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Can Biden Avoid Obama’s First-Term Mistake?

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Can Biden Avoid Obama’s First-Term Mistake?

The Wall Street Journal January 20, 2021
OtherCulture & Society

The left will try to convince the new president he has a mandate for progressive change. He doesn’t.

When Barack Obama and Joe Biden entered the White House 12 years ago, the economy was in recession, unemployment was pushing 8%, and their fellow Democrats controlled the House and Senate. Sound familiar?

We know what happened next. Instead of focusing on economic growth, the Obama administration advanced an expensive but ineffective stimulus package and then went all in on a partisan transformation of the U.S. health-care system. The upshot was the slowest economic recovery since World War II. Democrats lost their House majority in 2010, and Republicans won the Senate four years later.

We’re about to find out what, if anything, Mr. Biden and his more liberal allies took away from that experience. Mr. Biden has said that his first order of business as president will be addressing Covid-19 and the economy. What we don’t know is whether the political left intends to let him do that. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party is much stronger than it was in 2009, and its members of Congress are far more numerous. Back then, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren did not command the national attention that they do today, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t old enough to buy beer.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Biden tried to put some rhetorical distance between himself and more radical proposals like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. It’s a strategy that obviously served him well in the election, but how well will it work for him in the White House?

When George W. Bush left office, his job-approval rating was in the mid-30s, and the incoming Obama administration interpreted Mr. Bush’s unpopularity as a mandate for its progressive agenda. That miscalculation cost Democrats control of Congress, and Republicans today are anticipating more such overreach under President Biden. Donald Trump didn’t lose re-election because he pulled out of the Paris climate agreement or prioritized securing the southern border or banned travel to the U.S. from countries with a history of coddling terrorists. Liberals who insist otherwise aren’t only kidding themselves but risk repeating the mistakes of a decade ago.

NBC News reported earlier this week that one of Mr. Biden’s first executive actions will be to ease asylum restrictions that force migrants from south of the border to wait in Mexico while their claims are being vetted. It’s been clear for years that America’s asylum laws are being exploited by phony applicants, and the better course for the incoming administration would be to fix the loopholes, not return to the pre-Trump status quo ante. Progressive Democrats may want to erase the border, but polling shows that most voters want it repaired.

Mr. Biden says he wants to heal the country, and I don’t doubt that he does. Mr. Trump’s refusal to acknowledge his electoral defeat presents the biggest barrier to the country moving forward, and the 147 Republicans in Congress who indulged the president by voting to overturn the election results are also to blame. Still, a Biden agenda that stays focused on the pandemic and the economy—and avoids indulging the excesses of the far left—could go a long way toward lowering the volume.

Republicans lost the White House, but the evenly split Senate and shrunken Democratic House majority make it clear that voters draw some distinction between Mr. Trump and the GOP. One lesson of the past four years for Republicans is that there are only so many character flaws you can overlook in the name of political expediency. Many Trump supporters deluded themselves into thinking that Mr. Trump would grow on the job, but septuagenarian presidents come fully grown. Mr. Trump leaves office as ill-suited for the presidency as he was on day one.

Still, he left his mark on the GOP. Republican elites in Washington and the media had been living in a bubble of their own that left millions of voters out of the political conversation. Mr. Trump heard their voices, and even in his re-election defeat won more votes than any previous Republican presidential candidate.

The president’s gains among blacks and Hispanics, especially, shocked the political establishment and demonstrated that the GOP need not concede minority support to Democrats. His pre-Covid economy sported record low unemployment and poverty rates, and wages rose fastest for the least-skilled workers. “It may not have been the best economy ever, as he has repeatedly claimed, but it was easily the strongest since the late 1990s, and before that you have to go back to the late 1960s to find similar conditions,” the New York Timesreported last week. How it must have pained the Gray Lady to print that.

This piece originally appeared at The Wall Street Journal (paywall)


Jason L. Riley is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, and a Fox News commentator. Follow him on Twitter here.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images