Biden tries to be a builder, as Democrats yearn for a fighter

Democrats are feeling disappointed that they have only gotten part of the Biden they were promised.

Joie Biden
US President Joe Biden gestures as he delivers remarks after the the US Supreme Court ruled in the Dobbs v Women's Health Organization abortion case, overturning the landmark Roe v Wade abortion decision, at the White House in Washington, US, June 24, 2022 [Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters]

In 2020, Joe Biden appealed to voters by being many things that Donald Trump was not: a relatable everyman with blue-collar roots; an empathetic avuncular figure; a seasoned statesman and a qualified adult.

His “Build Back Better” slogan was a boring but informative declaration that he was going to restore the things that had been wrecked under Trump. This included the economy of course, but also the political stability and respect for institutions that had been eroded during the Trump presidency – and would be attacked directly once Trump refused to acknowledge his loss.

But many Democrats looking at their candidate as the anti-Trump also hoped that Biden would match Trump’s aggressive energy and governance style, but for the goal of progress instead of regressive conservatism. And Biden seemed up for the fight. On the campaign trail, Joe Biden would taunt Donald Trump, saying that he’d love to “take him behind the gym” for a high school-style rumble. And while the prospect of the two septuagenarians battling was rather ridiculous, Biden’s rhetoric symbolised the type of “tough guy” politics that many Democrats longed for as a counterweight to Trump.

While Biden has lived up to his reputation for empathy and his record of competence, Democrats in Washington and voters across the country are growing increasingly frustrated by the lack of fight. Despite controlling two of the three branches of government, Democrats seem to still be at the mercy of a Republican Party determined to roll back rights for women and racial and sexual minorities and entrench an arch-conservative, anti-democratic political order.

Democrats are feeling disappointed, if not deceived, that they have only gotten part of the Biden they were promised: the builder but not the brawler. What Biden’s supporters – and perhaps Biden himself before sitting in the Oval Office – failed to realise was that the roles of restorer and fighter would come into conflict, and that Biden would reflexively choose the former over the latter nearly every time.

As president, Trump disregarded political norms and decorum to push through his agenda, with a unified Republican Party marching in lockstep. He stacked the courts, funnelled billions of dollars towards a racially motivated border wall, banned Muslims from travelling to the US, and frequently violated governmental norms and actual laws to personally profit from his role as president. When it became clear that Biden was the clear favourite to win the 2020 election, many Democrats looked forward to their turn to govern with the same aggressiveness and singularity of purpose, bipartisanship be damned.

In the weeks leading up to the 2020 election, there were heightened expectations that Biden would have an overwhelming electoral victory and Democrats could gain decisive majorities in Congress, allowing them to expand the Supreme Court into a liberal majority, pass legislation like voting protections, gun control and some version of the Green New Deal, and maybe even enact statehood for highly Democratic Washington, DC and Puerto Rico, granting a congressional and electoral college advantage.

Instead, the presidential election ended up being closer than expected – though still decisive, despite Trump’s dangerous fantasies to the contrary – and control of the Senate manifested as a razor-thin majority. This meant that simply returning to the pre-Trump status quo became a series of fights against a recalcitrant and obstructionist GOP who have used the Senate filibuster, conservative Supreme Court supermajority, and unified Republican control of nearly half of state governments to expand a conservative agenda to restrict voting rights, repeal or limit abortion, scale back LGBTQ protections, and more.

With the Republicans seeming to accomplish as much now as they did when they were formally in power, fingers are increasingly pointing towards Biden and his seeming unwillingness to put up a fight.

While the frustration is understandable given the string of conservative victories against rights – except for gun rights, of course – we shouldn’t be surprised by Biden’s actions, or inactions.

For better or worse, Biden is exactly who Democrats elected. The scrappiness of the campaign has not so much disappeared as it has been limited to the confines of the existing political structure and alignments.

Biden believes in the institutions of American democracy and the US political system. Of course, he does. In contrast to Donald Trump – who never before held an elected political office and who has consistently acted with little regard to the limits of political office or the sanctity of elections – Biden has been in Washington for nearly 50 years and naturally believes in the system to which he’s dedicated his life.

Biden believes that preserving the rules of the Senate, such as the filibuster, or refraining from the partisan expansion of the Supreme Court are important norms for constraining and maintaining the larger political apparatus of the government.

