In the months leading up to the 2020 election, grudging supporters of Democratic candidate Joe Biden on both the left and the right began to use a common word to signal what they wanted for his administration: accountability.
Liberal Democrats who wanted Sen. Bernie Sanders in the White House, but were willing to give Biden a chance, said they would hold the former vice president accountable for making good on some of his more progressive campaign promises. Similarly, Republicans who crossed party lines to vote for Biden said they would watch closely to ensure that he would be the consensus-seeking moderate and the unifier he promised to be.
In short, they would vote for Biden in exchange for accountability. It was a prerequisite for support.
But eight months into the administration, it’s unclear what accountability looks like for a president who accomplished his No. 1 job, evicting the former occupant of the White House, on his first day in office.
“Accountability is one of those messy processes in a democracy,” said Steven S. Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
The pro-Trump wing of the Republican Party is loudly pointing out Biden’s missteps and the administration’s problems — the latest being the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan since Biden ordered U.S. troops pull out of that country — but the “Never Trump” Republicans who helped Biden win have to navigate the waters of complaint more carefully.
Before the chaos in Afghanistan reached a climax over the weekend, some of the loudest voices clamoring for accountability were coming from those within Biden’s own party, such as RootsAction, an advocacy group made up of progressives who vowed in December there would be “no honeymoon” for the Biden administration.
What does accountability look like, for this or any other presidential administration? To whom is the president accountable, and who is supposed to do the accounting — the media, the pundits, the opposing party, or you, the voter?
Whose job is it?
Smith, co-author of the book “Politics Over Process,” noted that a politician’s constituency changes when he becomes president and that accountability takes many forms.
“There’s accountability in the short term versus in the long term; there’s accountability to the nation as a whole versus key constituencies. You can try to make them all happy but you probably can’t,” he said.
Before Biden took office, Smith had noted that various groups of Biden voters would likely be frustrated with the administration because Biden portrayed himself as a moderate while endorsing more liberal policies in statements and white papers.
“It’s not clear what a moderate proposal — on the economy, COVID, infrastructure, education, the environment — would look like. We don’t have much representation in the moderate space in the political spectrum. We haven’t seen policies generated in that space for a very long time,” Smith told the Deseret News in November.
While the infrastructure bill passed by the Senate this month had bipartisan support, its passage in the House is not yet assured, and, according to Smith, “that was the easy part.” Biden faces much bigger challenges in the next few months, to include funding the government and raising the debt limit.
Meanwhile, multiple pundits have already announced, as far back as March, that Biden’s “honeymoon” — the period of good will that has historically been granted a new president — is over. Challenges facing the administration are piling up, to include higher-than-expected inflation, increasing gas prices, volatility in Afghanistan and in the Middle East, rising cases of COVID-19, and the perennial immigration problem known simply as “the border.”
These issues have conservative pundits such as Sean Hannity complaining that the media is not holding Biden accountable. On his Fox News show recently, Hannity addressed what he called “the media mob,” saying, “Will you conduct any investigation surrounding the Biden administration?”
But Kevin Lerner, an associate professor of journalism at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, said, “There’s a little bit of overstatement of how big a role the press plays in accountability, and I think some of that comes from the press.”
For example, Lerner said that in histories of the press written by journalists, the press is given credit for ending the Vietnam War and getting Richard Nixon to resign. “There was real bravery in The New York Times publishing the Pentagon Papers and The Washington Post pursuing Watergate. But, in the end, it wasn’t really the press that did it. If you look at Nixon, it was really the Senate hearings that forced Nixon to resign; it wasn’t The Washington Post.”
More recently, it was the New York attorney general’s investigation into Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the State Assembly’s threat of impeachment that caused the nearly three-term governor to resign this week over sexual harassment charges, not Cuomo’s treatment in the media, he said.
The loudest critics of Biden, of course, are the supporters of former President Donald Trump, who, according to Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, is “the most popular Republican and still leads the party.”
Some Trump supporters are already putting up yard signs that say “Don’t blame me, I voted for Trump,” and the RNC is organizing events and protest rallies in cities where Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris appear, according to RNC spokesman Keith Schipper.
“We’re not going to sit back and let this president run roughshod with these crazy proposals,” Schipper said.
“We’ve been very aggressively trying to hold this president accountable,” he said. “It’s really been a summer of crises, and we’re going to make sure that the president doesn’t just stick his head in the sand and does something to address them.”
They’re strange bedfellows with the Trump arm of the GOP, but progressive Democrats at RootsAction are also keeping a sharp and critical eye on Biden.
“Comfortable liberals — or those not paying close attention — may believe that replacing Trump is all that was needed. But unless this administration delivers for working families bigly and quickly, the faux-populist GOP will come storming back into power in 2022 and 2024,” Jeff Cohen, co-founder of RootsAction, said in an email.
Cohen, who said he would give the Biden administration thus far a “C” grade, or an “I” for incomplete, said that it was progressives who put Biden in the White House, not the Lincoln Project or corporate donors, and that progressive activists will achieve accountability by “staying active, speaking out, making demands.”
“Biden needs to go big, a la FDR and LBJ, enacting programs that benefit the working class and middle class, while paying for those programs by taxing the super-wealthy and large profitable corporations that have often escaped taxation,” he said.
Comparisons to Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson are being bandied about as Democrats pursue what’s being called a “human infrastructure bill” that would include things like expanded child tax credits, free community college and universal preschool. And Ron Elving, reporting for NPR, asked, “Is Biden is reaching for the mantle of FDR or having it thrust upon him?” The answer is unclear.
But those big programs cost, dismaying Republicans such as Utah Sen. Mitt Romney who did not support Trump but are increasingly worried about the nation’s ballooning spending.
“Sen. Romney appreciates President Biden’s support for a bipartisan infrastructure bill. However, he remains concerned about the administration’s support of astronomical spending on social programs — which will raise taxes on Americans and propel our country deeper into debt — and their failure to both acknowledge and address the crisis at the border,” Romney spokesperson Arielle Mueller said in an email.
It’s up to you
Ultimately, accountability for Biden will come in two forms: public opinion polls and the election booth, Smith said.
In polling by Gallup last month, Biden’s approval rating was 50%, the lowest since he’s been in office, and six points lower than June.
Gallup said that the ratings show extreme polarization by party affiliation, with 90% of Democrats, 12% of Republicans and 48% of independents approving of the job Biden is doing.
In decades past, approval ratings were a more effective form of accountability, but because of entrenched political polarization in the U.S., they are less so now, Smith said, adding “It’s conceivable that we’re not going to see a lot of change in his numbers.”
That leaves the ballot box as the most dependable factor in accountability, and voters don’t have to wait for the next presidential election, as 2022’s midterms stand to enable or thwart Biden’s agenda and ambitions because of the narrow margins in Congress.
“There’s more at stake in these midterms than we’ve probably seen in decades,” the RNC’s Schipper said.
“There are some other races this year, but they’re local races, for the most part, just as the recall in California and the Virginia governor’s race, but really if you want to hold this president accountable and see where the American people are on his agenda, it’s going to be in November (of 2022),” he said.