Wednesday, March 3, 2021

BTRTN: Biden Back Better – The Political Maturation of Joe Biden

Tom with the BTRTN February 2021 Month in Review.

There were countless times in the 2020 election cycle – particularly in 2019 – when one had to wonder whether Joe Biden was through as a politician.  The archetypal 20th century pol, the back-slapping, glad-handing, square-jawed, touch-too-much, loosed-lipped white male, Biden seemed woefully out of place in the early campaign months.  And it showed, particularly at the ballot box – if Biden could not crack the top three in the hallowed grounds of Iowa and New Hampshire, two of the whitest states in the country, how could he possibly have what it takes in these spectacularly diverse times?

Even after Jim Clyburn stuck his neck out for Biden, delivering a huge win in South Carolina, and propelling Biden to the nomination, the doubts continued.  Bernie Sanders attacked Biden from the left, and Donald Trump made much of Biden’s supposed cognitive decline, a falsehood that was nevertheless reinforced by the traces of Biden’s lifelong stuttering problem and his inability to inspire anything beyond faint praise.  The most powerful argument for Biden was that he was inoffensive in the Midwest.

But the Joe Biden who is now the President of the United States is not that man.  Rather, Biden is making a stunning case for the lifelong potential for personal growth.  It turns out that Joe Biden, at 78, is not past his prime at all – he is in it.  In his first 40 days in office, Biden has met the moment with a sure-footed display of empathy, pragmatism and outright leadership that has been breathtaking to watch. 

And what a moment!  Biden was faced with a dismal platter, unlike any faced by a predecessor since FDR.  A nation ravaged by COVID, with a new peak in cases and deaths in the very month he was inaugurated.  A briefly buoyed economy now backsliding under the weight of that surge.  A nation more divided than at any point since at least Vietnam, but more likely since 1865.  And a country traumatized by an attack on our Capitol inspired by Biden’s predecessor, who promulgated the most dangerous, destabilizing, democracy-threatening lies (including The Big Lie) ever uttered by a President – ever.

Biden has met each of these crises head on and, while not without a blemish or two, his efforts have been not only gaffe-free but extraordinarily effective.  The worst thing that has happened to date have involved neither words nor actions, but rather in his goal-setting.  He arguably set the bar too low with respect to vaccine distribution, and too high with respect to school re-openings.  That, and a failure in one cabinet nomination (Neera Tanden for Budget), is it.  Far from the image of Uncle Joe, Biden has been graceful and adroit, appearing to be unfazed and in control, even while expressing humility in the face of his challenges.

On the policy front, Biden has danced rather nimbly on a tightrope, with impatient progressives on one end, arch conservatives on the other and, with a 50/50 split in the Senate, absolutely no margin for error.  How could Biden possibly thread that needle?  The first big test – the crown jewel of his first 100 days – has been his $1.9 trillion stimulus package, the “American Rescue Plan,” which passed the House last week and is now with the Senate.  The package includes extensions of jobless benefits for millions of out-of-work Americans crushed by a COVID-ravaged economy, $1,400 checks for those eligible, aid for state and local governments and small businesses, increased support for COVID testing and vaccinations, and much more. 

Biden’s playbook has included, on the one hand, an outreach to the GOP, and on the other, engagement  with the left, particularly in their push for an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour (the current minimum was of $7.25 was last set in 2009).  Biden rather artfully met in the Oval Office with a set of more moderate Republicans, 10 of them who supported a far smaller ($600 billion) package, ten being the number of GOP votes required, with 50 Democrats, to pass the package without either a filibuster or using the partisan-busting reconciliation method.  When that proved to be a futile exercise -- Biden had no interest in going small -- Biden moved on to the reconciliation method, and simply redefined “bipartisan” not in terms of GOP congressional support, but rather with the general public, as polling indicated that roughly two-thirds of Americans supported his package, including anywhere from a third to half of the GOP.

For the left, Biden signaled early that while he supported the minimum wage increase, he had doubts it would make the final package.  The bottom line is that with Democratic Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona opposed to the $15 level, the provision simply did not have the votes.  And here Biden received some cover from the Senate parliamentarian, who ruled the minimum wage could not be raised via reconciliation.  This type of jostling is in Biden’s wheelhouse, and he should emerge with his signature on this bill on March 14, which would become his first major victory.

