President Joe Biden is eager to claim credit. He wants recognition for the decline in coronavirus-infection rates that his vaccination push seems to be speeding along, and for the economic recovery that he expects his $1.9 trillion spending package to underwrite. This month, Biden gave his first prime-time Oval Office address to trumpet the former, and the White House is rolling out a public-relations road show to tout the latter. For a man of his age, Biden is taking a lot of victory laps.
The president’s keenness to impress his successes on the public stems from the knowledge that his party’s hold on power is precarious. A tiny margin protects its House majority; a vice-presidential tiebreaker gives it Senate control. The country remains as it has been for 20 years: ideologically split, with a few voters in a few swing states deciding each presidential election. And the Democrats’ losses of congressional control in 1994 and again in 2010—in the midterm races right after Bill Clinton and then Barack Obama assumed power—bode ill.
But will the fanfare matter? Will sending surrogates around the country and hyping his achievements gain Biden credit for a healthier and wealthier society, should it emerge? This much seems safe to say: In the past, presidents who failed to produce material results for voters never managed to convince them of their policies’ effectiveness, while those who clearly delivered concrete improvements scarcely needed to gild the lily. In short, presidential efforts to claim credit for overcoming adversity have typically succeeded when they’ve been needed least.