Thursday, November 2, 2023

BTRTN: A Very Active Presidency in a World on Fire

Tom is back with the October, 2023 BTRTN Month in Review.


We now are living amidst the most troubling and destabilizing era since World War II.  Joe Biden is managing two major, interrelated wars at a time when democracy itself remains under assault at our own doorstep, challenges that begin to approach those faced by FDR in simultaneously grappling with the Great Depression and the rise of the Nazi’s. 

We have long forgotten the punishing circumstances that awaited Biden when he entered office.  Not only were we in the midst of the Covid crisis, with thousands of Americans dying every day, but the new president was also faced with a direct challenge to the legitimacy of his election, and thus to democracy.  He had to cope with a predecessor who refused to accept the free and fair election results and was uncooperative in the transition, instead fomenting an assault on the Capitol in an attempt to halt the pro forma certification process.  And that act was just the last and most visible means by which Donald Trump conspired to overturn the election.  He managed to convince most of his fellow Republicans that The Big Lie was fact, despite exactly zero evidence and dozens of lost court challenges. 

It has only gotten harder for Biden.  While he and his administration quickly rolled up its sleeves and addressed Covid, left the Big Lie and the insurrection to the courts, and moved to reestablish domestic and global norms and normalcy, the hits never stopped coming.  The Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Dobbs decision, countless mass shootings, supply chain shortages and spiking inflation have all posed enormous challenges to Biden.  He has dealt with all of that non-stop, while still proactively reshaping America’s future through the passage of FDR-esque landmark legislation that provided jobs, addressed climate change, put controls on prescription drug prices and much, much more.  While he gets very little credit for what he has accomplished, he certainly has carved out a record to run on in 2024. 

And then came October 7, when, instantly, the world was set aflame, and became more dangerous than at any time in the last 80 years.  With the stunning, unfathomably barbaric Hamas attack on Israel, the immediate Israeli retaliatory airstrikes, and the direct threat of a broader Middle East war, Biden suddenly faced a challenge far beyond all others in his most consequential presidency.

The horrifying Hamas attack on Israel was without precedent, at least back to Nazi Germany, in its utter savagery and craven disregard for humanity (not to mention the rules of engagement).  In their butchering of babies and the elderly alike, the hideous assault on clear civilian targets, the taking of Holocaust survivors and children as hostages, and the use of their own civilians as human shields, Hamas plumbed the depths of human depravity.  Not only is Hamas committed to the destruction of Israel, it appears to want to accomplish that fact in the most grisly manner possible. 

It is hard to imagine the need for some to refuse to support a full-throated condemnation of Hamas.  Even Israel’s worst critics, one would think, would denounce the tactics that Hamas used (especially if these attacks were designed, as some speculated, to deliberately draw Israel into an outsized response).  If Hamas could not be condemned for these heinous attacks, without a “but,” then what could ever be condemned? 

And yet, Biden was handed a draft for his initial comments that left room for equivocation.  Aides fearing the consequences of a no-hold’s-barred pro-Israel response offered softer language – which Biden immediately rejected.  He was unsparing in his condemnation of Hamas and his support for Israel in his initial comments days after the attack, and then returned 10 days later with an Oval Office address that developed many of the same themes and expanded on them, explaining the stakes to the over 20 million Americans who tuned in. 

There are a number of takeaways from the Biden response that are worthy of note. 

The first is that Biden -- and Biden alone – is in charge.  His entire presidency is wildly misunderstood from the outside.  His opponents believe he is a doddering old man, shuffling about in a mental haze.  Many Democrats believe that as well, and crave a new candidate in 2024.  Even Biden’s supporters tend to support the old man narrative by comforting themselves that Biden has surrounded himself with highly capable aides who ensure the right things get done even if the old man is well past his prime. 

All of this belies the truth.  This is Biden’s presidency, and he has made the call on every single issue he has confronted, often, as with Israel, against the advice of his aides.  A new book on Biden’s first two years in office, The Last Politician, by Franklin Foer – a must read for everyone who plans to vote in 2024 -- takes you inside the White House to offer a deeply-reported portrait of Biden.  The book reveals a very different Biden from the public caricature, a man who dominates his administration, not a drooling old man at all.  Nor does he emerge as simply as an active and engaged participant, which would be welcome enough, but actually he is a forceful and not-terribly-kind-about-it leader, displaying his Irish temper as he makes his policy and tactical preferences – check that, directives – very clear.  Biden may be 80, but he is not being led around by the nose.  The staff is not telling Biden what to do; they are struggling to keep up with him.  

