The contrast between the before-and-after pictures every new president paints soon after taking office is always so stark.
Recall that just a few short months ago, President Biden used the occasion of his inauguration to warn us that we were in the midst of a “winter of peril and possibility.” There was “much to repair,” “much to restore,” and “much to heal.” “Few periods in our nation’s history” were more “challenging or difficult” than the one during which Biden was taking the helm.
“Now, after just 100 days,” though, he can say without reservation that “America is on the move again.”
“After 100 days of rescue and renewal,” the country is more than just on the move, it’s “ready for takeoff.”
In case you hadn’t noticed: “We are working again. Dreaming again. Discovering again. Leading the world again.” And all thanks to our hero, the president.
Never mind that it was the previous administration’s Operation Warp Speed that is responsible for developing the vaccines that are our only ticket out of this pandemic. Never mind that even Dr. Anthony Fauci — no friend of Donald Trump’s — has all but called Biden a liar for claiming that he had to start from scratch on vaccine distribution. Never mind that the economy had grown by 33 percent and 4 percent in the last two quarters of 2020 (it grew by 6.4 percent in the first quarter of 2021). Never mind that his diplomats have embarked on an ill-advised apology tour at the U.N. Never mind that his climate envoy brushes aside the genocide our chief geopolitical rival is in the middle of prosecuting in pursuit of nonbinding climate agreements. Never mind that he is pursuing senseless, job-killing, ally-alienating climate policies at home. Never mind that he refuses to rule out Court-packing, actively supports a federal takeover of elections, and smears his political opponents as the propagators of a new Jim Crow. Biden asks if “our democracy [can] overcome the lies, anger, hate and fears that have pulled us apart” and insists that we can answer “yes” only if we pass his agenda in full.
“That’s democracy in action,” we’re told.
Dreaming. Discovering. Leading.
You might be dubious of Biden’s claim to be the country’s savior — angry, even, that he’s making it. Certainly it’s frustrating for those of us on the right to listen to. Even more rankling is the media’s tendency to indulge the president’s delusions of grandeur and encourage his worst instincts. Insofar as being spoken of as another FDR is a good thing, I would object to such a comparison between the earlier president and JRB Jr.
But Biden’s exaggeration of the peril we faced before his arrival at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — as well as the relative safety and prosperity we enjoy now — is no new invention of his.
Remember “American carnage”? Trump’s opening salvo as president included this lovely description of the country:
Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted-out factories, scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge, and the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.
Barely a month later, Trump was singing a different tune before both chambers of Congress:
A new chapter of American greatness is now beginning. A new national pride is sweeping across our nation. And a new surge of optimism is placing impossible dreams firmly within our grasp. What we are witnessing today is the renewal of the American spirit. Our allies will find that America is once again ready to lead. All the nations of the world — friend or foe — will find that America is strong, America is proud, and America is free.
Though this hyperbole is slightly less irritating to someone with my political preferences, Trump’s before-and-after claims are still easily recognizable as self-aggrandizing, and false.
Why do presidents so shamelessly deplore the state of the country before they walk through the doors of the Oval Office and then hail it once they’ve spent only a little while inside it? Because their political followers believe them. Consider Morning Consult’s daily tracking poll of Americans’ opinion of whether the country is headed in the right or wrong direction.
Notice the two points at which the Republican and Democratic data points trade places? They occur in January 2017 and January 2021, the last two presidential handoffs.
Of course you’d expect some correlation between personal party affiliation, White House occupant, and opinions of the way the country is trending. But a correlation this strong is unhealthy for a number of reasons.
It suggests that our politics has become a team sport in more ways than one. Not only are partisans reflexively running to their corners; they’re also letting a relatively short-term change in a single office serve as the controlling factor in their understanding of the country. It suggests the extent of voters’ disregard for Congress, the supreme branch of government, and perhaps rightly so, given that our professional legislators show little interest in legislating. It suggests also their disregard for the composition and competence of our state and local governments, which should and in many cases do have the greatest influence on our day-to-day lives. And finally, it suggests a three-way failure: we the voters, the courts, and Congress have allowed the executive to accumulate far more power than it should — in the first case because we love to reap the rewards when our guy controls it, in the second out of error, and in the third out of cowardice.
Joe Biden’s assessment of his first 100 days in office is exaggerated if not outright mendacious. That may not be new, but it’s a symptom of a number of troubling trends in our politics from which no one partisan “hero” can save us.