William Jefferson Biden Triangulates
The president is successfully stealing Trump's economic populism.
I used to hate Bill Clinton’s State of the Union speeches. He’d usually arrive inexcusably late; proceed to hug everyone within touching distance; then blather on for well over an hour about every policy minutia the DC wonk class obsesses over. One year, he was still talking an hour and a half in. Then he’d stay forever afterwards, incapable of saying goodbye, absorbing every milliliter of love he could drain from the crowd, and generally looking like he was having the time of his life.
I was bored silly. But you know what? People loved those speeches. They loved the laundry list of post-big-government specifics, and they loved the way Clinton effortlessly stole most of the right’s policies, while appearing to be far saner and happier than any of them. And as I absorbed Biden’s SOTU this week, it was Bill Clinton who came to mind, the last Democrat who merrily triangulated his way to a landslide re-election.
Perhaps most important was Biden’s decorum and cheerfulness — in contrast to the GOP’s aggressive surliness. He was the smiling cat to Marjorie Taylor Greene’s version of a scowling Real Housewife. He was playful. He toyed with the Republican rabble like a restaurant reviewer toying with his food. And here’s something that is perhaps the perfectly not-Trump passage:
Some Republicans — some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset. I’m not saying it’s a majority — other Republicans say — I’m not saying it’s a majority of you. I don’t even think it’s a significant — but it’s being proposed by individuals. I’m not — politely not naming them, but it’s being proposed by some of you.
Why is this not-Trump? It’s sophisticated and irrefutable, as opposed to crude and wrong. He is both bashing the GOP over the head with a big club, and showing he’s being fair, by acknowledging it isn’t all of them. As they heckled and booed, he merrily bantered. The faux-politeness was very old-school and reassuring that normalcy was returning. This was a reboot of the Clinton-Gingrich dynamic. Which was primarily good for Clinton.
And yes, Biden was triangulating hard. Stylistically, this was not-Trump at all. Substantively, it was Trump all the way. If Trump were not mentally ill, he’d sit back and bask in his legacy of reorienting US politics — including the Democrats — toward all the themes he stressed from 2015 on. He’d be happy to go down in history as populism’s bipartisan legitimizer. (But of course he’s out of his mind.)
Again and again, this was an America First speech. It was about building infrastructure, protecting entitlements, buying American, re-shoring industry, cutting drug prices, bringing the supply chain back to the homeland, and a high-tech industrial policy to compete more aggressively with the Chinese. This is a whole different world than Barack TPP Obama, let alone Bill NAFTA Clinton.
And it suits Biden’s old-school working-class kind of liberalism: he genuinely likes unions, can identify with insecure working parents, and loves showering lots of borrowed money on people and things in general. His idea of a fun trip is to open a new construction site alongside the Republican congressman who voted against it. And this may be the first SOTU with a rhetorical flourish like this one: “Lumber, glass, drywall, fiber-optic cable.”
And look what Biden chose to say about one of his major liabilities — mass illegal immigration via fraudulent asylum claims. The subject was buried way down the list of policies, and almost all of it — for the first time — was about cracking down:
We now have a record number of personnel working to secure the border … We’ve launched a new border plan last month. Unlawful migration from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela has come down 97 percent as a consequence of that … If we don’t pass my comprehensive immigration reform, at least pass my plan to provide the equipment and officers to secure the border.
This strikes me as a BFD. Biden knows that the first thing most Americans want on the immigration question is border security. He even called the Republicans’ bluff on it. And at last, his rhetoric is showing that. On policing:
Police officers put their lives on the line every single night and day. And we know we ask them in many cases to do too much — to be counselors, social workers, psychologists; responding to drug overdoses, mental health crises and so much more. In one sense we ask much too much of them. I know most cops and their families are good, decent, honorable people — the vast majority — and they risk their lives every time they put that shield on.
Much more Bill Clinton than BLM, wouldn’t you say? And by highlighting the hideous police murder of Tyre Nichols, Biden was also able to call for reform without any white-black connotations. Defund the police? “White supremacy”? Not a word. Fast-tracking children with gender dysphoria into medicalization? Crickets. Just this: “Let’s also pass the bipartisan Equality Act to ensure LGBTQ Americans, especially transgender young people, can live with safety and dignity.” Pretty much interest-group boilerplate.
The strategy is obvious: don’t mention the woke shit. Even though it’s at full tilt in his administration’s policies to socially re-engineer America, better not to engage at all. Just keep the focus on the economy, on America First populist themes, and on a return to normalcy, i.e. all the popular Trump stuff and none of the cray-cray. And when the GOP talks about nothing other than wokeness, because they remain an incoherent mess on policy as a whole, it makes them seem a bit nutty and lacking in perspective. When Sarah Huckabee Sanders is your opponent, it’s an easy Biden win. When he’s talking jobs and she’s talking CRT, he’s gonna win.
