So Much For "Transformational" Joe Biden

If you haven't heard about the "transformational presidency" for a few weeks, it's because the White House is selling something else at the moment

Joe Biden is cruising, in a happy-place few politicians reach. Outside of a few grumpy right-wing outlets he faces almost no hostile press questioning, political threats within his own party are minimal, and his approval rating, if one believes the latest Harvard CAPS/Harris poll, hovers at an astonishing 64%.

Biden has the press paper-trained to a degree we haven’t seen in modern times. Not even at the height of the media’s drooling love affair with Barack Obama — a phenomenon I confess I was part of — did we ever see such enthusiastic, reflexive backing of White House messaging. The Biden press even reverses course on a dime when needed, with the past weeks being a supreme example.

Last Friday, word came out via The Washington Post that the Biden administration’s new budget plan wouldn’t contain a host of key ideas proposed on the campaign trail, from a public health care option to raising the estate tax to forgiveness of student debt. Some of these were major, central campaign promises — the idea of a plan to insure “an estimated 97% of Americans,” for instance, was big Biden campaign rhetoric whose passing was barely commemorated. The key line in the Post article:

The White House jettisoned months of planning from agency staff as their initial plan could fuel criticisms that the administration is pushing new spending programs too aggressively. 

Say what? Just a few weeks ago, we were being told in headline after headline that Biden was a “transformational” president who’d heroically abandoned fruitless efforts at bipartisanship and moreover had conquered the fear of deficit spending that kept Barack Obama from fulfilling his own “transformative” destiny. Insiders regaled us with tales about how this administration exiled the Clintonian tricksters like Larry Summers who robbed Obama of his legacy by whispering false worries about inflation.

We even saw the bizarre spectacle of Treasury Secretary and erstwhile deficit hawk Janet Yellen publicly throwing down with Summers, battle-rapper style, about his excess fiscal caution, saying the biggest risk wasn’t inflation but if “we don’t do enough” to address the economic damage of the pandemic. Yellen all but told Summers to go back to Cranbrook with his bitch-ass spending fears.

Then a few weeks ago, on Meet The Press, Yellen reverted to form and said that Joe Biden “has made clear that permanent increases in spending should be paid for, and I agree,” adding that “over the long run, deficits need to be contained.” After that came the Post story and word that the administration had backed off a host of plans, including a proposal to lower prescription drug costs, while also engaging with seeming seriousness in “bipartisan” negotiations on an infrastructure/jobs bill.

Why might a Democratic White House recently praised as “radical” by the New York Times because they “stopped devising compromised bills in a bid to win Republican votes” suddenly be interested in getting Republican votes again? Politico hinted at the answer:

There also are deepening doubts about an agreement on how to pay for the infrastructure spending package. Democrats are resistant to tapping leftover Covid-relief money, which the White House argues isn't sufficient to cover the plan, anyway.

Translation: Biden is worried about deficits, and having Republicans on whom they can pin lower budgetary outlays is once again politically useful. Therefore, bipartisanship is back, fiscal restraint is back, maybe even austerity is back. Good times!

Whatever one’s feeling about the appropriateness of any of these policies, it’s clear the messaging surrounding them has undergone a near-complete turnaround almost overnight, which would normally prompt at least a raised eyebrow or two in media. But all that’s happened is that the moment the Biden administration stopped talking about being “transformative,” the White House press quietly did the same, in silent recognition that they’ll all be selling a different product for while.

Joe Biden’s journey to “transformational” status and back has been an expert political PR campaign. It took a year, and Biden’s camp never had to break a sweat.

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