If you’ve spent any time in Washington, you’ve heard stories about Joe Biden’s loquaciousness. Asked to give brief remarks, he’d famously meander for 30, 40, or more minutes about whatever came into his mind.
But his verbosity is a symptom of his larger problem: a lack of situational awareness. After all, this is the guy who once asked a man in a wheelchair to stand up and take a bow.
My favorite example came just after the 9/11 attacks, when Biden met with his Senate committee staffers and went into a “stream-of-consciousness monologue” about how to respond. “I’m groping here,” he confessed after a while, and then had a eureka moment. To assure the Arab world the U.S. “wasn’t bent on its destruction,” Michael Crowley reported in the New Republic, Biden declared: “Seems to me this would be a good time to send, no strings attached, a check for $200 million to Iran.”
According to Crowley, Biden “surveys the table with raised eyebrows, a How do ya like that? look on his face.” Staffers eventually broke the perplexed silence, offering a number of objections. It didn’t matter: “Joe Biden is barely listening anymore. He’s already moved on to something else.”
Two decades later, his White House staff reportedly lives in a constant state of anxiety about the boss’s inability to police his own words, and White House press secretary Jen Psaki has admitted that they try to keep him from taking too many questions.
Biden himself has acknowledged the problem, but he believes it gives him an air of authenticity. And he probably has a point.
But it’s his inability to read the room, not his long-windedness, that is the source of his political problems. His explanations of his handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan were often poorly matched to the moment, sounding defensive or defiant when remorsefulness or humility were called for. Sometimes, it’s not his fault. He declared victory of sorts over the pandemic, right as the Delta variant threw everyone for a loop.
The best example of his misreading of the moment, however, is his entire domestic agenda, or at least the chunk of it that falls under the rubric of infrastructure.
Biden came into office with arguably the narrowest majority in Congress in history: a 50-50 Senate with very small margin in the House. And yet, he let people convince him that the moment was ripe for a “transformative” agenda, one that would rival the New Deal. He misinterpreted the passage of his $1.9-trillion COVID relief package—on the heels of trillions of additional spending under the Trump administration—as a green light for vastly more spending. Adjusted for inflation, New Deal spending was a little less than $1 trillion in today’s dollars. He’s proposing, at minimum, several New Deals in spending.
Put aside the fact there is scant evidence the country is yearning for a new New Deal. Disregard that our national debt is about 125 percent of gross domestic product. Biden, with a half-century of political experience under his belt, can’t count votes. FDR and LBJ had huge majorities to work with for their major accomplishments. Even Obamacare would have been impossible in today’s Congress.
Of course, a major driver of Biden’s predicament is that the base of the Democratic Party can’t read the room either. But they don’t care.
Biden, however, is the president. He’s the one who insisted on the campaign trail that “to lead America, you have to understand America,” and he touted his mastery of how Washington works.
Historically, presidents adjust to reality. They choose sides in intraparty debates. Bill Clinton had a miserable first two years, but that guy knew how to read a room. After the 1994 midterms, he tacked to the center, declared “the era of big government is over,” and cruised to reelection. Biden may still get something that passes for a victory, but even if he does, odds are Republicans will be well-positioned to take back Congress in 2022.
In June, on the heels of his COVID relief package, Biden brokered a bipartisan infrastructure deal with the Senate, garnering support from 19 Republicans. It was the highwater mark of Biden’s presidency, fulfilling his vow to be a competent president who gets things done. But before the bipartisan backslapping subsided, he misread the room again, announcing that he wouldn’t sign that deal unless the Senate also passed another $3.5 trillion in “human infrastructure.” It’s no coincidence his approval ratings have been sliding ever since.