Biden's Not-So-Great New Normal
The reality checks keep coming
The summer in a president’s first year of office is often the moment the novelty wears off, and the limits to what’s possible come more clearly into view. It was when Bill Clinton, after a dreadful start, came crashing down to earth at 39 percent approval; when George W Bush fell to 50 percent (before 9/11), Obama was sideswiped by the Tea Party, and Trump collapsed in the early polling. It’s not dispositive, as all these examples prove. Presidents can recover from rough starts to two-term successes. And Biden has large public, bipartisan support on infrastructure (65 - 28) and his massive social spending proposal (62 - 32) — his key priorities.
But the mood has shifted, hasn’t it? In June, according to Gallup, 89 percent of the public thought the Covid crisis was improving, versus 3 percent who thought it was getting worse; in July, those numbers went to 40 percent improving and 45 percent worsening. Biden’s approval rating on Covid has waned — from a net positive of +35 a few months back to a net positive of +13 in the same poll.
The euphoria so many of us felt as the vaccines took hold dissipated swiftly as the media relentlessly hyped the Delta variant. So far, the economic impact hasn’t been that bad (and the numbers this morning were encouraging), although many big companies are now telling employees not to come back to the office next month. In the fall, the travel and tourism and restaurant businesses could take a hit, without the federal assistance that kept them afloat last year. I’ve watched in a resort town how a fully booked summer suddenly evaporated — with real impact on some shellacked small businesses. At best, recovery will be tempered.
The trouble is mounting on some other fronts. On immigration, where Biden’s seriously underwater in the polls, Biden’s assurances that the huge uptick in migrants at the Southern border was just seasonal have also lost any credibility. Fifty thousand asylum seekers have been released into the US under Biden without a court date, in a sign of just how overwhelmed the system now is. Migrants from Cuba, Haiti and African countries are gathering south of the border in large numbers. June broke a 20-year record on the number of migrant arrests, with a staggering 178,000, when the summer heat almost invariably sees a sharp decline. This is not a sign of a crisis easing.
A million arrests have been made since last October. Axios notes that migrants coming from nations other than Mexico, Guatemala, Hondura and El Salvador rose yet again last month, to 46,000 (from 11,600 in February). As more and more of these Bangladeshis, Romanians and Ecuadorians are admitted to the US, pending court dates far into the future, more and more will come.
The disturbing spike in the murder rate also shows few signs of ending. There are some Covid factors here — a pandemic pullback in social services for youngsters, for example, and school closings — that have hurt. But mostly, it’s been the end of proactive policing, big waves of cop retirements, and collapsed morale in law enforcement that has allowed this cycle to begin again. And, once started, it’s very hard to arrest. Last year, murders were up 25 percent; this year, so far, has seen them jump another 15 percent, taking a toll primarily on black Americans. And yet, newly elected Congresswoman Cori Bush can still insist that defunding the cops is a top priority, even as she hires personal security guards. This is not a winning message.
A president who presides over massive illegal immigration and soaring murder rates is especially vulnerable to Republican Trump-style attacks. A sense of things being out of control, even if it’s partly hysteria, is what every authoritarian movement lives to exploit. And the Democratic left, which still dominates much of the messaging, seems eager to empower the far right. The key reason the GOP is now cozying up to Orban is largely because of his anti-illegal-immigrant stance. What the left doesn’t appreciate about Orban’s authoritarianism is that it was forged partly by resistance to the EU’s policy of mass migration from Syria. If liberals don’t enforce borders, fascists will.
And sorry, but Biden’s age is also an under-rated problem. He’s capable of being president and functions amazingly for his age. But it’s very hard to see him ensconced for two terms, which weakens his clout. His designated successor, Kamala Harris, has unfavorables nudging 50 percent, and even her cronies are worried. If Biden were to fall ill or worse, a President Harris would be a dream for the GOP to run against. In fact, it’s very hard to see any other Democrat being able to fill Biden’s role right now. He softens polarization by his character and reputation. As David Brooks notes, he’s still capable of effective bipartisanship. Take him away, and the center implodes.
I also agree with Ruy Teixeira that the successor ideology is corroding the Democrats’ appeal to moderates, especially parents. Their key concern: not that their children will learn painful history (they should), but that “they are being arrayed into hierarchies of privilege and oppression and encouraged to see everything through a racial lens.” A hefty 71 percent of independents have a “very unfavorable” view of CRT — but Biden has embraced this neo-racism with passion. A Democratic activist in Virginia puts the danger this way: “This is a perfect storm of something that can appeal to, or draw back in, some of the suburban parents that might have voted Republican in 2016, Democrat in 2018 and 2020, but could be drawn back to the Republican Party in 2022.”
And Covid remains a tough issue politically for the Democrats. Their base wants to punish the vaccine-refuseniks, because they think they’re all Fox News-viewing crazies. But a key part of the Democratic coalition is also resisting vaccines: African-Americans. Pushing mandates and passports will mean disproportionately targeting blacks in many cities — the vaccination rate for African-Americans nationwide is a sad 38 percent. That’s why the mayor of Boston compared vaccine mandates to punitive measures against African-Americans in the slavery and Reconstruction eras. So far, Biden has been able to hold the Democratic left and center together. But after the infrastructure bill, in the weeds of the reconciliation process, that will get a lot harder.
