The Weekend Australian
All the way with ‘LBJoe’
Joe Biden, just like LBJ, is the consummate political operator
Joe Biden is the accidental president, the Chauncey Gardiner of American politics. It’s not that he didn’t always plan to be president. Unlike the guileless gardener Peter Sellers immortalised, Biden has been running for the job, it seems, for the past several centuries. In his first two efforts to become president — his primary campaigns in 1988 and 2008 — he didn’t trouble the scorers at all, yet now he has already established himself as a historically significant president. He is changing America in significant ways, and he is doing it through the deliberate exercise of presidential power.
The eye-watering amounts of money Biden has passed through congress for pandemic relief — and the even more eye-watering amounts he wants as a stimulus package, plus a range of moves on foreign policy from China to Iran, as well as recommitting to the Paris climate accord — mean that already the Biden presidency is of historic consequence.
What that historic consequence turns out to be, however, is still contested.
Nobody except Joe ever really thought he would be president.
When Barack Obama picked him as vice-presidential running mate in the 2008 presidential election, he was choosing a candidate to offer balance in virtually every way. Obama was black, Biden was white; Obama was a cerebral policy wonk with a great fluency and facility for the high-falutin’ formulation and high oratory, Biden was folksy and fuzzy and down-to earth. As a first-term senator with no legislative achievements, Obama was a Washington outsider; Biden was as deep a Washington insider as the swamp on the Potomac has ever produced.
Despite their later attestations of mutual love and devotion, Obama never showed a very high regard for Biden as Veep. The most sympathetic and insider accounts of the Obama presidency are pretty dismissive of Biden. Obama famously considered replacing Biden with Hillary Clinton for the 2004 re-election campaign. Obama showed absolutely no interest in having Biden run to succeed him in 2016. And Obama did not endorse Biden until he was the last Democrat left standing in the 2020 primary.
In the early primaries in 2020, Biden performed woefully, getting smacked around by Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg and pretty well everyone else. But then came COVID and the flight to safety. The Democrat establishment was confronted with the horror that the party’s candidate might be the fruity socialist Sanders so finally they, and America’s black voters, rallied around Biden and he became the party’s nominee.
The rest, as they say, is history. Biden won a handsome victory in the 2020 election, winning the Electoral College easily and beating Donald Trump in the popular vote by seven million votes.
Now, Biden is an old man in a hurry. He still looks frighteningly weird in unscripted situations, and sensibly avoids press conferences or anything that could put him under extemporaneous pressure. But there’s no doubt he is guiding the overall direction of his presidency. He is perhaps a tenth as active as Ronald Reagan in his first term, but is running something like the same kind of presidency, where he gives broad direction and trusts his close aides and most senior cabinet secretaries. As a result, he is changing American history.
Brian Loughnane, the former director of the Liberal Party and the shrewdest Australian analyst of long-term trends in Western politics, calls him “LBJoe”.
This is a witty riff on Lyndon Baines Johnson. The charismatic John F Kennedy — handsome, smooth, charming, and silkentongued — was elected president in 1960. Like Obama many decades later, he sought balance in his ticket, so he chose LBJ as his running mate. Johnson was as ugly as Kennedy was handsome, as crude as Kennedy was sophisticated. And, like Biden many decades later, he was an absolute Senate insider, the absolute Senate insider.
After Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, LBJ became the accidental president of his time. But then he won one of the greatest landslide victories ever in a presidential election in 1964. And he got a great deal of historically consequential legislation passed, including critical civil rights provisions that had eluded Kennedy. He also authored the Great Society, which introduced much of the welfare state into modern America.
Kennedy made history as the first Catholic elected president. But LBJ got the legislation passed and changed America. He was a far more consequential president than Kennedy. And the things for which he was derided — his good ol’ boy insiderdom — were the things that powered his success.
The parallels with Biden are obvious. The very epitome of an insider wheeler dealer, Biden is getting legislation passed. Partly because the detail of policy is these days beyond him, he is very happy to let his team of Democrat professionals run the mechanics of the show. He is intimately familiar with the ways of Washington and of the machinery of government. He has, with few exceptions, appointed fellow insiders — albeit often of diverse ethnic background and more women than previously — to the key roles. These folks may or may not be pursuing good policy, but they certainly know how the place works.
Like all successful politicians, Biden is lucky, but he has the wit not to interrupt his luck, not to get in the way of it, and to some extent to ride it.
The unorthodox, disorganised and chaotic Trump presidency left a national yearning for orderly government. Who better to provide orderly process than an avuncular chairman of the board who delivers platitudinous bromides to tranquillise the nation?
Biden has also made two or three strategic decisions that are helping him enormously. He has decided not really to be a bipartisan leader reaching out to Republican congressmen. But he has decided to give every faction of the Democratic party a share of jobs and policy victories.
Every Democrat gets a prize. So Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the left, Buttigieg in the centre, and Joe Manchin, the unlikely Democrat senator from the right-leaning state of West Virginia, all sing his praises.
Biden has made another strategic decision as old as modern politics and the welfare state. He is going to give out money at a faster rate than any president in history. He got his $US1.9 trillion relief package passed. And now he is seeking passage for his $US2 trillion infrastructure bill.
