Joe Biden’s Big Month | The New Yorker


In politics, August is sometimes known as the “silly season,” when elected leaders and voters alike go on vacation, and trivial stories tend to dominate the news. Not this year, and especially not for Joe Biden. As the seventy-nine-year-old President prepares to give a prime-time speech in Philadelphia, on Thursday, he is arguably enjoying the best month of his Presidency. Since the end of July, he’s signed into law three significant pieces of legislation, his party has won a closely fought special election in a bellwether New York State congressional district, and his nemesis Donald Trump has got himself into yet another legal jam—one which prompted Biden to mock him. “I’ve declassified everything in the world,” Biden joked to reporters, as he departed the White House last week. “I’m President, I can do it.”

On Tuesday, Biden travelled to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where he promoted his Safer America Plan, which would provide new federal funding to help localities hire an additional hundred thousand police officers nationwide for community policing, and invest in crime-prevention and mental-health strategies. After enduring a terrible twelve months politically, Biden finally has reasons to smile. Between July 21, 2021, and July 21, 2022, according to the FiveThirtyEight poll average, his approval rating plummeted from 52.1 per cent to 37.5 per cent, a drastic slump that led some of his critics to write him off. But, since Biden’s over-rall rating reached its nadir, last month, it has risen by five points. On Tuesday afternoon, it stood at 42.4 per cent. To be sure, that’s far from great. But, for a President and a Democratic Party preparing for the midterms, the directional shift is an encouraging sign.

At least three factors explain this partial rebound: inflation has improved somewhat, the White House and Democrats on Capitol Hill have finally got their legislative act together, and Trump and the Supreme Court have reminded voters that the likely alternative to Democratic rule is very dark—a message that Biden will certainly seek to amplify in his address on Thursday night. (The White House has said that the theme of his speech will be “the continued battle for the soul of the nation.”)

In ranking these factors, inflation should probably be at the top of the list. A recent poll from USA Today/Ipsos confirmed that many voters regard rising prices as the main problem facing the country. Biden’s nightmarish twelve months in the polls coincided with a dramatic spike in inflation, especially of energy prices. Since the middle of June, however, the average nationwide cost of gasoline has fallen from more than five dollars a gallon to $3.85, according to A.A.A. And inflation in July was down a bit from the previous month, as well, despite remaining at an extremely elevated level of 8.5 per cent.

Biden isn’t responsible for the recent fall in gas prices, just as he wasn’t responsible for their rise; the downturn primarily reflects lower-than-expected worldwide demand. But, by ordering large releases from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, calling for a suspension of the federal gas tax—a call that Congress ignored—and expressing support for the Federal Reserve’s efforts to bring down inflation, the President signalled to the American public that he got it. Now he will be anxiously watching what happens to gas prices after Labor Day.

On the political front, August also gave Democratic voters and activists, many of whom had entered their own deep malaise, something to cheer. A new CBS News poll shows that the percentage of Democrats who strongly approve of Biden’s job performance has climbed eight points since July. August began with Senate Democrats passing the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, the package that Chuck Schumer and Joe Manchin cobbled together from elements of Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which was presumed to be dead. In the days after that breakthrough, Biden signed into law two bipartisan bills: the CHIPS and Science Act, which is designed to encourage the manufacture of semiconductors in the United States, and the “burn pits” act, which expands medical benefits for veterans exposed to toxic fumes at military bases. Finally, last week, Biden invoked his executive authority to announce a sweeping student-loan-relief plan, which would cancel up to twenty thousand dollars in debt for some borrowers.

Although the individual and relative merits of these policies can be debated, the political message conveyed by this flurry of action is indisputable: the Biden Administration is finally getting more stuff done. After the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, the U.S. government will make its largest-ever investment in slowing climate change and use its market heft, through Medicare, to challenge the monopoly-pricing power of the big drug companies. The CHIPS and Science Act is an effort to promote American technological leadership. And, if Biden’s student-debt plan survives a legal challenge, which is far from certain, it will establish the principle of sweeping debt writeoffs. Even if the list of accomplishments doesn’t quite justify some of the historical comparisons made by Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, in a recent interview with Politico, it certainly justifies Klain’s statement that Biden now has “a record to take to the American people.”

And a threat to highlight. Last month, I noted that the January 6th hearings hadn’t done much to dent Trump’s core support. The same is true of the revelations about the highly classified materials that he was hoarding at Mar-a-Lago and refusing to turn over. In the RealClearPolitics poll average, his favorability rating is 40.8 per cent—within the same range it’s been hovering at for the past eighteen months. But Trump isn’t just a powerful attractor. Virtually all the polling, and the outcome of the 2020 election, indicate that he’s an even more powerful repellant, which explains why Biden and the Democrats will be so keen to keep the focus on him between now and Tuesday, November 8th.

Last week, during a campaign speech in Maryland, Biden described “MAGA Republicans” as “a threat to our very democracy.” It isn’t a questionable claim, given how many of them have signed onto Trump’s Big Lie, which Trump repeated, yet again, on Monday. We can expect to hear more of this argument on Thursday from Biden, who seems to have rekindled his spirit, and recentered his message, by reaffirming that his historic role is to defeat Trump and Trumpism. When he steps to the dais at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, the calendar will have clicked over into September. He will certainly be hoping for another month like August. ♦


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