For all his many political struggles, President Joe Biden is quietly delivering on one of the central — and most implausible — promises of his campaign: restoring a sense of normalcy and bipartisanship to the legislative process.
The latest example is the bipartisan deal on gun regulation, which finally puts vague Republican rhetoric on school security and mental health into action while also embracing modest Democratic proposals on such matters as background checks and red flag laws. The measure will probably not dramatically alter the level of gun violence in the United States. But it should do some good, and re-establishes the idea that Congress can act in response to dramatic events.
Before the gun deal, of course, Biden worked with Congress to deliver the kind of bipartisan infrastructure legislation that both his predecessors only talked about. There have also been many more obscure bills, ranging from legislation changing the regulation of ocean shipping to a major overhaul of the U.S. Postal Service.
Bipartisan science funding legislation has been languishing for months now, but that's due to boring House-Senate disagreements that are being worked out by a conference committee — a process so old-school it had become basically forgotten in Washington. Progress also is being made on bipartisan bills about such thorny issues as Chinese investment in U.S. companies and antitrust scrutiny of big technology companies.
Much of this work is happening through a process I like to call the Secret Congress: Members quietly working together while allowing the political press to focus on Hunter Biden's laptop, which books are in which school libraries, the latest Marjorie Taylor Greene tweet or any of the million other controversies that engage the body politic.
The Secret Congress dynamic, of course, is one reason why it's difficult for Biden to secure credit for delivering on this promise. During Barack Obama's presidency, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was open about the fact that he was reluctant for Republicans to engage constructively on any topic lest the passage of bills come to reflect positively on an incumbent president he hoped to defeat.
Biden has a much lower public profile than his recent predecessors. And while his team has been constructively engaged on all these issues, it's been a quiet form of engagement that aims to be helpful without hogging the spotlight or preventing the members themselves from owning the process. Conservative firebrands found plenty of (real and fake) controversies with which to fill the air and maintain a sense of combat even as they collaborated on policy.
Meanwhile, quite apart from Biden's efforts, there is the fact that Donald Trump's presidency helped break down the doors of ideological dogmatism on the right.
Republicans don't talk about it much these days, but the Trump administration's willingness — led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin — to work with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on the CARES Act is the only reason the 2020 elections didn't turn into a party-destroying landslide. A free-market approach that devastated consumer spending power and led to liquidated many businesses would have ruined the economy, ruined Trump's political standing, and driven the GOP into the ground. Trump's lack of ideological purity, and Democrats' willingness to bargain in good faith, saved the economy and the Republican Party — and perhaps opened the doors to further rounds of creativity.
Alas, Biden has not had nearly such good fortune with his economic management.
The multiple inflationary shocks — first a fiscal stimulus that spent too much too quickly, then a central bank that was probably too slow to react, then a war in Ukraine that's ravaged the supply side of the global economy — have wrecked Biden's public standing. When a president is unpopular due to bad economic news, the public doesn't give him credit for anything. And columnists of all stripes are wont to criticize an unpopular leader.
But the fact remains that important elements of Biden's agenda have succeeded, notably including a Russia policy that has secured strong bipartisan and even international support despite the economic cost. The cloak of unpopularity, meanwhile, makes it even easier for bipartisanship to continue. In his current state, Biden is not politically threatening to Republicans, so they have no reason to avoid collaborating on bills they happen to like.
A new proposal from Republican Sens. Mitt Romney, Richard Burr and Steve Daines to consolidate and simplify various family support programs in a way that would cut poverty and reduce marriage penalties has earned some cautious praise from Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet and could be the basis for more bipartisan work. At the end of the day, life as a legislator is more fun if you get to legislate. Sheer exhaustion with the tedium of obstruction has helped make Biden's approach work.
For now, of course, Biden's politics are still in a shambles. But it's not hard to imagine a scenario in which, a couple of years from now, inflation is under control, unemployment is still low, Biden's numbers are up, and the success of his efforts to restore sanity and normalcy are more evident. The question would then become whether this newfound sense of normalcy could survive the efforts of a popular-again president to actually take credit for his own success.
Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A co-founder of and former columnist for Vox, he writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter.