Joe Biden has been a victim of serial underestimation

Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Summary

His success with policy matters can overcome the image of frailty he sometimes ends up conjuring

Few presidential election bids could have evoked less enthusiasm than President Joe Biden’s announcement on Tuesday that he would seek re-election next year. In polls, even a slim majority of Democrats believe he should not seek a second term. And the extreme polarization of the United States means that his approval ratings as president remain low. Biden’s age counts against him, of course. He will turn 82 within a fortnight of next year’s election. He tends to stumble over names. As if in a word game without rules, he once misspoke Rishi Sunak’s name as ‘Rashi Sanook’. Biden has stumbled on stage in the US and appeared to lose his footing at a public event in Bali.

But a large part of the problem is that something about Biden’s folksy charm and frequent lapses as a public speaker means that he has been serially underestimated through his career, despite being an over- achiever. (Manmohan Singh has suffered similarly in the Indian context.) Consider Biden’s monumental achievements in pushing through legislation in a deeply divided Congress: a $1 trillion infrastructure spending bill—with even some Republican votes—and a major initiative to combat climate change. He has lowered drug costs for old citizens and raised corporate taxes. An astonishing 12 million jobs have been created since he took office, which likely outpaces India and China’s record over that period. Unemployment is close to its lowest level in 50 years and wages for low-paying service jobs have risen.

The Biden administration’s successful passing of a $1.9 trillion covid relief package early in his term likely fuelled inflation in the US, which has heightened economic anxiety in a country that suffers from an overdose of it. The US inflation picture was also exacerbated by global supply chain disruptions and increased oil and gas prices, but that is a complex case to make to an electorate. Biden was able to appoint an African-American woman as Supreme Court judge after having had the courage to pick Kamala Harris as his vice president. Above all, he has restored a decency to public life, which was sorely in need of it after Donald Trump as president and years of Republican abuse and legislative blockading of then president Barack Obama.

The perception of Biden as an under-achiever is a metaphor for the US economy. For decades now, commentators have been tripping over themselves to say the US is in irreversible decline. As a recent issue of The Economist observes, “America’s dominance of the rich world is startling. Today it accounts for 58% of the G7’s GDP, compared with 40% in 1990… American firms own more than a fifth of patents registered abroad, more than China and Germany combined." Despite higher incomes in its poorest state on a purchasing power parity basis than the average income of France—which admittedly has far better social benefits—some four-fifths of Americans believe their children will be less well-off than they are.

Why such a crisis of confidence in a nation long known for its optimism? Part of the explanation is one that applies to polarization in India as well—the reinforcement of negative images and ‘othering’ on social media and fear-mongering television anchors. In a podcast this month, New York Times’ Ezra Klein points also to a loneliness epidemic in American life: From 1990 to 2021, there was a 25-percentage-point decrease in the number of Americans who reported having five or more close friends.

This has been a fertile hunting ground for extreme views on the left and right of the political spectrum because social media and Fox News become alternatives to hanging out with friends, but the lies and general institutionalized looniness on the Republican right has heightened America’s anxiety about its economy and society. The just-sacked Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson, a key ally of Donald Trump when he was president, was the originator of the made-for-TV-ratings theory that Caucasian men in the US suffer from a testosterone deficit. (His solution isn’t even fit to print.)

Conspiracy theories and crude sociological analysis of this sort spun out by Fox News and Trump built a foundation for the storming of Capitol Hill on 6 January. And it is that event—as well as ongoing investigations of how Trump allegedly tried to manipulate vote-counting in states such as Georgia—that will likely prompt more Americans to vote for Biden in a head-to-head contest with Trump in 2024. The Republicans will likely train their ammunition on Kamala Harris, and emit dog whistles directed at the vice president’s African-American and Indian parentage. Yet, who better than a woman to argue that abortion rights are endangered as never before?

For now, we should focus on the success that Joe Biden’s administration has been and worry about the ugliness of the election ahead later. Biden’s hero is John F. Kennedy, but the better parallel is with Lyndon Johnson’s assumption of the presidency after JFK’s assassination in November 1963. Like Biden, Johnson had laboured as vice -president in the shadow of a much younger, much more charismatic president. And yet in those traumatic first several weeks, Johnson would lay out a plan for civil rights legislation and a war on poverty. Biden’s efforts to take climate change seriously and push up wages for the less well-off deserve praise. He is said to delegate supremely well and seems to have a fine team around him. To borrow the words of biographer Robert Caro on LBJ, seeing Biden tackle a deeply divided Washington in the past few years has been to “glimpse the possibilities of presidential power in a way that is visible only a few times in American history."

Rahul Jacob is a Mint columnist and a former Financial Times foreign correspondent.

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