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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Joe needs improvement

by John Brummett | January 26, 2022 at 3:52 a.m.

This being the season to review Joe Biden's presidency, let us behold the tactical blundering that has defined him, deflated Democratic prospects and sustained the frightful specter of returning Trumpism.

First, the foundation: Biden's presidential campaign in 2020 was saved by U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the highest-ranking Black member of Congress. Clyburn endorsed Biden before the South Carolina primary and extolled his sensitivity in a way that inspired overwhelming Black support in that state and in rapid-fire caucuses and primaries imminently forthcoming.

With mostly white liberals voting in the preceding Iowa Democratic caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, Biden had finished the same distant place he'd finished when he ran ineptly for president in 1988 and 2004. That is near the bottom.

Once hoisted on the shoulders of Clyburn and Black voters, especially Black women, and in spite of white-liberal rejection, Biden won the nomination to be the default choice against the outrage of Donald Trump.

Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar dropped out so that Biden could get all the vast anti-Bernie Sanders vote and barrel to the nomination.

But then Biden's first presidential year just ended was executed as if he was beholden not to Clyburn but to the beaten Sanders, a socialist independent caucusing with the Democrats and, on that basis, able by seniority and the Democrats' 51-50 majority to take the chairmanship of the Senate Budget Committee.

Rather than devote his opening presidency to a federal law preserving voting rights against Trump-inspired restrictions state by state--an initiative favored by historically disenfranchised and long disadvantaged Black people--Biden hung himself out obliging Sanders economics. He embraced a New Deal-styled social spending spree of $6 trillion and then $3 trillion and then $2 trillion and then $1.75 trillion ... and then nothing, because he never had even the Democratic votes to pass it.

All year long, Biden downplayed and resisted talk of ending the filibuster in the Senate so that the 50 Democrats and one vice president, if ever in unlikely agreement, might get something done. As Joe explained, he was a Senate veteran and Senate institutionalist, bound to the way the Senate had always done things.

But then, foiled on Bernie economics because conservative Democrat Joe Manchin never was going to go for it, and was fading heat for other Democratic senators never sold on it, Biden declared his new moral imperative, his new line-in-sand priority. Only then was that priority federal voting-rights legislation.

The idea was to protect against a bevy of Republican state legislative voting restrictions ranging from simple rollbacks to pre-pandemic processes to inconveniences to absolute impairments.

To have a chance, he had to repeal the filibuster rule that he'd so valued days before. But he couldn't get that done either because two Democratic senators--Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema--agreed with the 2021 version of Biden that the filibuster was a rule well-preserved in the interest of careful Senate deliberation and bipartisanship.

Biden conceivably could have used the good will of his calls for new unity in his inaugural address to appeal at the popular dawn of his presidency to 10 or more Republican senators for a worthy increment of the vast voting-rights bill that he embraced only as a fallback priority.

Biden could have axed the Build Back Better behemoth and told Sanders and the progressive wing that he'd picked out two or three of its provisions--climate change-tax credits for one--to go to the mat for with a relatively meager budget-reconciliation bundle.

As it is, we see articles reporting Black disenchantment with Biden's afterthought effort and headlines declaring that Biden needs to repair himself with Black voters.

Biden's failure is neither moral nor of policy, but of tactics. He has been led rather than exerted leadership. He chose to be passive and obliging, trusting that his party would stagger around and keep him from failing.

But he was only half-right. His party staggered.

He should have explained to his party mates in Congress that he got a record 81 million votes while House Democrats were losing seats, and that, on that basis, he was boss.

He should have assured Clyburn that, as priority one, he'd do everything he could on voting rights within the limitations of the Senate filibuster and the necessity of bringing along 10 or more Republican senators.

He's now at the place competence would have started him--to breaking up Build Back Whatever and to counting on Republicans like Mitt Romney to amend the Electoral Count Act to keep someone like Trump and senators like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley from ever succeeding where they tried last year.

You say it's easy to criticize. I say Biden has certainly made it so.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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