Joe Biden has the opportunity to be an historic president. He is on the cusp of losing it. He is being whipsawed by his own Party and his voice is being eroded. The bipartisan infrastructure deal that he helped engineer and then undermined and then re-affirmed dramatizes the problem.
When Joe Biden raised his hand and took the oath there was a clear path to a glowing chapter in the history of White House occupants. Where should I begin?
Most fundamentally he had just beaten an incumbent that worked overtime to spread social distemper. Whose operational code was built around making people mad. If he didn’t start it, he didn’t like it.
More importantly Joe Biden had beaten the so-called progressive wing of his party. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were beaten decisively in the final counts. He had obligations but as beginning Presidents go, not that many. He had accomplished what Hillary Clinton couldn’t—a significant majority of voters believed him.
Now I know the political center, as captured by President Biden, is defined in a number of ways. Academics parse policy stands. Pollsters look at demography and sociology. But, as a practical matter, the people who make up the center are hopeful but cautious. They certainly didn’t like many of Trump’s traits—the polls made that clear. But they also are intuitively wary of grand schemes that cost a lot of money. And not being on the extremes of either party they reveal their preference for order. On the hardest ends of the Right or Left the ideologues “do not take prisoners” and to hell with the consequences—order is not a concern.
So what does order mean? Preferring to avoid the abstract it certainly means safe streets and tightly regulated borders. Unfortunately, on the left of the President’s party, safe streets translates into more social workers, not more policemen and a border policy that bears any resemblance to Trump’s is evil.
And then along comes theory.
Climate change is no longer theoretical. The need for much broader health coverage was made explicit by the pandemic. And the pandemic made clear, as if additional proof was needed, that more must be done to assure equal opportunity.
But then theory was allowed to take over, at least enough to produce raw material for the political class. The theory was Critical Race Theory (CRT) and most who earnestly sought out its definition had a hard time understanding it. But, there was a simplified explanation that the loudest voices on the left promoted: “if you are white, you are a racist.” President Biden’s reactions were equivocal.
Theory is not needed. Prejudice is human; try as we might we develop and carry some prejudices throughout life. When it comes to racial prejudices, they have existed for millennia, on every continent. Perhaps the most vivid example in modern history was white on white—recall the Holocaust. Find a continent, short of Antarctica, where it doesn’t exist today. Prejudice has and is being confronted in America; that is one thing that makes America special.
All this makes me sad. I want President Biden to succeed. We all have our differences with Presidents, but as Americans we should want America’s most important leader to succeed. Global competition is unrelenting and we need to hope our President is equal to the contest.
I know that under the best of circumstances the road ahead is difficult. We live in a disruptive age and disruptions challenge the best leaders. Why make it more difficult? Why choose the divisive force of complexity and accusation when history offers an unparalleled opportunity? The center elected you Mr. President, what don’t you understand?
America needs effective governance from the Center. It needs consequential bi-partisanship. It needs leadership that will respond to today’s needs with understandable and affordable answers.
What it does not need is omnibus (vast and disparate) splurges. There is absolutely no way that X trillions of dollars chasing hundreds of real or perceived problems can be fruitfully spent. Or, I should add, that can be other than a brutal tax on future generations. We right now owe $25T.
And to the Republicans who served up this opportunity to President Biden, spell out what you would do. Spell out how you would pay for it. Spell out why you believe the wages of labor should be taxed at a higher rate than the return on capital. Sure, at this point Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and AOC’s Squad, make counterattack easy, but if you believe you were elected to do something beyond defend Trump spell it out.
And let me be even more specific. The pandemic revealed in a way that dull statistics cannot the need for everybody who lives in the United States to have affordable access to health care. Recall if you will the words of Donald Trump in a March 9, 2020 tweet: “Despite what you hear in the press, health care is coming along great. We are talking to many groups and it will end in a beautiful picture!” The former President was talking about a plan, it was never revealed.
President Biden has used healing language. Gone are the calls to “lock up” opponents. Hopefully as this scrum of over-the-top budget requests plays out President Biden will find a new voice, his voice, and this time it will be informed by people who are in search of better answers not Omnibus Utopia.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.