The civics of an unremarkable and disappointing Biden presidency

posted by Jeff | Thursday, January 20, 2022, 3:53 PM | comments: 0

A year ago, my little family unit was spending the week at a rental house on the beach in Melbourne. The weather was chilly but sunny, and it was a great chance to recharge, even while working and schooling remotely. In the middle of that week was the inauguration, which felt like someone flipped a switch and we went from batshit crazy to, well nothing, really.

A year later, Biden hasn't instigated any real scandals, though some understandably don't agree with his policy. His biggest legislative accomplishment so far is the big infrastructure law, though he's struggling to get anywhere with voting rights and climate change. I'm not sure that's really his fault, because the agenda of his opposition isn't really to create or do anything as much as it is avoid letting him succeed. What he didn't do seems like the win. He hasn't been racist or misogynist, markets aren't fluctuating on reckless tweets, he recognizes foreign dictators for what they are, he respects the press and the courts.

The funny thing about presidents is that they generally have two levers to pull in ways that directly affect people. The first is that they can have legislative agendas that they have to sell to Congress, and few presidents get more than one big thing passed. Biden got his infrastructure, Trump got his tax cut, Obama got the ACA, Bush got his war. The other big thing is that they can set the "tone" for how we move forward. I might argue that this second thing is the most important. Trump failed horribly here, Obama did OK, and even Bush did OK, despite being generally unpopular by the end of his term. Biden has been too quiet and isn't using this lever much at all.

The electorate is generally unenthused, despite Biden at least brining a quiet normalcy back to the White House. It's unenthused because we're still dealing with Covid, and there are perceptions that the "economy" is in bad shape, in part because of inflation. Let's look at the two parts of that, but through the lens of whether or not any president would have a different effect here.

First off, the reality is that economy is mostly trending in the right direction. Unemployment continues to fall, wages are rising (especially at the low end), the US GDP had its best gains since the 80's. Inflation is exceeding 6%, but the low-end wages are up 8%. There's a lot of nuance here, but if you adjust for the pandemic stall of 2020, the trend line actually balances out to where it's been going since the end of the recession 2009. We're also looking at a year where people weren't spending money, and accumulating record savings, followed by a year of cash-rich people desperate to spend and do stuff emerging from the pandemic. This is absolutely basic economics, the concept of supply and demand, as taught in any fifth grade class room. When demand for stuff goes up, so do prices. When a pandemic makes it harder to get goods to people, that makes it worse. This is obvious math.

A lot of people further complain about gas prices, but despite the cries of politicians for my entire lifetime, there isn't much we can do about it other than use less gas. Oil is a global commodity. No one nation can do anything about the cost of it, whether it's being produced in your country or not. Do you think with China's insane growth that you can decrease demand? The answer is no.

Now, what can a president do about any of this? The truth is, not much. Again, the global economics are part of the reason. I would argue that a president can be somewhat influential, but Americans in particular don't care to look at the underlying causes or acknowledge the basic economics. We're mostly immune to oil prices, because we have electric cars. Our energy cost is heavily regulated, and on a per-kWh basis, is lower than it was five years ago. If that weren't enough, almost two-thirds of our energy comes from the sun, which is "free" to generate, forever. If you want "energy independence," look to the sky. The technology exists, today, and it works. We haven't had a gas tank in seven years.

The global supply chain will presumably stabilize as Covid recedes, we just don't know how long that will take. Can a president do much about that? Well, they can make it worse, but they can't speed it along. Undercutting local authority to mitigate the disease, or spreading bullshit information, has undoubtedly caused this to drag on longer than it had to, so it's safe to say that Trump made that worse. Biden is all-in on testing and mask distribution as of this week, but he should have been on it a year ago. I suppose you can credit him with pushing his administration to create an actual vaccine distribution plan, but he dropped the ball in selling it, to some degree.

Given all of that, Biden has been wholly unremarkable in his first year. The prediction of the collapse of society-by-Biden of course hasn't materialized. But I think we're ready for someone who is truly transformational. I don't know if that's possible though when a significant wing of the minority party (and they are the minority party in terms of population representation) cares only about power, and little for democracy itself. That's a real problem. A positive cult of personality, one not based on fear and white fragility, is unlikely because people are less motivated by puppies and rainbows compared to fear. We've lost our imagination for a possible better world and replaced it with only the prospect of the worst possible outcomes. I don't know how you solve that problem.

Indeed, I stick to what I've said for decades: We get the government that we deserve. I'm just more concerned now that the reason for that is because "we" aren't actually represented.


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