Up against DeSantis? Not so sure. DeSantis can talk policy and wokeness, has a record of governing decisiveness, and makes Biden look very old. And this is where Biden is eschewing the Clinton model. Bill knew that he needed to inoculate himself firmly against the left to regain the center — and so ramped up immigration control, passed a tough crime bill, and came out swinging against marriage equality. But Biden’s party is far further left than Clinton’s, and although Biden’s talk has changed quite a lot, he has yet to do anything that would provide a clear clash with the far left. Maybe he fears he would break his party. Maybe he just doesn’t want to go there. Or maybe that too is shifting:
The Biden administration is negotiating an agreement with Mexico that could allow U.S. authorities to carry out large-scale deportations of non-Mexicans back across the border for the first time, according to four current and former U.S. officials familiar with the discussions.
That’s more like it. But the administration’s general unwillingness to triangulate on these issues leaves DeSantis with an obvious opening — even as DeSantis has yet to articulate a detailed or coherent vision of domestic or foreign policy of his own. And Biden’s Social Security fear-mongering was obviously directed right at the Florida governor, whose record on cutting entitlements has yet to be fully exploited by the national Dems.
Can this work for re-election? I wish I knew. It’s sure better than woke-speak. But the usual worries about Biden for 2024 remain. Yes, he’s pretty damn amazing for an octogenarian. But octogenarians, even highly capable ones, can decline quite swiftly and unexpectedly — and it’s just hard to think of Biden being able to function as president right up to the age of 86. My main worry is that he could have a health scare just before re-election, and have to resign unexpectedly (RBG redux), which could mean we have Kamala Harris in 2024 by default. Then it doesn’t really matter who the GOP nominee is: they’ll win.
But this week was Biden at his best. He reassured reluctant supporters like yours truly. The whole event felt familiar, his good cheer infectious, and his emphases smart. Whether he can keep this up, and adjust his policies toward the center more, we’ll just have to see.
Against Trump, he’s a decent bet. Against DeSantis, it’s iffier. Against mortality, it’s just a question of when.
(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 revelatory talk with Nicholas Wade on the lab leak theory of Covid; many tough reader dissents on the “structural racism” that led to the murder of Tyre Nichols; nine notable quotes from the week in news; four Yglesias Award Nominees; 18 varied pieces on Substack we recommend reading; an epic meme of the week pwning Marjorie Taylor Greene; an entrancing Mental Health Break from Tove Lo; a splendid window view from Philly; and, of course, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
From a Dishhead we won back:
Your latest column, “When The Media Narratives Meet Reality,” hit me to resubscribe. (I had left you last summer, as I found your writing on abortion rights after the SCOTUS ruling to be quite flippant.)
It was the Dishcast that won over this listener:
I finally subscribed to my favorite podcast. The Dish deserves a paywall, indeed. I’m a 36-year-old Tennessean with three young kids. My sister likewise has a toddler with another on the way. Our conversations very often revolve around our mutual affection for the Dishcast. So you and your colleague Chris have at least two devoted fans in Nashville. Keep up the great work!
New On The Dishcast: Nicholas Wade
Nicholas Wade is a science journalist with a long, distinguished career at the New York Times, the magazine Nature, and the journal Science. He’s the author of many books, including A Troublesome Inheritance, The Faith Instinct, and Before the Dawn. Last year he became one of the few mainstream journalists to seriously consider the lab leak theory, so in this episode we focus on his querulous and disturbing tract, Where Covid Came From.
Listen to the episode here. There you can find two clips of our convo — whether Fauci had any role in the events that led to Covid, and the media’s cowardice over covering the lab leak theory. That link also takes you to commentary on last week’s episode with Ben Appel about a Christian cult and the cult of woke, as well as more dissent over my piece criticizing media coverage of Tyre Nichols. Sixteen edited, super-smart critiques from the best readers on the web — check them out. I respond throughout.
A new subscriber writes:
I have no idea how came across your podcast, but I listened for a bit and then subscribed. I love your insight into so many topics and appreciate your balanced coverage. I understand how some readers think it is too focused on certain things, but what individual does not have passions? I also look forward to your weekly recap and the airing of listener comments.
The latest comment from a listener:
One of your dissenters compared the incentives of legacy media to those of independent writers, stating, in part: “All journalists are increasingly incentivized to reinforce, not challenge, their audiences’ biases and anger, so the problem spreads beyond the MSM.” This is an overly cynical view of independent journalists or writers, especially when viewed with your episode with Matt Taibbi as the context of the comment. The predominant reason, I believe, that independent journalism is on the rise is as a direct reaction to the prevailing (and strengthening) orthodoxy of the legacy media.
Writers such as yourself, Bari Weiss, and Matt Taibbi have attracted wide and diverse audiences because it is apparent that you all do not write to “reinforce” your audiences’ alleged biases and anger. I don’t see how it would be possible for ya’ll to reinforce your audiences’ biases, because an audience as diverse as yours doesn’t subscribe to a single set of biases. I read everything that you, Bari, and Matt publish on Substack, and I don’t agree with everything that any of you believes. But I know all of you present a thoughtful case, carefully researched, for whatever point you’re trying to make. Sometimes, you nudge me off of my starting point. Other times, I come away in even stronger disagreement. And when I read a piece of yours I do agree with, I can be confident that you did not write the piece for the sake of stoking that agreement.
