Biden and Trump Share One Thing: Many Politicians Keeping Their Distance From Them

From a New York Times guest essay by Yuval Levin headlined “Biden and Trump Share One Thing”:

Back in January, looking ahead to the midterm election year, President Biden said that he expected to be featured prominently by Democrats running for Congress. “I’m going to be out on the road a lot, making the case around the country, with my colleagues who are up for re-election,” he predicted.

It has not turned out that way. Instead, many Democratic candidates have practiced the delicate dance that politicians of both parties have had to master over the past two decades — keeping their distance from a president of their own party while not openly repudiating him.

The four presidents we have had so far in this century have been peculiarly unpopular. George W. Bush had a stretch of high approval after the Sept. 11 attacks but spent much of his second term underwater (often deeply). A chart of Barack Obama’s public approval looks faintly like a W — briefly rising above 50 percent around the two elections he won and at the very end of his term, but he otherwise spent much of his eight years in the 40s. Donald Trump is the only president during the seven decades that Gallup has been regularly tracking approval ratings who never once topped the 50 percent mark. Joe Biden floated above that mark early in his term but hasn’t seen it since.

It’s not just in terms of public support that recent presidents have been weak. This can be hard to grasp because we still live with the bromides of “the imperial presidency” — a term made famous by the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in the 1970s to describe an office drunk with power and towering over American government. We implicitly think this is still the case.

But this persistent cliché keeps us from seeing the real contours of our strange constitutional moment. Joe Biden and Donald Trump may well be the two weakest presidents since before the progressive era.

They have been weak presidents of different sorts. Mr. Biden has largely declined to set priorities for his administration and has been so desperate not to divide his party that he has been nearly paralyzed. Think of any other modern president, including Mr. Trump, and you can probably list two or three issues he particularly cared about. Can you come up with such a list for Mr. Biden? Other than the withdrawal from Afghanistan, is there any major initiative his administration has pursued because it was singularly what the president wanted to do?

Even when he has overreached in his use of administrative power — as with the legally dubious forgiveness of student loans — Mr. Biden has often acted under pressure from party activists. On many important measures in Congress, Mr. Biden’s views do not appear to have been decisive, and he has not been essential to the negotiations that led to any of the bipartisan deals he has signed.

Mr. Trump exhibited another kind of weakness. During his presidency, he dominated most news cycles and sought to operate outside the formal framework of presidential power in ways that ultimately posed real threats to the constitutional system. But within that system, where our government actually governs, he was feckless and chaotic, and largely failed to exert meaningful control even over his subordinates. His most significant achievement was in the realm of presidential power that requires the least persistent follow-through: the appointment of judges, including three Supreme Court justices, where the president’s role ends almost as soon as it begins. In other arenas, he generally couldn’t steer any one course long enough to get very far.

Astonishingly blatant insubordination was routine in Mr. Trump’s White House, and it was matched by a bipartisan tendency in Congress to regard the president’s words as devoid of meaning and his actions as always open to reversal. No one took him seriously as an executive.

The administrative state — that tangle of agencies that compose the executive branch, some formally independent and others more answerable to the White House — remains a formidable force in this era. But its growth has not always strengthened our presidents. This is most obvious in Republican administrations, as the chief executive strains to wrangle career officials and independent regulators who often want to steer a course different from his. But those same agencies operate in Democratic administrations, and even if the course they steer better suits a left-leaning president, their autonomous strength can render him institutionally weaker.

The same might be said of presidential appointees. One measure of a president’s administrative prowess is whether his midlevel political appointees can readily imagine what the president would do if he were in their jobs and act accordingly. This has been fairly easy to do under most modern presidents. But under both Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, many appointees could be forgiven for having no idea how the president would want them to make key decisions — Mr. Trump because he was so unpredictable, and Mr. Biden because he so rarely has set clear goals.

These distinct but related forms of presidential weakness gesture toward two key elements of the job. Alexander Hamilton argued that a strong chief executive exhibits energetic decision-making and “steady administration.” Both elements are necessary, and the absence of either, Hamilton suggested, “implies a feeble execution of the government.”

Those of us who would like to see Congress reassert itself might hope for a silver lining in such presidential feebleness. But the evidence of recent Congresses suggests those hopes are misguided. The past couple of years have seen the passage of some meaningful bipartisan measures — on public health, infrastructure, gun control, manufacturing and more. But they have often revealed the contemporary Congress’s own weaknesses — the gangs of senators have often worked around rather than through the committee system and regular order — more than they have remedied them.

This should not surprise us. The president and Congress don’t have the same job, and the weakness of one does not make the other stronger. On the contrary, it often distorts the work of the other and invites more weakness in return.

When that happens, partisanship rushes in to fill the void and soon makes for a vicious cycle: Congress and the presidency increasingly incline to the same sort of work — neither legislative nor executive but more like partisan performance art — and both grow more forgetful of their core responsibilities.

This is a particular problem for our presidents because, unlike Congress’s job, the president’s role is defined by obligations he must meet. As the political scientists Joseph Bessette and Gary Schmitt have argued, the presidency is better understood as a collection of duties than an arrangement of powers, and presidential strength is often a function of living up to those responsibilities.

It is by doing the chief executive’s core work — faithful, predictable execution of statutes; steady administrative rule-making that can last beyond the next election; cleareyed prioritization and prudential action within the law in response to pressing national challenges — that a president can wield and therefore fortify the strengths of the office. Playing chief pundit and willfully blurring the line between rhetoric and action is a recipe not for influence but for haplessness.

Until our chief executives grasp that the burdens of their office are its strengths, they will remain baffled by their own debility and unable to marshal the public to their side.

Yuval Levin, a contributing Opinion writer, is the editor of National Affairs and the director of social, cultural and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of “A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream.”

Speak Your Mind