If he pushes harder to eliminate the filibuster in the US Senate or expand the court or uses executive authority to bypass the spirit of the court’s ruling on abortion rights, Republicans will be able to use these same tactics when they are in power. And perhaps even more importantly, Biden sees using these tactics would undermine the legitimacy of these institutions, which will cause long-term damage that he fears would be more devastating than the specific rights reversals that are being enacted by the GOP.

For Biden’s increasingly frustrated supporters, however, this restraint begs a question: if the current assaults on Americans’ rights and on American democracy itself are not enough to risk some damage to the system, what is?

What good are institutions if the rights they’re meant to uphold have been systematically eroded to the point of oblivion? If pressed, Biden would argue that a Republican government could do a lot more damage than it does now if it could pass any national legislation with a simple majority that the Democrats couldn’t block and if it could restructure the courts at will to uphold any interpretation of the Constitution that fit the GOP agenda.

But the GOP is becoming increasingly radicalised and unconcerned with institutional continuity and political legitimacy.  Most of the party publicly espouses the Big Lie about a stolen election, the ultimate challenge to the legitimacy of our political system, while downplaying the insurrection that physically attacked the most fundamental institutions of American democracy. Even if Democrats preserve the filibuster, maintain the current size of the Supreme Court or show restraint in their use of executive power, there’s little reason to expect that Republicans will follow suit.

Remember that Mitch McConnell has already used every trick in his arsenal to manipulate the composition of the Supreme Court. It was McConnell and Senate Republicans who created a non-existent “election year” norm to block President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland; implemented a filibuster exception for Supreme Court nominees to push through Trump’s nominees, and violated the election year rule they had created in order to rush through Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination and confirmation.

At the state level, Republicans are changing election laws to not only make it harder for Democrats – especially Black ones  – to vote, but creating laws and procedures that would allow partisan political appointees to throw out election results they oppose – essentially, creating a legal framework for the type of antidemocratic election-rigging that Trump attempted after the 2020 vote.

Still, Biden would probably argue, if pressed, Republicans could go much farther than they have already, and Democratic moves to “rig” the system could give them the cover they need to do even more damage.

It was Democrats, for instance, who initially created a filibuster exception for non-Supreme Court judicial nominees, allowing McConnell to justify extending this exception to the confirmation process for justices.

While this is true, it may not be relevant. It’s not immediately obvious that Republicans are constrained by norms or Democratic example. If the current GOP finds itself in a position where it could enact a major piece of its agenda by expanding the Supreme Court or creating a new filibuster exception, I have little doubt that a large core within the GOP would take these moves without hesitation and a larger contingent of Republican policymakers would remain afraid to challenge their radically conservative colleagues.

In this light, Biden’s refusal to fight for voting rights or use additional tools to expand reproductive options resembles unilateral disarmament. And failing to use all the weapons available to Democrats right now endangers the very system that Biden wants to protect. Republicans have demonstrated an unwillingness to protect anything except their own agenda, even at the cost of American institutions or democracy itself. If Biden finally comes to see the Republican agenda as the existential threat to American democracy that it is, there is yet hope that he will put up more of a fight to defend the political system to which he has devoted most of his life.

Biden has proven as a candidate and president that he is not an ideologue, but that he is adaptable. Even as a candidate, he notably shifted left on a variety of issues as public opinion shifted and more progressive policies that were once seen as subversive became compatible with the existing system. As president, Biden has continued to change his positions in practical but progressive ways.

In light of the recent Supreme Court decision to end abortion rights, Biden has become more willing to use executive power to mitigate the court’s decision, issuing an executive order to protect access to medical abortion drugs and limit the possibility that patient and consumer records from being used to prosecute individuals.

At a time when only a quarter of Americans have confidence in the Supreme Court, Biden has also become less concerned with protecting the legitimacy of the court; he now accuses the conservative justices of playing “fast and loose with the facts” in making their anti- Roe v Wade ruling

For many, these legal and rhetorical moves are much too little and far too late, but they do indicate that Biden may be amenable to stepping up his fight. If Biden eventually embraces the idea of an America under fundamental attack from within, he may finally reconcile the two sides of his appeal, the builder and the fighter, acknowledging that both are necessary for defending Americans’ rights and American democracy.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.