And the almost inevitable future of Covid is that it will become endemic, requiring constant, evolving vaccines like the flu. There will be no moment when it goes away entirely, alas, no Mission Accomplished satisfaction. Given the lack of vaccination in any states, deaths will continue, and cases will soar. The silver lining, as I wrote last week, is that more deaths will encourage more vaccinations, and that seems to be happening already. But only a sharp rise in vaccinations and a sustained period of low death rates can get Biden back to where he was on Covid just a month or so ago. If another variant arrives — more transmissible and more deadly than Delta and more able to break through the vaccines — a real sense of disarray could break out.
None of this is reason to be too down on Biden of course. There’s plenty of time and countless unknowables ahead. This plague will recede, and the economy will grow. Maybe a bipartisan triumph on infrastructure could change the mood back to the spring. But it seems to me important to realize where we are.
The Biden honeymoon with the American people is coming to an end. And the truly hard stuff starts now.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: my response to the widespread torture of pigs and the whining of the pork industry; a chat with America’s best nonfiction writer, Michael Lewis, about the pandemic and personal tragedy; a huge handful of dissents from readers upset over my prescription for the pandemic, along with my lengthy reply; three notable quotes from the week and a classic one from C.S. Lewis; a darkly funny Face of the Week; eight great pieces from other substackers, including the new Journal of Free Black Thought; two MTV-related Mental Health Breaks; two wonderful window views; and, as always, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge, from a coastal locale with a summer sail. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
From a re-subscriber and fan of the VFYW contest:
Thanks for another fun week — and another fun year. I got the renewal notification this week and I can’t wait for more Dish to come. Obviously I love the contest (this is the 20th city I got right this year by my count — I have a spreadsheet), but it’s also a grand treat reading your thoughtful (and occasionally infuriating) columns on Friday afternoon. I’ve always appreciated your willingness to engage readers, airing their dissents and sometimes rethinking your own positions. That’s a rarity in our echo-chamber social ecosystem these days, namely listening to divergent opinions and reevaluating your own views after doing so. I know I’ve done that more than a few times after digesting your pieces, so I’m delighted to re-up for another year of challenging reads and cartographic treasure hunts.
New On The Dishcast: Michael Lewis
Michael is simply the best nonfiction writer in America — and an old friend. His latest book, The Premonition, spotlights a band of dissenting doctors that battled the inept government response to Covid-19. For three clips of our conversation — on how we should approach Covid right now, on why Americans in particular are so vulnerable to viruses, and on the profound grief of losing a child — head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here.
That link takes you to more conversation from readers on Covid, as an extension of the Dissents of the Week below. We hear from two readers who are immunocompromised but with two very different opinions on how to face the ongoing pandemic. We also hear from a reader who refuses to get vaccinated and dissents against me sharply.
Saving The Pigs
The pork industry is now having a conniption about the possibility that bacon prices could soar in California next year, when 2018’s Proposition 12 on Farm Animal Confinement takes effect. Read my full response to their whining here.
Dissents Of The Week: Kids And Covid
A big wave of readers, most of them parents, are upset over my latest column. One notes, “The under-12 population in the US is approximately 50 million and a vaccine is not available for them yet.” Another parent:
We have a 3-month-old girl, and infants are getting COVID-19 in greater numbers now. We have her in daycare and are worried about her getting the virus. (There’s already an RSV outbreak there.) What are we supposed to do, have one of us quit our jobs to watch her so she doesn’t get COVID-19? Vaccine mandates would obviously relieve our troubled minds when it comes to our baby girl, because she can’t get the vaccine right now. We may not care if these anti-vaxx fuckers die, but we care about our child and our friends and family. Everybody affects everybody.
So you favor the non-vaccinated over helpless children? I seriously doubt it, so perhaps you overlooked that aspect of the pandemic when you wrote your column.
Read my long response to that reader, along with six other dissenting readers, here. Even more pushback is posted on our pod page for Michael Lewis. As always, keep the dissents coming, along with anything else you want to add to the Dish mix, such as the view from your own window (don’t forget part of the window frame — and if we post your photo, we’ll give you a free Dish subscription): email@example.com.
The View From Your Window Contest
Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a three-month sub if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!
The results for the last week’s window are coming in a separate email to subscribers later today. One of them addresses the conductor of the contest, Chris:
I know people have told you this before, but it bears repeating: VFYW is so much more than a weekly contest. You provide a weekly excuse for me to step away from the daily hum of bad news in the outer world (i.e., the world outside my quiet, peaceful life here in Santa Monica Canyon) and travel the globe from my iPad, revisiting places I’ve seen up close, and discovering entirely new ones.
You’ve also created a big-hearted community of fellow armchair travelers, whose stories and observations add light and shadow to my understanding of the world. I found myself this morning reading aloud to my husband one particularly beautiful passage from last week’s post. The writer could have been Doug himself, describing a recent trip to Spain, which converted him from lifelong Italophile to full-blooded lover of Spain. That sublime guitar music alone!
Here we are in Spain in 2019, Dishheads one and all:
Anyway, just wanted to tell you how much this weekly spin of the globe means to us.
See you next Friday.