The second point is the depth and breadth of his experience.  He has seen all sides of every issue, and the opinions he has developed emanate from decades of detailed involvement in almost everything that could possibly come across the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.  Even when facing unprecedented challenges, he digs into his Rolodex for his favorite problem-solvers (case in point: Biden recruited Jeff Zients, once the fixer of the disastrous launch, to turn Trump’s non-existent vaccine distribution failure into a rousing Biden success).  With respect to Israel, Biden first visited the country just before the 1973 Yom Kippur War – yes, 50 years ago -- as a young congressman.  He has known Benjamin Netanyahu for decades, and is intimately familiar with the history and how the players think.  He doesn’t need to cram a briefing on virtually any topic, and he was more than ready to act fast when the bombs started to land in Israel. 

Which leads to the third point: Biden’s response to the crisis was a sophisticated, overarching strategy of Biden's own design:  to embrace Netanyahu publicly, and in full, in order to maximize his ability to influence him privately – very similar to his approach in May, 2021 when Hamas last bombed Israel.  Biden is juggling many competing and nrealy irreconciliable goals in this morass, including supporting Israel's right to defend itself, freeing the hostages, preventing a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, vacating U.S. embassies in dangerous venues, and preparing the U.S. military for the worst.  But most important of all is to contain the war, and prevent it from escalating from Israel versus Hamas to the U.S. (and others) versus Iran (and others).  To achieve as many of those goals as possible requires tempering Israel’s response.  Biden told Netanyahu from the beginning that if this crime had been perpetrated on the U.S., Biden’s own response would have been “swift, decisive and overwhelming.”  And yet, despite those supportive words, Biden is actually trying to persuade Israel to follow a more measured course, to stay within the rules of war, to allow humanitarian aid to get to the Palestinian civilians, for more hostages to be released, to position military personnel and, above all, to remain on the good side of world opinion.  This  is  foreign policy chess at its finest, and the execution of it requires exquisite patience. 

And the fourth point:  the politics.  Over the past few decades the GOP has essentially co-opted support of Israel from the Democrats.  Progressive Democrats (correctly) see Netanyahu as a Trump-clone, and his heavy-handed bid to “reform” the Israeli judiciary by subjugating it to his will has further eroded Democratic support for the once-shining Israeli democracy.  Biden’s embrace of Israel, his motivations notwithstanding, runs against the grain of his own party, but it may be smart politics in an election year, and might win him some support from the middle.  He is clearly distancing himself from the progressives, in particular The Squad, who routinely favor the Palestinians in the struggle, and who voted down the Hamas condemnation resolution because it did not include any mention of the suffering of Palestinian civilians.  But he is already paying a price in plummeting support in the Arab-American community; ultimately, Biden is acting on principle over politics. 

There is no easy out here for Biden, no quick win.  The backlash against Israel will grow with the Gaza body count. The pressure for a pause or ceasefire is already mounting.  The Democratic Party, for all its historic fissures, has been remarkably aligned in the Trump/Biden era, but gigantic tests to that unity have begun.  If this escalates to a regional war, it will define Biden’s presidency and his reelection prospects.  Already, he has become the latest U.S. president to attempt to “pivot” U.S. foreign policy to focus on the Far East, only to get dragged back yet again to the Middle East. 

Regardless of how this latest crisis plays out, U.S. voters of all stripes are too superficial in assessing Biden.  By focusing only on Biden’s chronological age, his shuffling steps and his halting delivery, they do an injustice to the vigor of the man and his mental agility, which are quite impressive by any standard.  Biden’s physical state is evident but it is not an accurate barometer of his ability to govern.  Furthermore, it is hard to imagine how Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Gavin Newsom, Amy Klobuchar (or Dean Phillips, if you have heard of him) might have equaled Biden’s management of this crisis, pulled off the coalition backing Ukraine, or matched or even approached his domestic legislative triumphs.  Obama’s inexperience certainly showed at times, as did Bill Clinton’s.  Biden, not so much.  

