The new year brought forth a new Biden – a fiery, determined, passionate President substituting for the dewy-eyed, sentimental chief executive. But in the hothouse of American politics the new year also brought forth new defeats, new disappointments and new dissenters, swiftly transforming the Battling Joe Biden into the Embattled Joe Biden.
Just in one week: a vaccine mandate the Supreme Court wouldn’t countenance. An offensive against the filibuster the Senate won’t acquiesce to. A drive for voting-rights legislation that lacks sufficient votes. A spurt of inflation that doesn’t seem to peak. New tensions with Russia that don’t appear to abate. A virulent virus that continues to surge. Enraged Americans in long lines for testing kits that don’t exist.
And, inevitably, low presidential approval ratings that don’t seem to stop dropping.
It was enough to make Mr. Biden feel as if he were reliving, daily, the political equivalent of the well-loved Judith Viorst children’s book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, written, it turns out, the year Mr. Biden was first elected to the Senate.
All this from a President who opened the year with a new persona, luxuriating in comparisons with the 20th-century political magus Franklin Roosevelt, who won massive expansions of government and innovating social initiatives. The year began with Mr. Biden daring to believe he was a 21st-century president who approached his challenges – commemorating the first anniversary of the Capitol rampage, rallying Democrats to preserve political democracy’s most essential elements – with the fervour of Theodore Roosevelt, who celebrated the valour of the “man in the arena,” arguing, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.”
Burdened by being a President with bare majorities in the Congress and low public support as a base, Mr. Biden had abruptly adjusted his profile. Once a man of blustery speeches, he became a figure of ardent appeals. Weary of being a President constantly on the defensive – about the legitimacy of his election, about his perceived abandonment of the middle lane in American politics, about his failure fully to satisfy the pent-up demands of his party’s progressives – he suddenly took the offensive. He excoriated Donald Trump as a mendacious poseur. He lit into Republicans as modern practitioners of voting-booth Jim Crow discrimination. Where once his lips were wet with sweet ice wine, suddenly there was single-barrel bourbon on his lips.
Then the other two branches of the separate-but-equal equipoise of the American Constitution asserted their prerogatives.
The Supreme Court cut down a principal element of his drive against the novel coronavirus. The Senate made it clear it would not abandon the chamber’s ancient filibuster rule for two voting-rights measures, effectively bringing an end to Mr. Biden’s most fervent hopes in the space of a mere two days.
The result: a swift end to the new start for the new year undertaken by a President who began January more with the fervour and hard-knuckle rhetoric of Lyndon Johnson (who forced his Democratic colleagues on Capitol Hill to bend like birches to satisfy his vast Great Society ambitions) than with the moonshine-and-magnolia lilt of Jimmy Carter (served up by a president who faced rebellion from his own Democratic “allies” and a Speaker, Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., who referred to himself an “old oak”).
In the end, the unbending oaks of Washington left Mr. Biden drooping like one of those weeping willows that flourish in his home state of Delaware.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer bravely vowed to press on, but now the effort to pass voter-protection legislation is more political – forcing Republicans to cast Senate votes that Democratic challengers can use against them in November midterm elections – than practical, with little prospect of affecting the integrity of the election results in 2024, when Democrats fear they may face the possibility of a third Trump presidential campaign.
And yet, no presidency ever was mortally wounded by events that occurred before the first midterm political tests. John F. Kennedy presided over a fiasco at the Bay of Pigs and then a sobering, aggressive lecturing from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at a Vienna summit only to recover sufficiently to have overwhelming odds to be re-elected in 1964, and after Kennedy was assassinated, Mr. Johnson won in his place in a landslide. Bill Clinton actually presided over one of his party’s worst modern congressional disasters, including the Democrats’ loss of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, and was re-elected handily two years later.
The one bright spot from the despair of Mr. Biden’s defeats last week was the prospect, which brightened slightly Friday, that the Democrat responsible for so many of his woes, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, may be warming to the notion of supporting a scaled-back child tax credit as part of the President’s US$1.8-trillion Build Back Better proposal.
And if there were any solace for Mr. Biden in his terrible, horrible, no good period, it may be where other presidents have found consolation: in the remainder of Theodore Roosevelt’s remarks – delivered at the Sorbonne in April, 1910 – following the passage asserting, “It is not the critic who counts.” Indeed, it was quoted by both Kennedy and Richard Nixon in their own moments of anguish:
“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
The Biden rhetorical offensive of the beginning of the year necessarily could not reflect Theodore Roosevelt’s famous maxim, to “speak softly and carry a big stick,” for Mr. Biden does not possess a big stick in a capital where party divisions are strong and Democratic margins are small. But he remains in the arena.
“That man in the arena Roosevelt speaks of is getting his brains beaten out,” said John Robert Greene, a historian at Cazenovia College in Cazenovia, N.Y., who has studied how the 26th president’s words in that speech and others – quoted by every one of his successors except Dwight Eisenhower – have been used by other presidents. “But all presidents get bloodied, and all of them vow they will come back.”
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