KOLB: Joe Biden’s Presidential Inflection Points

Charles Kolb Deputy Assistant to George H.W. Bush
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Presidential power is conferred, initially, through the ballot box, where size matters. A newly elected president – especially if elected by a significant majority vote – has “political capital” to spend to enact his policy platform.

Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 popular-vote blowout against Barry Goldwater (61.1% to 38.5%) gave JFK’s successor a sizable mandate to pursue the country’s civil rights legislation plus a slew of Great Society social welfare programs.

Ronald Reagan handily defeated incumbent Jimmy Carter (50.7 percent to 41.0 percent) in 1980 and proceeded, ably assisted by Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, to break inflation while also enacting major tax and regulatory policies that unleashed nearly two decades of strong economic growth.

Thanks to his mishandling of the Vietnam War, however, LBJ saw a precipitous decline in his approval ratings and decided early in 1968 not to seek re-election. Reagan’s second-term bipartisan triumph, his 1986 tax-reform legislation, was followed by an Iran-Contra scandal that significantly weakened his final years in office, although Reagan left office in 1989 with a remarkable 68% approval rating.

Presidents occasionally encounter some event or circumstances that constitute an inflection point – a wake-up moment signaling the need, or opportunity, for directional change. Politicians closely attuned to the electorate can often anticipate these inflection points. In other instances, the American public senses them first. These moments also typically herald an increase or decrease in presidential power or the need to recalibrate politically.

Some examples:

The 1994 Democratic midterm congressional losses led to Bill Clinton’s declaration that “big government is over.” Clinton’s directional change was ultimately overwhelmed by his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

After 9/11, George W. Bush’s popularity rose stratospherically, but his approval numbers tanked when Republicans started using 9/11 as a political wedge against Democrats in the 2002 midterm elections.

Barack Obama’s failed attempt to get a Democratic Senate to pass gun control legislation only a few weeks after his 2012 reelection signaled surprising political weakness. He further undermined his political stature and credibility with his red-line-in-the-sand warning to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad not to use chemical weapons against his own people. Assad ignored Obama, deployed chemical weapons, suffered no adverse consequences and remains in power today.

On October 28, 2021, Joe Biden experienced an inflection point that may well determine the future of his presidency.

Although his approval numbers had been significantly dropping since his mid-August Afghanistan-withdrawal fiasco, the president and his team had been touting his twin legislative proposals (the $1.1 trillion “hard” infrastructure package and the $3.5 trillion — now $1.75 to $1.85 trillion — “soft” infrastructure package) as essential for American economic growth, prosperity and global competitiveness.

Biden delayed by several hours his departure for the Rome G-20 Summit to meet with House Democrats. While he didn’t request passage of his hard infrastructure legislation that day, he pleaded that his presidency and their House majority were on the line. House Speaker Pelosi then urged her fellow Democrats to pass the legislation immediately so as not to embarrass the president while he was abroad.

Biden boarded Air Force One, and Pelosi unleashed her whip operation to secure votes for passage. As they had done previously, House progressives scuttled Pelosi’s efforts. Lacking sufficient votes, the Speaker once again scrapped the vote.

Democrats control Congress (not by much, admittedly) and the White House. These two bills constitute the bulk of Joe Biden’s first-term domestic-policy agenda. Can anyone imagine such a rebuke from Democrats happening to Lyndon Johnson? And all of this transpiring when Democrats restored congressional earmarks as a way to enhance party unity and discipline?

It is almost invariably the case that when American presidents are perceived as weak, bad things happen. Roughly 19 months after Obama reneged on his Syrian red-line commitment, Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea.

On January 20, 2021, Biden pledged to unify the country. Ten months later, he can’t unify his own party. Additionally, his foray across the Potomac to help Terry McAuliffe secure a second term as Virginia’s governor failed miserably.

Biden’s election lacked congressional coattails and signaled no policy mandate. He now appears on the global stage as a Democratic president serially rebuked by his own political party.

Biden has experienced two inflection points in one week. He can change course immediately, or he can double down on the progressives’ Congressional agenda, thereby ensuring that November 8, 2022, nationally resembles November 2, 2021, in Virginia.

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House