“The presidency is not a popularity contest.”

Joe Biden’s popularity with the American public continues to decline, per FiveThirtyEight:

To be clear, Biden wasn’t very popular to begin with. On Inauguration Day, only 53% of us approved, while 36% disapproved (leaving about 11 percent withholding judgement, which seems prudent now). That figure was at or below nearly every president since Harry S Truman, and only significantly higher than The Former Guy.

His current 42.9% number is similarly higher than few recent presidents after 286 days in office. (Trump had the worst number at only 38% approval, with Gerald Ford – who admittedly had a lot working against him, especially after pardoning Nixon – only slightly higher at 38.4%.)

What’s causing this erosion in popularity? Has he been charging the federal government millions of dollars to have international visitors, lobbyists, and staff stay at his hotels and golf courses? Nope. Has he been insulting minorities and our allies? Again, no. Has he proposed wide-reaching, xenophobic “travel bans” aimed at members of a particular religion? Not that I’ve noticed.

I’ll admit that I wasn’t very enthusiastic about Biden to begin with. I’m old enough to remember when, during the 1988 presidential primary race, he was caught plagiarizing in a speech, and it later came out that he’d done the same thing in law school. Plagiarism is hardly a capital offense, but it does open up a question of overall honesty, and frankly, he’s never really recovered from that in my mind. I voted for him for the same reason I voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016; he wasn’t Donald J. Trump. (I’m also old enough to remember that Trump has been a punchline for decades.)

Back in March, I wrote that if the Democrats weren’t able to move significant legislation through Congress in 2021, they’d pay for it in 2022:

If Democrats are unable to move significant legislation through both houses of Congress and to the president’s desk in the next two years, they will lose control of one or both houses. Republicans will be able to point at their inability to act, and they’ll be right. The time has come for bold action on the filibuster; if not eliminating it altogether, at least modifying it to require that those filibustering a bill actually hold the floor (and stopping all Senate business altogether while doing so), or perhaps reducing the number of votes required for cloture depending on how long the filibuster has gone on (60 for the first three hours, 58 for the next three, and so on). Democrats have the majority today. They should start acting like it.

Some of the president’s popularly decline is due to the relentless lying from the right-wing media, that mostly reaches those who already hated Biden because he wasn’t Trump. But some of that vitriol seeps onto the more independent-minded centrists who are malleable enough to be influenced against whoever the current president is based on the braying of media pundits.

But I think quite a bit of the decline is from Democrats themselves, who had great hopes for transformative work from a Congress that’s nominally controlled by their party. In return for that faith in November, they’ve gotten pretty much nothing. The filibuster allows Mitch McConnell and the Republican minority to dictate what can and what can’t be seriously considered in the Senate. And Krysten Sinema and Joe Manchin get to be kingmakers by refusing to go along with the elimination, or even the modification, of the filibuster rules. I’m not even certain what they want anymore outside of being the center of attention.

Biden himself is such a creation of the Senate that I think he finds it hard to imagine changing the filibuster. So he hasn’t pushed very hard for that. It needs to be done, however, and soon. As the calendar flips into 2022, all of the congress critters will go into full-time re-election mode (as if they ever leave that mode anymore!) and nothing – or perhaps more accurately, less than nothing – will get done.

Al Gore said “The presidency is more than a popularity contest.” As a leader, when you do the right things, it may lose you popularity points, and it may take months or years for the positive outcomes of your actions to be reflected in people’s retroactive judgement of you. Some of us had hopes that Joe Biden could be the type of leader who could cajole his party to make the hard decisions needed to move us away from the Trump era. So far, those hopes have turned out to be hollow, and it’s reflected in the poll numbers.

Filibustered, part two

In October, I wrote about the tradition of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate, and how it’s made effective governing in Washington nearly impossible. The concept of the filibuster used to mean that a senator could bring all Senate work to a complete halt by holding the floor and “debating” – actually, reading old speeches, recipes, children’s books, or anything else to prevent a bill from moving forward. To end this “debate,” the Senate must pass “cloture,” which under current Senate rules requires 60 votes to stop the filibustering.

These days, filibustering doesn’t even require a senator to actually stand and talk endlessly. Any senator can simply indicate that they would filibuster a bill and that’s a sufficient threat to gum things up. Part of the reason that works is that the Senate now runs bills through the chamber on multiple “tracks,” scheduled throughout the legislative day, and if one of those is held up by a filibuster threat, the rest of the chamber’s work can continue. This means the risk of seeming to be obstructionist is much lower, and in recent years it effectively has turned the Senate into a political body that requires a super-majority of 60 votes for nearly everything it does.

This is defended, even by centrist Democrats like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, as a way to protect the rights of the minority in the Senate. Which might be a laudable position (and understandable if you’re concerned you might end up in the minority again, a likely proposition) if the super-majority requirement didn’t also effectively destroy the rights of the Senate majority.

The authors of the U.S. Constitution didn’t include super-majority requirements for passing legislation, and only had a few specific exceptions, including conviction of an impeachment charge (2/3 of the Senate), expulsion of senators or representatives from their seats (2/3 of the appropriate house), ratifying treaties (2/3 of the Senate), proposing amendments to the Constitution (2/3 of both houses), and overriding a presidential veto (also 2/3 of both houses). Other than that, majority rule in both houses was anticipated, a fact underlined by comments by James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution:

“It has been said that more than a majority ought to have been required for a quorum; and in particular cases, if not in all, more than a majority of a quorum for a decision. That some advantages might have resulted from such a precaution, cannot be denied. It might have been an additional shield to some particular interests, and another obstacle generally to hasty and partial measures. But these considerations are outweighed by the inconveniences in the opposite scale.

In all cases where justice or the general good might require new laws to be passed, or active measures to be pursued, the fundamental principle of free government would be reversed. It would be no longer the majority that would rule: the power would be transferred to the minority. Were the defensive privilege limited to particular cases, an interested minority might take advantage of it to screen themselves from equitable sacrifices to the general weal, or, in particular emergencies, to extort unreasonable indulgences.”

James Madison, Federalist Paper No. 58

So those who defend the filibuster on the vacuous reason of respecting the minority are, in fact, disrespecting the duly-elected majority. And nothing gets done.

If Democrats are unable to move significant legislation through both houses of Congress and to the president’s desk in the next two years, they will lose control of one or both houses. Republicans will be able to point at their inability to act, and they’ll be right. The time has come for bold action on the filibuster; if not eliminating it altogether, at least modifying it to require that those filibustering a bill actually hold the floor (and stopping all Senate business altogether while doing so), or perhaps reducing the number of votes required for cloture depending on how long the filibuster has gone on (60 for the first three hours, 58 for the next three, and so on).

Democrats have the majority today. They should start acting like it.

Filibustered: How the Senate chooses not to do anything

I confess I’ve never given a lot of thought to the filibuster. You probably haven’t either. In case you’ve never thought about it (and don’t remember what you learned about it in school), the filibuster is the method that a senator can use to stall the consideration and even the passage of legislation in the U.S. Senate. Since the rule was changed in 1975, it requires 60 percent of the Senate to vote to pass “cloture,” which ends the filibuster. Senators used to have to literally keep talking while filibustering, but these days a member of the minority part can just let the majority leader know they intend to “filibuster” and require the majority party to put together at least 60 votes to pass cloture and move on with consideration of the bill.

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