Asharq Al-awsat English Middle-east and International News and Opinion from Asharq Al-awsat Newspaper

Biden’s Honeymoon Is Over, and He Knows It

Biden’s Honeymoon Is Over, and He Knows It

Sunday, 8 August, 2021 - 05:15

The first seven months of the Biden presidency have been easy compared with what’s coming down the pike.

Key provisions of Covid relief legislation came to an end on Aug. 1, with more set to follow — including a cessation of moratoriums on evictions and mortgage foreclosures, termination of extended unemployment benefits (which carried $300-a-week supplemental payments) and a stop to enhanced food stamp subsidies and student loan forbearance.

The prospect of millions of families forced from their homes as Covid variants infect growing numbers of people provoked frenzied attempts by the White House and congressional Democrats to take emergency steps to halt or ameliorate the potential chaos and a possible tragedy of national proportions.

On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ordered a 60-day freeze on evictions — although the order faces possible rejection by the courts.

“Any call for a moratorium, based on the Supreme Court’s recent decision, is likely to face obstacles,” Biden told reporters, adding that the “bulk of the constitutional scholarship says that it’s not likely to pass constitutional muster.”

In a June report, the Census Bureau found that 1,401,801 people 18 and older living in rental housing were “very likely” to be evicted and 2,248,120 were “somewhat likely.” In addition, 345,556 people were “very likely” to lose their homes through mortgage foreclosure, and 746,030 were “somewhat likely” to face foreclosure and the loss of their homes. The combined total was 4.7 million adults.

The eviction crisis has come at a time when an additional series of potentially damaging developments have come to the fore.

The rate of inflation has been rising at its fastest pace in over a decade — to 5.4 percent in June, from 1.4 percent in January when Biden took office, with no end in sight. The number of homicides grew by 25 percent from 2019 to 2020, and the 2021 rate, 6.2 homicides per 100,000 residents, is on track to become, according to The Washington Post, “the highest recorded in the United States in more than 20 years.”

The number of illegal border crossings has more than doubled during Biden’s seven months in office, raising the potential for immigration to become a central campaign issue once again, both next year and in 2024.

US Customs and Border Protection reported that in June of this year the enforcement agency “encountered 188,829 persons attempting entry along the Southwest Border,” a 142 percent increase from the 78,000 in January 2021 when Biden assumed the presidency.

As the 2022 and 2024 elections get closer, Biden is in a race to keep public attention on policies and initiatives favorable to the Democratic Party and its candidates against the continuing threat that inflation, crime, urban disorder and illegal immigration — all issues that favor the Republican Party — take center stage.

The danger for Biden if crime and immigration become primary issues of public attention is clear in polling data. The RealClearPolitics average of the eight most recent polls shows Biden’s favorability at plus 7.5 points (51.1 positive and 43.6 negative) and that the public generally approves of his handling of the Covid pandemic, of jobs, of the economy and of the environment.

Regarding Biden’s handling of crime and immigration, however, the numbers go negative. In the July 17-20 Economist/YouGov Poll, 38 percent of voters approved of his handling of crime, and 45 percent disapproved. In the Economist/YouGov poll taken a week later, Biden’s numbers on immigration were worse: 35 approving, 50 disapproving.

The Biden administration has initiated a set of programs designed to “stem the flow of guns into the hands of those responsible for violence” — the centerpiece of its anti-crime program — but the Economist/YouGov poll found in its July 24-27 survey that 30 percent of voters approve of Biden’s handling of gun issues while 48 percent disapprove.

What does this all portend? Bruce Cain, a political scientist at Stanford, replied by email to my inquiry: "The Biden administration has done a good job so far avoiding hard-to-defend, controversial positions on Republican hot button issues. That is really all they need to do. It is more likely that Covid and economic conditions will matter more in determining the Democratic Party’s fate in November."

Cain argues that the best defense for the Democrats is to go on the offense in 2022 and remind voters about who Trump is and what the Republican Party has become. The resistance to supporting vaccination among Trumpist Republican officials could hurt the party’s national image substantially in 2022 if the unvaccinated are to blame for our inability to put this issue behind us.

Sean Westwood, a political scientist at Dartmouth, has a very different take. In an email he wrote: "The Democrats have lost a great deal of credibility when it comes to crime and policing by thoughtlessly adopting slogans like ‘defund the police’ without considering what the phrase means, how policies based on the idea might lead to surges in crime, or how the slogan might backfire in the face of rising crime and lawlessness."

"Biden," Westwood continued, "was smart to distance himself from these factions, but many of those he needs in Congress and in state houses have been much less careful. Without a serious repositioning on criminal justice policies, the Democrats face the midterms with a gaping self-inflicted wound."

Biden received a lift last week in keeping a bread-and-butter agenda front and center from an unexpected source, Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader. McConnell abandoned his Dr. No stance toward all things Democratic and joined 16 fellow Republicans in support of a key motion to take up a $1 trillion infrastructure spending bill. If enacted into law, the measure would legitimize Biden’s claim that he is capable of restoring a semblance of bipartisanship in the nation’s capital.

McConnell has not fully explained his political reasoning, but his tactical shift suggests that he thinks the wind remains at Biden’s back, making the Republican strategy of destruction a much riskier proposition, at least for the moment.

Early indicators suggest that in some ways Biden has yet to face the kind of voter opposition that characterized the administrations of his predecessors from both parties at this stage in their presidencies.

Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State, tweeted on Aug. 2: "Still no sign of strong grassroots or conservative media opposition focused on Biden or congressional agenda At this point in Obama admin, it was clear August congressional recess would be full of boisterous town halls. Infrastructure doesn’t get base animated."

Similarly, G. Elliott Morris, a data journalist for The Economist, wrote on Aug. 1 that there is a long-term “trend by which the people react in a thermostatic manner against the party in power,” with the public mood shifting to the right during Democratic presidencies and to the left during Republican presidencies.

So far during the Biden presidency, Morris wrote, the expected tilt toward conservatism has not materialized: "Where we go from here is a big question. As stated, the thermostatic model would predict a reversion in 2021 in the conservative direction. But the issue remains open; the public has not appeared very thermostatic on, say, immigration policy over the last year, and their demand for public spending is still very high."

The trickiest issues facing the Biden administration are crime and urban disorder because these are issues that play to the advantage of conservatives, who have demonstrated expertise in weaponizing them.

The June 29-July 6 USA Today/Ipsos poll found that “concerns about crime and gun violence have surged to the top of issues that worry Americans” and, in an ominous note for the Biden administration.

Crime and public safety is the issue on which the Republican Party now holds its strongest advantage. By 32 percent to 24 percent, those polled said the G.O.P. was better at handling crime.

There is considerable disagreement over the optimal strategy for Democrats to adopt when addressing crime — along with widespread concern over the party’s credibility on the issue itself.

Rebecca Goldstein, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, emailed to say that she believes “the Biden Administration has correctly read the political winds by doubling the amount they are requesting for police hiring grants in 2022 compared to the 2021 appropriation, and also requesting eight-figure sums for police training and body-worn cameras.”

These initiatives, Goldstein continued, are “not the outcome that any of last summer’s activists would have wanted. But the Biden Administration has realized that some of those proposals, particularly defunding or abolishing police agencies, were politically dead on arrival.”

The crucial question, in Goldstein’s view, is whether the administration will be able to convincingly advertise its support for police, and for police oversight and reform, while neither alienating some of the activists who mobilized to help Biden win in 2020 and might be put off from putting in the same sweat equity in 2022 or 2024, nor succumbing to the longstanding critique from the right that Democrats are “soft on crime.” This is a tightrope that even the most skilled politician might not be able to walk.

Stanley Feldman, a political scientist at Stony Brook University, argued in an email that trying to engage voters on crime and other issues that have worked to the advantage of the Republican Party in the past is a fool’s errand: "The Democratic Party has been losing voters who want economic benefits from the federal government but who are supporting Republican candidates because of their conservative positions on social and cultural issues. Biden can’t win back voters by engaging on these issues. Any positions he takes will raise the salience of these issues and that’s not helpful for him."