Here is a secret that even Conservative British Chancellor Rishi Sunak and our own Josh Frydenberg have discovered: giving people money makes you popular.
The canny strategists around Biden, acting very much in line with Biden’s own politics as brokerage model, have smuggled lots and lots of Democrat favourites into both financial packages.
Their aim is to increase taxes, permanently enlarge the size of government, increase transfer payments, and support left Democrat policies on social issues and climate change.
Wrapping all that ideology into great buckets of money is the most effective way to sell it.
The infrastructure package is especially clever because Trump himself had promised that he would provide historic infrastructure building. And America needs huge infrastructure investment and renewal.
But Trump delivered nothing on infrastructure. He couldn’t get it through congress, but then he never made a very sophisticated effort to do so, even when the Republicans controlled both houses of congress, as the Democrats do now.
The most devastating criticism that Bob Woodward, by far the most intelligent critic of Trump in the mainstream US media, ever made was that Trump was guilty of “a failure to organise” his administration. This arose from Trump’s politics as psychodrama style, and seeing the daily political battle as a question of reality TV and a fight for the ratings. And this bizarre approach of Trump’s did indeed rack up its list of unexpected achievements and did get some things done. But it got very little done through the formal mechanisms of US government, which is where Biden is strongest.
Of course, some of the things included in the Biden infrastructure bill are ludicrous in themselves. They show the great power of political marketing. Thus Biden includes in his infrastructure bill ongoing funding for care for the elderly and disabled. Care for the elderly and disabled is certainly a virtuous enterprise, but it is just ridiculous to call it infrastructure. It’s welfare. But although it seems plainly dishonest, including it in the infrastructure bill has flummoxed Republicans, especially because Democrats, and Biden in particular, are getting an overwhelmingly soft and favourable treatment from most of the mainstream media, whose hatred of Trump, and relief at his political passing, mean they have embraced the alternative and put their normal professional scepticism aside for the moment.
The infrastructure bill also contains $US175bn for electric cars. That may or may not be good policy. But it’s not what is normally meant in the English language by the word “infrastructure”.
It also contains $US20bn for this wonderfully woolly purpose: “a new program that will reconnect neighbourhoods cut off by historic investments and ensure new projects increase opportunity, advance racial equality and environmental justice and promote affordable access”.
Translating that Washingtonspeak roughly into the English language, that means money for politicians to give to whichever interest group will benefit them the most politically, without a skerrick of consideration for _actual good policy. It is pure LBJ erastyle pork-barrelling.
Biden’s proposals also contain significant corporate tax increases. Trump cut the corporate tax rate from 35 per cent to 21 per cent. This stopped US companies fleeing to lower-tax jurisdictions abroad. It was a tremendous incentive to investment.
But it is notable that Biden wants to go back, and yet not all the way back.
Quite a lot of what Biden is doing is very left by American standards, especially in social policy and cultural politics. But quite a lot of it is reasonably centrist. So, has America moved, in net terms, right or left in the past five years?
On foreign affairs, Biden has maintained Trump’s China policy in virtually every respect. Trump’s secretary of state, the formidable Mike Pompeo, gave Biden a pass mark on China and Asia policy in a lengthy interview with me recently. On the Middle East, Biden has moved back to a potentially disastrous Obama-style leftism, going soft on Iran, distancing from Israel and dissing US allies in the Gulf, while re-embracing the long-sterile dogmas concerning the Palestinians.
On climate, policy Biden has gone a long way left, not only reembracing Paris but doing a great deal to hurt US energy production.
On illegal immigration, Biden has been a disaster, all but collapsing enforcement on the US southern border and leading to floods of illegal immigrants. That situation is not sustainable politically, and if it continues Biden and the Democrats will pay a severe political price, perhaps as soon as the midterm congressional elections in 2022.
But the Republicans are still in a mess too. Trump did have some significant achievements but he massively mobilised the Democrats. His purely political achievements can be overstated. He lost the popular vote in 2016 by a couple of million but won the Electoral College. He then lost the Electoral College in 2020 and lost the popular vote by more than seven million. Compare that with George W. Bush. He lost the popular vote in 2000 by half a million and won the Electoral College. Then in 2004 he won a majority of the popular vote as well as the Electoral College.
For all Trump’s alleged power with the base, Bush had a much more impressive electoral record. Trump could mess up the Republicans very badly over the next few years, just as he alone lost them two safe Georgia Senate seats in the January run-off elections.
Biden also benefits by presenting as a centrist, even if he’s often far more left than that. He is the only contemporary Democrat who routinely talks about trade unions. Though at odds with the Catholic Church on many key matters, he presents himself as a devout Catholic and often uses rosary beads as a prop. He doesn’t pick a fight with the white working class if he doesn’t have to.
Is he permanently transforming American politics? Consider this. After LBJ’s 1964 landslide, the Republicans did well in the 1966 mid-terms and Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California. In 1968, the Republicans under Richard Nixon took back the White House.
The death of American conservatives, and the eclipse of the Republicans, is at best being declared wildly prematurely.
Like all successful politicians, Joe Biden is lucky, but he has the wit not to interrupt his luck, not to get in the way of it; and, to some extent, to ride it