Today’s Edition: Another failed presidency? Not!

September 9, 2021

          Biden is entering a crucial month for his presidency. He is promoting legislation that has been described asthe most significant expansion of the nation’s safety net since the war on poverty in the 1960s, devising legislation that would touch virtually every American’s life, from conception to aged infirmity.” Those sweeping changes would be funded, in part, by changes to the tax code described as a “once-in-a-generation change to a more progressive tax code.” If Biden can deliver most of what is contained in the bills currently working their way through Congress, his legislative legacy will eclipse that of his predecessors as far back as Lyndon Johnson. It is likely that Biden will succeed—but not without high drama and some disappointment that he did not achieve more.

          We will not know for thirty days (or more) whether and to what extent Biden succeeds. It is thus premature to write the obituary for the Biden administration. That did not stop NYTimes columnist Bret Stephens from publishing his op-ed, “Another Failed Presidency at Hand.” Stephens’ premise is stated in the headline of his essay—that Biden’s presidency is a failure. I read Stephens’ essay shortly after it was published and deemed it to be unworthy of comment. Wow! I was wrong, big time!

          Throughout the day on Wednesday (up through late Wednesday evening until the publication of this edition of the newsletter), readers forwarded links to Stephens’ essay. Some were genuinely worried and sought reassurance that Stephens is wrong. Others were worried that the opinion of such a respected journalist would carry weight among persuadable Independents. One reader circulated with a note to his newsletter readers saying that he “hopes Bret Stephens is wrong.” Another reader was angry that the NYTimes would publish a “hit job” on Biden. The strong reader reaction caused me to re-read Stephens’ essay. Though my opinion hasn’t changed—it is unworthy of comment—I thought it would be helpful to use Stephen’s op-ed attacking Biden as a way of assessing where Biden stands at this crucial moment in his presidency.

          Before I harshly criticize and strongly disagree with Bret Stephens, I acknowledge that he is a Pulitzer Prize winner who writes for one of the world’s great newspapers. I, on the other hand, am a guy with a laptop who publishes a small newsletter on Substack. So, give my opinions due weight.

          That said, let me start by saying that Stephens’ op-ed is filled with ad hominem attacks on Joe Biden. Such attacks come with Stephens’ beat at the NYTimes—he is a professional scold and contrarian whose presence at the Times is a nod to “balance” in an organization widely regarded as a very liberal outlet. Stephens describes Biden as “headstrong but shaky, ambitious but inept.” Stephens says that Biden lacks the “stamina” to win in 2024 and that Biden is “proud, inflexible, and thinks he’s much smarter than he really is.” In an oblique reference, Stephens says that our society has, under Joe Biden’s tenure, “fad[ed] into paranoid senility.” Stephens’ vocabulary is filled with dog-whistle jargon that is the stock-in-trade of the right-wing media.

          The fact that Stephens harbors a personal dislike of Biden doesn’t mean the Biden administration is a failure. Many readers of the Times dislike Stephens, but that doesn’t mean he is a hack; to the contrary, the Pulitzer committee tells us otherwise. So, my first point is that we should set aside Mr. Stephens’ purely subjective dislike for Biden as a measure of Biden’s success. We should acknowledge, however, that Mr. Stephens’ animosity towards Biden aligns with the right-wing narrative about Biden’s “lack of stamina,” lack of intellectual horsepower, and “senility.” But Stephens’ resort to such subjective (and baseless) attacks is window dressing designed to bolster his weak arguments on the merits.

          A careful reading of Stephens’ essay reveals only two criticisms of Biden on the merits. First, Stephens claims that the withdrawal from Afghanistan was a moral catastrophe and an intelligence failure. In offering that opinion, Mr. Stephens has joined the Great Media Dogpile of 2021. As many journalists have noted, about half the news media lost all sense of objectivity and perspective in reporting on the withdrawal from Afghanistan. See, e.g., Josh Marshall in Talking Points Memo, “Taking Stock Of The Great and Cowardly Press Freakout Of August 2021.” For the most part, the American people disagree with the media’s breathless and short-sighted reporting on the war in Afghanistan in general and the withdrawal in particular.

          Of course, Biden’s favorability ratings did decline during the period of the withdrawal, with many voters citing poor implementation as the reason for their changed view. (See prior link.) But even accounting for that decline, Biden’s lowest favorability rating remains above Trump’s highest favorability rating. A failed presidency because of a decline in favorability? Hardly! We are not yet one year into Biden’s presidency. His ratings will fluctuate with the ebb-and-flow of his victories and defeats. It is premature to be making definitive declarations of success or failure based on one swing in favorability ratings.

