Biden, Normalcy, Competence

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President Joe Biden is going through tough times and its showing up in public opinion polls. The surge in the Delta variant, withdrawal from Afghanistan, Haitian refugee situation, and problems in passing an infrastructure bill have all had a negative impact on public opinion with Biden approval sinking from 52.4% two months ago to 45.4 in the latest FiveThirtyEight.com poll index.

According to Amy Walter, who has taken over as the head of the Cooke Political Report, Biden’s problems come down to questions of “normality” and “competence.” According to Walter:

When Biden was running for president, his message was pretty straightforward: I’m the guy who will bring normal back to Washington. Where President Trump was unorthodox and chaotic, Biden would be conventional and organized. Trump ran the White House like a reality show, Biden stocked his cabinet and high-level staff with Washington insiders with establishment credentials. He was going to usher in an era of boring, but predictable

Biden was able to create an appearance of normality by rolling out COVID vaccines quickly and effectively. But that was all a mirage. “Normality” went out the window with the Jan. 6 Insurrection, the continued promotion of the Big Lie by the right-wing media, and then vaccine refusal among white conservatives. A majority of Republicans believe Trump is the “true U.S. president while the same survey found that 2/3rds of Republicans believe Biden won the election through fraud. Likewise, a “majority (56 percent) of Republicans support the use of force as a way to arrest the decline of the traditional American way of life.” Vaccine rejection has gone down from 32% to 16%, but that 16% is still almost 35 million people and they’ve maintained their hard core stance in the face of the current Covid surge associated with the Delta variant.

In the United States, “normality” is no longer a settled thing and hasn’t really been settled since Obama’s election as the first black president in 2008. What will sooner or later become the “normal” for a Democratic administration is pursuing a radical reformist combination of a civil rights agenda, infrastructure spending, climate legislation, and lowering the wealth gap while also managing the on-going Republican refusal to engage with policy issues, the proliferation of conspiracy theories, and the right-wing refusal to cooperate and violent resistance to the operations of federal and state government. That’s not to mention militia and paramilitary violence.

Being able to deal with both sides of the “new normal” will also be the measure for Biden administration competence. Needless to say, the short and medium term future in the United States is civil and political unrest at best and fascist takeover at worse. If Biden and the Democrats want to be seen as competent, they’ll have to deal with this situation in at least a somewhat satisfactory way.

Manchin as Lone Conduit

Like so many political discussions since Biden’s inauguration in January, this one starts with Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Whether it’s Manchin’s testimonials to bipartisanship, protection of the filibuster, insistence on addressing Republican ideas in the Covid Relief Bill, or conference calls with corporate Democratic groups like Third Way and No Labels, Joe Manchin’s name is on the tip of every writer’s typing fingers and the top of every call list from Joe Biden’s and Chuck Schumer’s to the humble but well-heeled lobbyists for coal and chemical companies in West Virginia.

Despite Afghanistan withdrawal, the Covid surge among the unvaccinated, and Hurricane Ida scoring a daily double of flooding both New Orleans and New York, Manchin still drew attention with a Susan Collins-like op-ed expressing what The Hill calls “concerns” about the impact of the Democratic leadership’s $3.5 trillion reconciliation package on inflation and the federal debt. Key passages read like lobbyist boilerplate and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez quickly called attention to Manchin’s meeting with energy lobbyists once a week and history of being “one of many senators who gives lobbyists their pen to write so-called ‘bipartisan’ fossil fuel bills.” It’s not just energy lobbyists either. Manchin has been taped doing a call with No Labels, one the main representative of corporate interests in the Democratic Party and was involved with the amateur hour, abortive moderate rebellion against Nancy Pelosi.

Since January, Manchin has become the main conduit for Republican, corporate, and Lieberman-style, GOP leaning, moderation in the Democratic caucus. Manchin’s opposition to removing the filibuster and suspicion of all the Democratic proposals he ends up supporting makes him the best available perfect foil for many of the most important interests opposed to the Biden administration. But Manchin’s importance is a real curiosity. Why does Joe Manchin represent GOP interests as he did with the Covid Relief Bill? Why couldn’t Mitch McConnell or GOP Senate whip John Thune? Why not Ted Cruz? Why is Manchin such a focus of lobbying efforts? Are there any Scoop Jacksons to be the Senator from Boeing? Why isn’t Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal up to his eyeballs in corruption like former Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd or his father and yet another Connecticut Senator Thomas Dodd? Why doesn’t Chuck Schumer find someone to rid him of the meddlesome Bernie Sanders as Budget Chair? Joe Manchin is an important man but outside Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (to whom Manchin doesn’t seem much allied), Manchin is also isolated within the Democratic caucus with his colleagues talking to him more because they have to than anything else.

Ironically, Joe Manchin is at the center of the budget debate because the Senate GOP, corporate lobbying interests, and Democrat moderate groups have so little impact on either Biden administration proposals or Democratic legislation as it moves through Congress. Conservative and corporate interests have surprisingly leverage in relation to the Democratic Party and Joe Manchin is pretty much the only vehicle they have for influence. Manchin and Sinema themselves only have leverage because the Democrats have such a small margin in the Senate. Otherwise, the Democrats are a highly unified political party with skilled leadership and a radical reform agenda.