On a recent episode of the Hacks on Tap podcast, Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report discussed President Joe Biden’s falling poll numbers. She pointed to predictable factors like the emergence of the Delta variant of the coronavirus—slowing down our return from the pandemic—and the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. But she also argued that many Americans were disappointed by the continuing vitriol of the political discourse and the intense partisan divide. They blamed Biden, she said, for not restoring a sense of “normalcy” to politics.
The president of the United States is the most powerful person in the world, but he cannot single-handedly fix our politics.
To a certain extent, Biden perpetuated the idea that he could return calm to our politics: “American people are looking for a candidate who will promise them peace, not just victory.” He campaigned on the idea that Donald Trump’s presidency was “an aberrant moment in time,” arguing, “We have to remember who we are.” He promised that he would work with politicians on both sides of the aisle to pass legislation—and he has fulfilled that promise. Indeed, he has passed more bipartisan legislation than many of his supporters anticipated, such as the American Rescue Act and the infrastructure package.
Of course, politicians always make bold promises during campaigns. But perhaps Biden oversold his ability to restore decency to our nation’s politics. When he launched his presidential bid in May 2019, he acknowledged that the American people were “sick of the division. They’re sick of the fighting. They’re sick of the childish behavior.” In other words, his presidency would be the solution.
But it’s one thing to work with the few moderate Republicans who are left, and it is another to change the behavior of the party’s rank and file—especially when the GOP, as a whole, is still led by a would-be autocrat, and their whole modus operandi is to manufacture problems they can blame on Biden.
Simply put, the Republican Party has embraced a three-part platform: undermine the Biden administration; perpetuate anger and division; and blame Biden for not fixing the very crises they have engineered. This strategy isn’t a secret. In May 2021, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he was “100 percent” focused on “stopping” the Biden administration—not ending the pandemic, battling climate change, or rescuing the economy from the devastation of COVID-19. His stated goal is pure obstruction.
Despite McConnell saying the quiet part out loud, large portions of the American population have accepted the premise that Biden is responsible for the vitriolic climate—even though it’s a climate cultivated in part by the conservative charlatans at Fox News who spread lies and misinformation every night to their millions of viewers.
To be sure, the president does play an important role in shaping the tenor of American politics. But the power of the bully pulpit has waned considerably with the rise of social media and the proliferation of news networks.
Biden can’t make people like each other—and he can’t control what stories are covered on networks like Fox News, OANN, or Newsmax. He can’t prevent Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene from spreading conspiracy theories about Jewish space lasers; Representative Paul Gosar from sharing animated videos depicting political violence; or Representative Lauren Boebert from spouting Islamophobic comments. And he can’t control how falsehoods are spread on social media.
The right-wing campaign of disinformation and destruction has real consequences; it’s not just about politicians being mean to each other. The politicization of the coronavirus and its mitigation measures, such as the vaccine, has led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths. From the very beginning, President Trump downplayed the seriousness of the virus and mocked prevention measures, like social distancing and mask wearing. After he left office, Republican officials picked up the mantle. GOP governors, like Texas Governor Greg Abbott, issued executive orders preventing mask mandates, while Republican senators like Ron Johnson spread misinformation about the vaccine’s safety and efficacy.
Consequentially, more than 50 million Americans have tested positive for COVID-19 and just under 800,000 people have died as of mid-December. A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 39 percent of Republican adults are unvaccinated, while only 10 percent of Democratic adults haven’t received the vaccine. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, counties that voted for Trump have fatality rates that are three times higher than counties that voted for Biden.
History provides a helpful example of just how much has changed in the past few decades. President Franklin D. Roosevelt helped found the March of Dimes to support research into a cure for polio. He didn’t live long enough to see the results, but in 1955, Jonas Salk announced the creation of a polio vaccine. Immediately, Dwight Eisenhower announced the vaccine as a victory in the “continuing fight against polio.” Once the pharmaceutical companies had ramped up production, Eisenhower encouraged all “parents to take advantage of this great research discovery to protect themselves and their children against this dreaded disease.” Not doing so would be taking “unnecessary risks of lifetime disability and even death.” Within one year of the announcement of the vaccine, deaths attributed to polio had decreased by 50 percent.
While Biden oversaw an unparalleled effort to distribute COVID-19 vaccines nationwide, these efforts are undermined by state and local officials spreading disinformation. State officials, like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, are also impeding the efforts of businesses in his state to vaccinate their employees. Biden’s administration can make the vaccine available, but he can’t make people get the shot.
Of course, presidents should be subjected to tough criticism and the continuous scrutiny of the American people, but they should not be expected to live up to an impossible standard; no one person can solve all our national ills. If we want to honestly assess presidents, we should start by understanding what, exactly, they are able and empowered to do.
And we should also recognize the reality that the Republican Party has made a concerted effort to engineer crises that they, in turn, blame on Biden. It’s a cynical scheme—and voters need to pick up on it before it’s too late.