New COVID cases and COVID deaths dropped sharply in February, the former by 63%, from 5.6 million in January to 2.1 million in February, the latter down 35% from 104,000 to 68,000.  Perhaps Biden’s call for greater mask-wearing vigilance found a willing audience after months of dramatic and deadly surging.  Biden gave his team of professionals freedom to tout the science and develop new plans for mitigation and vaccine distribution.  As of now, we are well on the way to exceeding Biden’s rather low bar goal of 100 million vaccinations in his first 100 days in office (in 40 days, we are now at 75 million doses).  The bill, of course, is his main COVID bid, but he has pushed hard to increase and improve vaccination distribution, and a deal his Administration brokered to have pharmaceutical giant Merck, shut out of the vaccine game, begin to manufacture J&J’s vaccine, and is an example of his resourcefulness.

Biden’s approach to foreign policy has been slightly nuanced.  The most visible of his early actions were simple teardowns of Trump policies (which in turn were rather mindless teardowns of Obama/Biden actions).  This included reinstating U.S. participation in the Paris climate accords, reaffirming U.S. commitment to NATO, and an attempt to reinvent the U.S./Iran nuclear deal.  More broadly, Biden has talked up the importance of our longstanding European alliances, and has taken a far harder line with Russia. 

But Biden has also largely supported Trump’s tough stance on China, though he will likely differ on tactics.  A prime example of the Biden approach are the positions he has taken with Saudi Arabia.  He quickly scuttled Trump’s arms deals with the Saudi’s and withdrew U.S. support of the Saudi war on Yemen.  But, like Trump, he refused to punish the Saudi’s for de facto ruler Mohammed Bin Salman’s role in approving the killing of U.S. journalist Jamal Khoshoggi.  

First and foremost, Biden wants to pursue a cautious foreign policy, renouncing Trump’s “America First” approach and reinstating America’s primacy in the world, but not setting off any fireworks so that he can rightly focus on his massive domestic priorities.  One aspect of this is Biden’s inclination to reduce focus on the Middle East, which was a massive, dominant sphere in both the Bush and Obama administrations – an unpredictable one at best, and a quagmire at worst.  

Some Democrats have chafed at the pace of confirmations of the Biden Cabinet, which has lagged those of his predecessors.  Those critics have seemed to have forgotten the delaying effects of the unexpected Georgia Senate wins, the disorder of the Trump transition, and the impact of the Trump trial on Senate business.  Biden had to pull the Neera Tanden nomination, but he just might get the rest, a record certainly in line with his predecessors, accomplished in a far more contentious times with that 50/50 Senate.  If the Tanden defeat – a classic “inside the Beltway” drama that has little import or impact beyond the DC zip code – makes the “worst” list for Biden, he is doing well indeed.

Biden has shown a sure hand in assuming the mantel of “empathizer-in-chief” for the nation, a role that fits him as well as it ill-suited Trump.  Building on the memorial in the Mall on the night before his Inaugural, Biden led another memorial when the death toll from COVID reached half a million Americans.  This was beautifully staged on the Southern Portico of the White House, bedecked with 500 candles lining the stairs, one candle for every 1,000 Americans who have died from COVID.  This was, of course, the very setting where Trump cynically ripped off his mask after returning from Walter Reed Hospital while recovering from his bout of COVID. 

Biden’s words carried the depth of feeling that only a fellow survivor could share:  “I know all too well. I know what it’s like to not be there when it happens.  I know what it’s like when you are there, holding their hands, as they look in your eye and they slip away. That black hole in your chest, you feel like you’re being sucked into it.”  For all of Trump’s love for spectacle, the Biden White House has shown an incredible facility for staging wonderful events.  And with his moving words, Biden did well in his first full month in maintaining some of the poetry while naturally also transitioning to policy prose.