          On the question of Afghanistan, Stephens reveals the real reason for his pique with Biden. Stephens prescribes a formula for Biden to redeem his presidency, as follows:

          There’s a way back from this cliff’s edge. It begins with Biden finding a way to acknowledge publicly the gravity of his administration’s blunders.

          There you have it: If Biden will only accede to the media’s narrative that the withdrawal was a catastrophe of his own making, all will be forgiven. (This is similar to the Times’ reporting on Biden’s speech, saying that he “refused” to offer a “mea culpa” for the withdrawal.) Biden has repeatedly and persuasively rebutted the media’s criticism of the withdrawal and they are shocked that he is standing by his decision. If standing up to whining from the likes of Bret Stephens is failure, then we need more of it, not less.

          Stephens’ second criticism of Biden is that he has failed to heed the wise advice of Senator Joe Manchin that Democrats should take a “strategic pause” in Biden’s ambitious legislative agenda. That “criticism” is no criticism at all. Manchin is an outlier in the Democratic caucus. See HuffPo, “'Full Speed Ahead': Chuck Schumer Rejects Joe Manchin's Call To Slow Democratic Agenda.” The fact that Biden is aligned with the overwhelming majority of his party is not a sign of failure; it is a sign of leadership. Manchin’s maneuvering is short-sighted and selfish—vices that Stephens overlooks because he agrees with Manchin’s refusal to help the working poor and middle class by increasing taxes on the wealthy.  

          I view Stephens’ op-ed as much ado about nothing that recycles old news wrapped in fresh invective. Biden’s legacy will be determined by the fate of the infrastructure bill and the reconciliation resolution. Other issues will also loom large in his legacy: his success in defending majorities in Congress, protecting voting rights, containing the pandemic, and advancing the fight against climate change. Those chapters in Biden’s story have yet to be completed. It is up to all of us to help Biden achieve success. We should not be distracted by professional contrarians. Like broken clocks, they are bound to be right occasionally; that doesn’t mean they have anything meaningful to say.  

Rally at Capitol planned on September 18 in support of “political prisoners” jailed over January 6th insurrection.

          A former Trump campaign operative is coordinating a rally on the Capitol steps to support so-called “political prisoners” jailed for their participation in the January 6th insurrection. See Business Insider, “Nancy Pelosi said protestors who plan to attend the September 18 rally at the Capitol are 'coming back to praise the people who were out to kill' during the January 6 riot.” The Capitol police are reportedly re-installing the security fencing that was erected after January 6th. Let’s hope that there is no violence and that if there is, the Capitol Police will have sufficient reinforcements to quickly control the crowd and make arrests.

Trump praises Robert E. Lee as statue is removed

For those worried about a Trump 2024 candidacy, you should take some comfort in the fact that he cannot refrain from aligning himself with white nationalism. That position will drive away persuadable Independents. On Tuesday, Virginia removed a large statue of Robert E. Lee—a Confederate general who betrayed the United States and who may have been responsible for more deaths of U.S. soldiers than any other general. Trump took the opportunity to say what a great guy Lee was and how he would have defeated the Taliban in no time at all. See Politico, “Trump praises Robert E. Lee while denouncing statue’s removal in Virginia.” Trump distorted history, claiming that Lee was a “great unifying force” after the war, skipping over the part where Lee did his best to destroy the union.

Department of Justice to Sue Texas over Abortion Law

          Per the WSJ, the Department of Justice will file suit against Texas for infringing on federal rights by restricting access to abortion. See ABC News, “Biden Justice Department expected to file suit against Texas over restrictive abortion law: Source.” The grounds for the suit are fuzzy at the moment and may reflect the fact that the DOJ is in search of a theory justifying federal intervention by the DOJ when Congress has failed to protect the right to abortion.

Concluding Thoughts.

          September will be an emotional and trying month. With the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the September 18th rally, the Newsom recall vote, and the congressional fight over the reconciliation resolution, there will be high drama, political infighting, and somber memorials. A reader sent a note wondering whether the fraught times signaled the end of the American experiment. They do not. We have survived much greater challenges. Though it may not always feel like it, Democrats are winning the fight to protect democracy. We need only outlast the retrograde forces that the have taken over the Republican Party. And we don’t need to win every battle. We need win only enough of them to sustain the defense of democracy until the next generation steps up to join us in the battle. We can do that.

          Talk to you tomorrow!