Crime and policing, Feldman noted, are largely local concerns. Immigration is a potential minefield so the best he can do is to try to keep it from becoming a major media story. Given his limited options, any attempt to address these concerns would just give Republicans an opportunity to portray him in an unfavorable light. Providing concrete economic benefits to people while reducing the volume on social/cultural issues is the best way forward in 2022 and 2024.

Aaron Chalfin, a professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees that engaging in the debate over crime is inherently risky for Democrats: "In my view, the political liabilities for the Democrats are probably fairly substantial. The surge in violence is rapid and has reversed 20 years of progress in just 18 short months. While I think the cause of the violence has little to do with Democratic political priorities at the national level, it seems likely that the Democrats will be held to account given the rhetoric around “Defund” that is associated with the left wing of the party."

Lawrence Sherman, director of the Cambridge Center for Evidence-Based Policing at the University of Cambridge, agrees that “the greatest threat to Biden on policing and disorder comes from the left,” but he differs from some of his colleagues in arguing that Biden should take the issues of crime and urban dysfunction head on.

Sherman contends that public anxieties over crime are just one part of a larger, more comprehensive “fear of chaos.” In that more expansive context, Sherman continued, Biden has strengthened his credentials as an adversary of disorder through his work on Covid and the economy, for which his competence grows more impressive daily in comparison to Trump’s. Climate change will also become a bigger issue (favoring Biden) for the swing vote, with smoke, heat and floods proving more scary than an unprecedented spike in murders. In a politics of fear, the targets of fear become identified with different candidates, and Biden’s fears now seem paramount: Covid, Climate and Chaos.

Trump’s actions leading up to and during the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol by Trump loyalists seeking to disrupt the vote count have opened the door for Biden to take the initiative on law and order and, in doing so, to counter the image of the Democratic Party as soft on crime, Sherman argued: "After what Trump did on Jan. 6, Biden has been able to stress his own historic support for the police as emblematic of his opposition to chaos,” Sherman wrote in an email: The "defund the police” movement probably did help to lose Dem seats in the House in 2020, and may increasingly be blamed for the huge spike in violent crime. But as long as Biden remains strong in his position that policing “works” to prevent crime, and that it is essential to saving Black lives, he will attract the suburban swing vote.

Biden should take the initiative, Sherman argues, with “a major policing initiative,” and that initiative should stress “hot spots policing,” the focusing of police resources on small sections of urban areas, “under 5 percent of land in most cities,” while “pulling way back on stop and frisk everywhere else, especially suburban traffic stops, like the late Sandra Bland.”

Biden goes into battle with one crucial advantage: He, his appointees and his advisers have more experience in the trenches of elections, legislative fights and bureaucratic maneuvering than the top personnel of any recent administration.

On the other hand, if what his voters need is equality — that is, resource redistribution — experienced advisers may not be enough.

Mart Trasberg and Hector Bahamonde, of Wake Forest University and the Universidad de O’Higgins in Chile, authors of “Inclusive institutions, unequal outcomes: Democracy, state capacity, and income inequality,” pointed out in an email that redistribution is exceptionally hard to achieve in an advanced democracy like the one in operation in the United States: "The increase in inequality through market processes puts pressure on fiscal policy, making it difficult to increase redistribution via taxes and transfers. With increasing foreign investment flows and more developed financial sectors, domestic and international corporate and financial elites become stronger actors in domestic politics. Given that these changes are slow-moving and incremental, disorganized voters are not able to vote for a higher taxation of income-concentrating elites. Of course, other mechanisms are likely at play: political elites trick voters to vote on identity issues that do not concern socio-economic redistribution."

In the end, much of the dynamism that powers today’s political competition comes back to — or down to — racial and cultural conflict. Can Biden find a redistributive workaround — and protect voting rights at the same time? The fate of the Democratic Party depends on it.

The New York Times

Other opinion articles

Editor Picks