The president of the United States is often referred to as the most powerful person in the world. That description must come as some consolation to Joe Biden, who in moments of despair can reflect that the second most powerful person in the world, whoever that may be, must have it worse.
Biden is in the position of someone who wins a lottery only to find out that half of the payout comes in Confederate dollars. His term so far illustrates how little control the president has over the things that matter most to him, his party and the American people.
He came into office amid a virulent pandemic and a battered economy, crises that would be his to solve. But despite his largely successful push for COVID-19 vaccinations and economic stimulus, the headlines lately consist almost entirely of bad news.
Eight hundred thousand Americans have died from the coronavirus, and each day brings another 1,300 deaths. A new variant of the virus is now on the rampage. The economic downturn that Biden inherited has turned into a boom — but one accompanied by the highest rate of inflation in nearly 40 years.
The president is blamed by most people for these unwanted developments, judging from his 52% disapproval rating. But he has only a puny capacity to address them. His predicament is a classic source of job stress: responsibility without authority. There are no obvious policy changes he could make that would swiftly curtail either infections or inflation.
Not that Biden has much power to make policy changes, as Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has reminded him. Manchin was potentially the decisive vote to pass the president’s huge Build Back Better package. But on Sunday, he said he would oppose it, at least in its current form.
With that, a large chunk of Biden’s domestic agenda appears to be sitting on a pile of tinder that is soaked in gasoline, ready to go up in smoke. His promises on climate change, family support, health care and affordable housing may amount to a litany of inaction.
President Harry Truman could empathize. “I sit here all day trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to have sense enough to do without my persuading them,” he lamented. “That’s all the powers of the president amount to.”
The plight he lamented is particularly pronounced for Biden, whose party has a slim majority in the House and the slimmest possible majority in the Senate — giving any Democratic senator a veto over almost any major legislation.
The White House and progressives in Congress can denounce Manchin all they want, but he has no reason to fear them. The condemnations will only bolster his standing in a state where Biden got less than 30% of the vote.
Much has been made of the bully pulpit enjoyed by the president. Biden is finding that to be overrated. On Tuesday, he went on national TV and implored Americans to get vaccinated for their own health and as “a patriotic duty.” But a lot of people heed his pleas only as a guide to what not to do.
When Truman won the 1948 election, he didn’t have to contend with an opponent who refused to accept the outcome and incited an attack on the U.S. Capitol. Biden has a burden unlike any of his predecessors: being seen as illegitimate by a significant share of the citizenry.
A November poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 68% of Republicans suffer from the preposterous delusion that the 2020 election was stolen.
Biden’s victory fostered a different delusion among Democrats: that they had the opportunity to take bold action to address serious problems. In fact, the 2020 election was a dismal showing for Democrats, who lost seats in the House of Representatives and lost ground in state legislatures. It was not a resounding mandate for change. It was an expression of Trump fatigue.
There was the surprise of Democrats gaining control of the Senate thanks to victories in two Senate runoff races in Georgia in January. But with just 50 seats and a solid wall of Republican opposition, their control is flimsier than a cardboard canoe.
So Biden and his party are doomed to spend the next year being stymied. He should enjoy it while he can. After that, his job could get really hard.