The real contrast here is not with past or future Democratic leaders – it is with the current Republicans.  The month began with Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House and ended with someone named Mike Johnson in the role.  Johnson is a mild-mannered, fourth-term election denier, with mega MAGA credentials, a kind of Jim Jordan in pajamas.  In the minority-rule system that the United States has evolved to, it only took a few crazed GOP representatives to take down McCarthy (led by the vile Matt Gaetz), and a similar margin then denied the speakership to name brands on both wings of the modern GOP (that is, the far right and the even further right).  In a stunning display of leader-cide, similar minorities killed off the speaker dreams of Steve Scalise, the heir apparent Majority Leader, Jordan, and Whip Tom Emmer.  That left the GOP to find someone, anyone, with a slim enough resume to have offended no one as yet, and they found that person in Johnson.  (Even Susan Collins, the Republican Senator from Maine, admitted that she had to Google him.)  It is hard to imagine this man sitting in the chair once occupied by the likes of Sam Rayburn, Tip O’Neill and Nancy Pelosi, among many other seasoned pols of both parties.  Shameful.  As for the other GOP leaders, Mitch McConnell’s health issues go way beyond Biden’s, and Trump, facing 91 felony counts, is simply a stain than seemingly cannot be erased, desperately seeking a return to the Oval Office for the sole purpose of ridding himself of the charges one way or another. 

The GOP appears to be hell-bent on creating a platform (of a kind, since they don’t have a real one) that is designed to hand the Democrats the House on a silver platter, as well as blowing a real chance to take the Senate, or, of course, defeat Biden.  Instead, they are doubling down on the MAGA issues that lost them the 2018, 2020 and 2022 election cycles.  Banning abortions and ignoring gun violence and climate change are not winning messages for the majority of Americans.  Trump, Johnson, Gaetz, Tommy Tuberville, Lauren Boebert, Marjorie Taylor Greene and George Santos will be the MAGA images lashed to the 18 GOP congresspersons running in districts won by Biden in 2020, and to the would-be-flippers of vulnerable Democratic Senate seats.  Their constituents will also hear about Dobbs 24/7.  That will be a tough set of realities for those non-MAGA GOP candidates to overcome. 

Trump himself, of course, is hardly the ideal candidate to topple Biden.  While a Biden-Trump rematch will be close, a Biden-Haley match-up would be much tougher for Biden. 

Biden essentially promised a return to normal times, when politics were more likely to inhabit the inner sections of the newspaper rather than the front pages.  But, as John Lennon once said, “life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”  Biden is now astride a planet on fire, and while he is far more prepared than anyone else for that challenge, he will be pummeled simply because we are far from normal times, and he is old.  But he deserves better, and certainly, at this stage, deserves reelection, especially considering the alternative. 

Stay tuned. 


Joe Biden’s approval rating in October was unchanged versus September, holding at 41%.  This marked the 26th straight month that Biden has been within the 39-45% range.  The ratings of Biden’s performance on the issues were generally unchanged. 

The generic ballot continues to show a dead heat between the Democrats and the GOP.

The "Bidenometer" rose sharply, from +33 to +52, driven by a dramatic rise in GDP.  The +52 level means the economy is in far better shape under Biden than the one he inherited from Trump (see below). 


The Bidenometer is a BTRTN proprietary economic measure that was 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, so that we better demonstrate whether the economy performs better (a positive number) or worse (a negative number) under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump Administration.

The Bidenometer 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 the inaugural to the present time.

The +52 for October, 2023 means that, on average, the five measures are 52% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below).  With a Bidenometer of +52, the economy is performing markedly better under Biden compared to its condition when Trump left office.  Unemployment is much lower, consumer confidence is higher, the Dow is higher and the GDP is stronger.  On the flip side, gas prices are higher, as is overall inflation, of which gas prices are a primary component.

Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, 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 the shock of COVID-19 and Trump’s mismanagement of it.  Now we have seen it move upward from 0 to +52 under Biden.

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