In that spirit, here’s a Dishcast suggestion: Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment law prof at UCLA. I believe y’all would have a thoroughly entertaining discussion.
Here’s another listener on another episode, with Glenn Loury:
This clip of your episode was excellent. Glenn is exquisitely eloquent, even poetic. So much to learn from both of you. Your podcast lights up people’s minds and make them think.
Browse the entire Dishcast archive for an episode you might enjoy (the first 102 episodes are free in the entirety for everybody).
Dissents Of The Week: An Intersectional Murder
A reader writes:
In your zeal to rebut media critics who may miss the mark on the Tyre Nichols murder, you’re also off target. I find it implausible to interpret his killing without acknowledging the role “systemic” factors may have played and that adherents of CRT and criminal justice reform have been crusading against for decades: 1) local collective bargaining agreements that often persuade cops of all races to be more loyal to one another than to the management teams they work for and the citizens they are required to protect; 2) state laws that shield police officers who viciously profile on the basis of race; 3) federal qualified immunity that makes it difficult for victims of police brutality to get justice; 4) Republicans in the Senate who refuse to amend qualified immunity.
The Nichols murder raises basic questions: Why would black cops pick on a young black man in a way they would never treat a white motorist? Why wouldn’t even one cop try to stop the rest from unprovoked violence? Why wouldn’t one cop be even frightened from getting caught?
Lecturing fellow media critics when they reduce heinous behavior among cops to “whiteness” is fair game, especially when the cops happen to be black. But no better is ignoring institutional or systemic factors that contribute to criminal police behavior that is inspired by the race of the victim.
Don’t conflate bad policies with ”systemic racism.” I favor ending qualified immunity, and I’m no fan of the police unions — but these are problems of public service workers and how best to train and manage them. Equally, we just don’t know exactly why Tyre was singled out, and we should wait to see what the evidence eventually shows before rushing to judgment.
In The ‘Stacks
This is a feature in the paid version of the Dish spotlighting more than a dozen of our favorite pieces from other Substackers every week. This week’s selection covers topics such as the SOTU speech, Bidenomics, and the “Robin DiAngelo of sports.” Below are a few examples:
Filipovic stands up for feminism and liberalism in the face of “small-minded” Muslim students at Macalester who forced admins to put anti-veil artwork … behind a curtain.
A meditation on the Puritanism of America: “Sexuality, like Satan, only grows stronger when it’s locked up.”
You can also browse all the substacks we follow and read on a regular basis here — a combination of our favorite writers and new ones we’re checking out. It’s a blogroll of sorts. If you have any recommendations for “In the ‘Stacks,” especially ones from emerging writers, please let us know: 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 free month subscription if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!
The results for this week’s window are coming in a separate email to paid subscribers later today. Here’s a celebratory note from the winner of last week’s contest after learning that he got the prize:
Wooooo, that’s awesome! We’ve been quite stoked the last few days. Took some time to recover from the shock. If this is not something to brag about in a watercooler chat, I don’t know what is! :)
Another sleuth still has cats on his mind:
If I had had enough guts, I would have submitted my gut guess that last week’s VFYW was Turkey. But I do have enough guts to share one of the coolest documentaries I’ve seen, focused on the unique relationship the Turkish people have with feral cats:
Enjoy, feline lovers!
But it’s the moments of serendipity that are the best part of the contest. Here’s one from two weeks ago:
So, after reading your commentary on The Banshees of Inisherin, I needed something a bit lighthearted that wouldn’t remind me of my family’s alleged Irish heritage. (Dad shocked us late in his life that we’re actually Scottish, but that’s another story.) I scroll on down to my favorite feature, the VFYW contest, and HOLY CRAP — I finally know this place! And much like your reaction to the movie, it brought up feelings of emotional rawness and pure joy and happiness.
Up until four years ago I’ve been seeing this exact view for a least 35 years. My college friend Lyn had a home with her amazing family on Great Diamond Island and I would visit once a year. Later I would bring my husband Henry with me, and I’ll never forget the look of pure joy and amazement on his face when the lobsterman next door took us out on his daily run and we were chased around his boat by angry lobsters.
Lyn loved this place and we loved this little slice of Americana — very different from our home in the Fire Island Pines. Much like Inisherin, this often fog-bound island had its share of tragedy: Lyn was diagnosed with cancer in the beginning of 2019 and passed by August. We never got to visit the island that year, and even more sadly, I hit the nadir of my alcoholism that summer and never got to visit her before she passed, as I was slowly killing myself.
Having gotten sober shortly after her passing (and partially inspired to do so by her passing), I’m now three plus years sober and living what I call my amazing Bob 2.0 life. I’ll always regret never saying goodbye and miss her every day. Happily, Henry and I have been adopted by her family and we all share our memories of Lyn together.
I hope I win that “fecking” VFYW coffee table book, but if not, you provided me with some powerful memories to ruminate on.
Dishheads are the best. See you next Friday.