents shouldn’t disturb unionised teachers and their bosses like Randy Weingarten. McAuliffe never makes waves except when he wants donations — associating him with wokeness is like calling Bill Clinton a feminist.
I agree with Penn and Stein about a likely Republican takeover of Congress next year, but it will be driven by disgust that Biden didn’t deliver something FDR or Sanders-like for the have-nots or the middle class, among them the same eight to ten million people who voted for Obama and later swung to Trump. Even so, the New York Times’s Maureen Dowd thinks that Biden still 'pines to be FDR' and reshape the country. She doesn’t understand the President’s deep satisfaction in restoring order by destroying his political rivals. For a career hack like Biden, running the ruling party is a great job, even when you’re in the minority.