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Littwin: All Biden has to do is return the country to normalcy. How hard could that be?

Let’s see. He could end the pandemic. He could reduce political polarization. He could, as he sort of promised, offer us a path beyond Trumpism. That’s all.

There’s no real secret as to why Joe Biden’s approval ratings are in the dumpster after his first year as president.

It’s got little enough to do with being too liberal or too old or too weak or too gullible about bipartisanship or for botching the Afghanistan withdrawal or going too easy on Joe Manchin or being too little, too late in his attention to voting-reform legislation or for not using his executive powers sufficiently, although all those arguments have been made against him by one group or another, and some of them are clearly on point.

Mike Littwin

But the reason Biden was elected and what his election promised us — both implicitly and explicitly — was to find a path for the country back toward normalcy. Biden is old enough to remember the Before Times — it was only five years ago, but seems so much longer — and a majority of voters, not all of them necessarily in love with Biden, viewed him as a likely caretaker for the post-Trump era.

You can look around and see the problem. Approximately nothing is normal. It can never be normal until that day comes when COVID-19 doesn’t dominate our lives. And then there’s the path toward political semi-normalcy. I haven’t seen one, have you? 

And the thing is, there is no post-Trump era and won’t be any time soon. He hasn’t gone away or, in fact, gone anywhere. He might well run for president again in 2024, which, even with Trump’s Twitter account suspended, ensures that normalcy is nowhere in sight. 

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In fact, nurturing the Big Lie is still the Republican Party’s most obvious agenda point. The response to the Big Lie — 19 Republican-led states having passed voter-suppression laws, meant to make voting harder for minorities and students — has made our hyperpolarized country even more polarized, if that’s even possible. At this point, you should expect several more rounds of elections in which their legitimacy will be challenged, and possibly from both sides.

And the January 6 insurrection is a wound that will not soon heal, and the slow drip of frightening revelations from both the media and the House Select committee keep the story, for those who still think in terms of newspapers, on the front pages. 

Obviously, any return to normalcy depends, first and foremost, on getting past the COVID-19 pandemic, for which you can’t really blame Biden, but many do anyway. It comes with the job. And he has clearly had his issues in dealing with the pandemic. The changing CDC rules have been consistently confusing. Biden, whose empathy is his strong suit, has not been effective in explaining either why the situation hasn’t much improved or why the treatment goalposts seem to keep moving. 

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Biden did a pretty good job rolling out the vaccines, although we’re not as vaccinated, in terms of percentage, as most of our peer countries. But we still have mask wars. We still have vaccine wars. Biden badly botched the much-needed, particularly now in omicron times, availability of at-home rapid COVID tests.

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Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s six conservatives ruled that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) went too far in mandating that businesses with more than 100 employees must require vaccinations or regular negative tests. The OSHA rule would have covered as many as 80 million Americans. You have to wonder what part of workplace safety and health the Supreme Court fails to understand. 

Nothing will be normal so long as the pandemic dominates our lives and our children’s lives, disrupting everything from hospital operating rooms to our kids’ classrooms. And let’s not overlook the cynicism, which rivals the virus itself both in intensity and in danger, of those right-wing politicians and right-wing media downplaying — or worse, rejecting — the need for as many people as possible to be vaccinated, even as 850,000 Americans have died. 

As for the politics of Biden’s first year, it has been a mix. When giving out grades on Biden — I’d give him a gentleman’s C+ — you should know that it’s a mistake to judge Biden, as many are trying to do, in comparison with either FDR (we could really use another one) or LBJ (not so much). 

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At the height of both FDR’s and LBJ’s effectiveness in getting transformational legislation passed, Democrats had supermajorities in Congress. Today, the 50-50 Democratic majority in the Senate isn’t actually a majority except when using the kind of U.S. Senate math that allows for the vice-president to cast any tie-breaking vote. And when Joe Manchin is on the sidelines, Kamala Harris’ vote is rarely needed.

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Part of this is Biden’s fault. He welcomed the FDR comparison. He did overpromise on his agenda. He must have thought he had Manchin on board when he forced Nancy Pelosi and the House to vote on the infrastructure bill without a simultaneous vote on the even more important safety-net, climate change bill. 

And inflation is real, with no certainty as to how long it will last or if it will get worse. Biden needs to acknowledge that. We can be sure, though, that Congress has taken real money —coming in sizable monthly checks —out of the pockets of inflation-weary consumers by failing to renew Biden’s, and Michael Bennet’s, expanded child tax credit. Those checks helped reduce child poverty by as much as 40%. Are Republicans and Joe Manchin really going to stand idly by as millions of kids slip back into poverty? 

In Biden’s two-hour marathon news conference the other day, which was meant to show, I guess, that he doesn’t have a stamina problem, he said he needed to get out of Washington and back on the road to talk to real people and, presumably, unhappy Ukrainians. At some point, all presidents say something like that. At no point, in my memory, has it ever worked.

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He also said how much better the economy is doing — which, by many measures, particularly job growth, it is — when many Americans still haven’t felt the improvement. The midterms are coming, and as we all know, the party in power, to borrow Obama’s terminology, can usually expect a shellacking.

Which isn’t to say that Biden’s presidency is doomed, as so many are already predicting. The same was said at various times of Obama, Clinton and George W. Bush, just to name a few. No one knows if Biden will even run in 2024, and, if he doesn’t, who would replace him on the ticket. No one knows what the virus will do or where inflation is going. It’s hardly impossible that we’ll see real improvements in both. No one knows what Trump will do, either, or if Trump-backed Senate nominees prove disastrous in the midterms, allowing Democrats to keep the Senate.

Everything, in fact, is still very much in flux. Which, if you think about it, is the one bit of normalcy we can always count on.


Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.


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