Perhaps our narrowed world does indeed suit Biden perfectly, as it did in the general election campaign, limiting his exposure, focusing his messages, minimizing the opportunities for him to make off-script mistakes.  But while that may be true, the feeling here is that his performance is better explained as Biden simply rising to the moment, with the breadth of his life and political experiences coming together at this harrowing time – a man whose life has been shaped by decades of personal pain and face-to-face negotiations here and abroad.  Biden is ready, and he is moving at the just the right pace.  It is a sign of his sure-handedness that nobody is completely happy, yet everyone is following his lead.

Biden’s ascendency, for better or worse, was bound to shove Trump to the sidelines, and Trump has been decidedly quiet, even accounting for his eviction from mainstream social media.  But there are too many storylines related to Trump, including his continued dominance of the GOP, his pending legal troubles and, of course, this last month, his impeachment, for him to disappear.

The impeachment trial found American politics at its most cynical, which is quite a statement.  Unlike Trump’s first impeachment, which involved backroom dealing that deeply offended, essentially, diplomatic norms, this impeachment was a front-and-center assault on our democracy with plenty of visual evidence.  The House managers did an extraordinary job making the case that, from beginning to end.  They clearly proved that Trump was guilty not merely of inciting the attack, but also of laying the groundwork for it, first with The Big Lie but also, specifically, in convening the faithful in Washington on January 6, the certification date.  And, perhaps most damning, they showed how, once the insurrection was underway, Trump not only took no steps to stop it, expressed no concern for the safety and welfare of Mike Pence, or members of Congress, or the various police forces on the front lines – he actively took joy in the efforts of his thugs. 

But GOP Senators simply relied on an argument that was not only disproven – that an impeachment trial of a former president is unconstitutional – while either dodging the merits or agreeing that Trump was guilty on them.  The unconstitutional argument had three easy retorts:  there was a clear precedent for dealing with someone who had left office (the Belknap case in 1985); the matter was hardly moot, given that Trump’s future was on the line given that after a conviction, the Senate could (and almost certainly would) vote to permanently bar him from office; and the matter of the “January Exception,” that any president could do what they wanted in their last month in office if they had no fear of impeachment.

But only seven GOP Senators joined with the Democrats, in and of itself an impressive, if insufficient tally.  Others, notably Mitch McConnell, excoriated Trump even while voting to acquit him.  McConnell’s actions perhaps defined Washington at its most cynical.  He essentially said he agreed that Trump was guilty, but believed the Senate had no role to play given his “former president” status, while blithely overlooking the fact that McConnell himself could have begun the trial while Trump was still in office, but instead kicked the can down the road to post-Inauguration.

With his acquittal, Trump began his comeback.  The wing of the party that is fighting to get past Trump, the McConnell/Lynn Cheney/Mitt Romney/John Kasich faction, could not leverage the moment into an all-out break, but they remain defiant and of material size and influence.  Trump’s primary enablers, led by Kevin McCarthy, are likely going to find that Trump is far more interested in punishing his GOP defectors in Congress than winning battleground seats held by Democrats.  Indeed, if Trump is successful in primarying his GOP enemies with more conservative Trumpsters, his involvement may actually backfire, as centrist districts may prefer Democrats.  But that is down the road.

For now, with his CPAC speech on Sunday, Trump is back, lashing out at this enemies, ripping Biden’s policies, hinting broadly at his 2024 plans.  His embrace by CPAC and the many 2024 GOP presidential hopefuls there – plus most of the others in the party – clearly demonstrates that the GOP remains deeply committed to Trump at its core.  This is a strategy that lost them the House, Senate and White House in four short years.  But that seems to be understood only by McConnell, Cheney and a few others.

Almost certainly will come a slew of Trump rallies across red state America.

But he better schedule those rallies carefully, because the courts beckon.  Trump is facing a dizzying array of legal battles that will compete with his Vengeance Tour for time and attention.  There is New York State Attorney General Letitia James and Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance both poking at his finally-fully-released tax records, looking for fraud, inflated valuations for securing loans while devaluing the same assets for tax purposes.  James’ case is a civil one, while Vance’s is a criminal one, and could be broarder.  There is Georgia Attorney General investigating Trump’s role in defrauding Georgia voters, with Exhibit A being Trump’s phone call to the Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger demanding, under threat of lawsuits, that he find enough votes to overturn the Georgia outcome.  And, of course, there are also potential charges related to Trump’s role in the January 6 insurrection.

