Historian Allan Lichtman's view on the first two years of the Biden presidency
Also: George Santos's disastrous Fox News interview.
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The final days of the year are always a ripe time for reflection both personally and more broadly. And as the calendar turns to 2023, an important era of the Biden presidency is coming to an end.
For the past two years, Biden has had the benefit of Democratic majorities in the House and in the Senate. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin obviously caused major headaches, but Biden was still able to sign a range of important legislation, including a bipartisan infrastructure bill and historic investments in climate and American manufacturing. Biden certainly didn’t accomplish everything he set out to do — an update to the Voting Rights Act and paid leave are two prominent examples of unfulfilled priorities — but his legislative record over the first half of his first term is impressive by any standard.
Perhaps Biden’s most important accomplishment is less tangible, however. It can be easy to forget now, but it really felt like our very democracy was at stake in the 2020 election. Trump spent the year telegraphing that he would try to install himself in power if he lost. Biden’s victory and the subsequent failure of Trump’s coup attempt saved us from a nightmare second Trump term, and Biden spent the two years that followed restoring a sense of normalcy in the White House while reestablishing that the US stands for democratic values at home and abroad.
Things are about to get more chaotic. The November midterms went surprisingly well for Biden and the Democrats given historical precedent and the prevailing political climate, but Republicans still emerged with a thin House majority. Now the circus is coming to town: GOP leadership has signaled it’ll use its new power to conduct politicized investigations while blocking the Democratic legislative agenda and maybe even impeaching Biden administration officials (including Biden himself).
Meanwhile, Trump’s star may be fading, but his party is still all in on his bigoted brand of divide-and-conquer politics. MAGA loyalists such as Jim Jordan and James Comer are about to take control of key House committees and turn congressional hearings into glorified Hannity segments — the aim being to hobble Biden (assuming he runs again) ahead of a 2024 rematch with Trump or a race against another Republican likely to embody Trumpism 2.0.
So as 2022 draws to a close, Public Notice contributor Thor Benson reached out to Allan Lichtman, a distinguished professor of history at American University who is perhaps best known for predicting every presidential election correctly since 1984, to get his scholarly perspective on Biden’s first two years, the evolving threats to American democracy, and even Donald Trump’s effort to whitewash racism and slavery with his “1776 Commission.”
“It was a completely politicized, distorted view of American history,” Lichtman said. “That’s really dangerous. As George Orwell said, ‘Who controls the past controls the future.’”
A transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
Biden is about to complete his second year as president. How do you think he’s done?
Biden has been one of the most successful under-the-radar presidents in US history. His accomplishments domestically have been greater than that of any president since the 1960s. He’s quietly racked up a string of victories: The original stimulus bill, the infrastructure bill, the tax and climate change bill, smaller bills like very modest gun control, the burn pits bill for the veterans, the CHIPS bill, the protection of same-sex marriage and interracial marriage, and reforms of the Electoral Count Act.
It’s an amazing string of accomplishments in less than two years. Then in foreign policy, the media had all of this focus on the optics of the Afghan withdrawal, which wasn’t nearly as bad as they made it seem.
All withdrawals are chaotic. This was certainly not the worst withdrawal imaginable, by far, and they’ve really underplayed his absolutely critical role in saving Ukraine from the Russians. Without Biden, Russia would likely have conquered Ukraine or a good portion of it.
Do you think Biden being relatively low key about his successes helps him strategically?
It probably helped him get things done, but obviously it hasn’t helped his public standing. I can’t prove this, but I’m pretty sure the vast majority of the American people are unaware of the magnitude of his accomplishments, and the Democrats have been terrible on messaging for a very long time.
I feel like so much of what’s happening these days is unprecedented to some degree. As a historian, is it difficult to put things in context for people?
I think that’s right. First of all, people have a thin understanding of history to begin with, so even if there were easy parallels, people aren’t necessarily aware of them or understanding of them.
The problem is we’re also in the great age of misinformation and disinformation. That’s partly due to political polarization — particularly on the part of Republicans who have become specialists in misinformation and disinformation — and it’s also due to social media. Social media does not feed you contrary information. Social media reinforces whatever it is you may believe, true or false. That’s what the algorithms dictate, and that’s how they make money.
Obviously Republicans are about to take over the House. Are there any lessons Biden could learn from past presidents who have had to deal with a divided Congress?
Well, Bill Clinton did cut a deal — going into his reelection, actually, with Republicans. They got a degree of welfare reform, and he got a hike in the minimum wage. The lesson is that you can get bipartisan things done if both sides think it’s advantageous.
One of the major unprecedented things Biden is dealing with is a former president and someone who’s running for president again facing criminal investigations. How should he deal with that?