A year ago this week, Joe Biden took the oath of office as the 46th President of the United States while promising to dedicate his “whole soul” to the mission of reducing toxic polarization in American politics after four years of Donald Trump’s selfish efforts to stoke it.
Many of us believed that Mr. Biden, a then-78-year-old moderate Democrat and former vice-president with a long history of working with Republicans in Congress, was serious about turning the page on the divisiveness of the Trump presidency. We thought he had the temperament and experience to, if not unite Americans, then restore a sense of common purpose to U.S. politics.
“We have never, ever, ever failed in America when we have acted together. And so today, at this time and in this place, let us start afresh. All of us,” Mr. Biden said in his inaugural address. “Politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.”
The geniuses in the West Wing never internalized that message. Instead, Mr. Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, pursued a flashy legislative agenda that pandered to the progressive Democratic base, despite the slim-to-none chances it could ever pass a 50-50 Senate. In doing so, the White House alienated average Americans who just wanted Washington to work.
Mr. Klain’s strategy was doing serious damage to Mr. Biden’s approval rating among the American public well before the President delivered a speech last week in Georgia that did almost as much to fan the raging fires of division in U.S. politics as Mr. Trump’s tweets. His address in support of voting-rights legislation before Congress might have energized progressives. But it did so only by demonizing anyone who queried the Democratic efforts to end the Senate filibuster rule (requiring 60 votes in the upper chamber of Congress), and pass two bills that would override the ability of state legislatures to oversee elections.
“Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace?” Mr. Biden asked, referring, respectively, to 1960s civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and a late segregationist governor of Alabama. He even compared opponents of the voting-rights bills to Jefferson Davis, who led pro-slavery Confederate states during the U.S. Civil War.
Mr. Biden’s decision to expend his rapidly dwindling political capital on fighting a futile war to end the Senate filibuster in order to pass the voting-rights bills has left moderate Democrats rightly fearing a bloodbath in November’s midterm elections. Some believe the entire exercise smacks of virtue-signalling aimed at helping Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer fend off a potential primary challenge from congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Progressive Democrats argue attempts by Republican state legislatures to tighten voting requirements aim to suppress minority turnout. But even if they are right about the intent of such laws, they are likely wrong about their impact. Studies have shown that state laws requiring voters to show photo ID, long decried by Democrats, have had no negative effect on turnout. And support for such laws transcends racial lines. If Democrats believe state voting laws are too restrictive, they should challenge them in the courts.
What’s more, moderate Republicans in the Senate (yes, they still exist) have put forward a compromise voting-rights bill that would prevent attempts to thwart the certification of presidential election results, as Mr. Trump tried to do last year. Susan Collins and Mitt Romney, along with at least four other GOP senators, have lined up behind the effort. They would still need to bring on four more of their Republican colleagues. But their bill stands a running chance of success, unlike the doomed Democratic legislation.
Mr. Biden’s presidency has stalled for reasons that go beyond his fruitless efforts to assuage progressive Democrats who refuse to be assuaged. He has lost the thread of why he ran for the Oval Office in the first place. The entire conceit of his candidacy was not about scoring hollow legislative victories, but of restoring sanity and civility to American public discourse.
Unless he begins to embody the spirit of his inaugural address, his second year in the White House could be even more disappointing than his first. The Biden presidency has not been the unmitigated disaster some critics maintain it has been. And it is still vastly preferable to what came before it. But Mr. Biden set the bar much higher than that. Let’s hope Year 2 is better.
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