Biden has basically ignored Trump.  He took no position in the Senate trial, and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki makes it clear that the “former president” and his critiques are of no interest to the White House.  Biden himself referred to Trump as the “former guy,” a sentiment that was expressed in a “Biden Back Better” moment.



Trump has left office but we have decided to keep our BTRTN “Monthly Madness” feature because there are just too many opportunities to pass up.  This month was easy:  Ted Cruz heading off for a quick vacation with his family in Cancun while his fellow Texans suffered brutally due to a shutdown of Texas’s private power grid.  This resulted in no electricity and no water for millions.  Cruz was caught by the social media brigade on the flight to Cancun, forcing him to scurry back and make a series of, firstly, pitiful defenses and then, finally, some mea culpas.

The surprise here is not the lack of empathy and humanity exhibited by Cruz.  That is to be expected from Cruz, a man who zealously licks the boots of a man, Trump, who savaged his wife for her looks and implicated his father falsely in a Kennedy assassination conspiracy. 

What is surprising is Cruz’s lack of political savvy in seeing that his flight from Texas was bound to be discovered and would play very poorly in his state (and elsewhere).  Cruz obviously cuddles up to Trump for political expediency – he wants to inherit Trump’s base – and thus has long exhibited a finely-tuned, self-interested political antennae.   How it failed him in CancunGate is a mystery.



Joe Biden maintained his 55% approval rating in February, though his disapproval rating rose (and thus his net shrank) a bit. 



















The same dynamic was at work with the public view of how Biden is handling COVID-19.  But his approval rating on this measure was even stronger than overall, and his negatives even less.

















In these early days of the Biden Administration, it is too soon to see his full impact on the economy.  The “Bidenometer” was at zero at month’s end, unchanged from when Trump left.

As a reminder, this measure is designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign:  “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  We reset the Bidenometer at this Inaugural to zero, to better demonstrate whether the economy performs better or worse under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump Administration.

This exclusive BTRTN measure is comprised of five indicative data points:  the unemployment rate, Consumer Confidence, the price of gasoline, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the U.S. GDP.  The measure is calculated by averaging the percentage change in each measure from one period to another.

Thus far, we are 40 days in, and there has been only modest changes on all the measures.  The slight downturn in the Dow and rise in gas prices have been offset by a rise in consumer confidence and a dip in the unemployment rate.  These have offset, and thus the needle has not moved.  Obviously, more time will have to pass before we can take the measure seriously as a determinant of the economy’s performance under Biden’s stewardship.

Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, you can see from the chart below that under Clinton the measure ended at 55.  It declined from 55 to 8 under Bush, who presided over the Great Recession at the end of his term, then rose from 8 to 33 under Obama’s recovery.  Under Trump, it fell again, from 33 to 0, driven by COVID-19.  Now we will see how it does under Biden.


Presidents >>>






Measures (all as of last day of term, except GDP which is rolling last 12 months)

End Clinton  1/20/2001

End Bush 1/20/2009

End Obama 1/20/2017

End Trump 1/20/2021 (base = 0)

Biden February 2021

Bidenometer (Now) >>>












  Unemployment Rate






  Consumer Confidence






  Price of Gas






  Dow Jones






  GDP (last 12 months)







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Notes on methodology:

BTRTN calculates our monthly approval ratings using an average of the four pollsters who conduct daily or weekly approval rating polls: Gallup Rasmussen, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist. This provides consistent and accurate trending information and does not muddy the waters by including infrequent pollsters.  The outcome tends to mirror the RCP average but, we believe, our method gives more precise trending.

For the generic ballot (which is not polled in this post-election time period), we take an average of the only two pollsters who conduct weekly generic ballot polls, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist, again for trending consistency.

The Trumpometer aggregates a set of economic indicators and compares the resulting index to that same set of aggregated indicators at the time of the Biden Inaugural on January 20, 2021, on an average percentage change basis. The basic idea is to demonstrate whether the country is better off economically now versus when Trump took office.  The indicators are the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline and the GDP.


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