How Joe Biden Wins Again

Biden Rest Stops as far as the eye can see

Joe Biden speaking from a lectern in a port, stacks of shipping containers visible on the background.
Drew Angerer / Getty

The year after a midterm election is presidential purgatory. Congressional investigators from the opposing party devote themselves to flaying the incumbent. Stripped of any possibility of grand legislative accomplishments, presidents busy themselves with foreign policy and patiently wait for their domestic foes to overplay their hand.

For Joe Biden, this is all intimately familiar. He experienced this discomfort as Barack Obama’s vice president. And he walked away with a sense of how he might get through it differently himself, how he could profitably survive this awkward year—and leverage it as the basis for reelection.

Back in 2009, Obama anointed Biden “The Sheriff.” Obama charged him with overseeing the implementation of the Recovery Act, the $787 billion economic stimulus, passed in the first days of the new administration. This was a thankless task, because it made Biden responsible for any waste, fraud, and abuse in the program, but it was also a dream assignment. The career politician had a chance to race from ribbon cutting to ribbon cutting. He could bask in selling governmental achievements made of concrete and steel, stuff people could touch.

Biden’s frustration with Obama was that he didn’t sufficiently consider the marketing potential of the stimulus. Obama frankly admitted that he took “perverse pride” in how his technocratic administration constructed policy without regard for political considerations. The 2009 Recovery Act included tax cuts, but intentionally didn’t advertise them. The government quietly withheld less money from paychecks, a dividend that almost nobody noticed. This furtive tax cut was theoretically effective, because consumers were less likely to save money that they didn’t know they possessed. But it was also a political nonfact.

This humility of sorts transgressed a core Biden maxim: Good policy is useless without good politics. The health of the government (not to mention the health of the Democratic Party) depends almost entirely on public appreciation of the government’s deeds.

Now that he’s president, Biden is his own self-anointed Sheriff. In its first two years, his administration passed ambitious, expensive legislation. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act spends $1 trillion. The CHIPS and Science Act devotes more than $250 billion to jump-starting the American semiconductor industry and investing in technological research. The Inflation Reduction Act contains, at least, a $370 billion investment in clean energy. Biden could break his hand signing all the checks that his administration is about to write.

Overseeing these investments will allow Biden to fulfill the two grandest ambitions of his presidency. The first ambition is both lofty and self-interested. He has long argued that democracy will prevail in its struggle against authoritarianism only if it can demonstrate its competence to the world. That means passing legislation. But he believes that non-college-educated voters, the neglected constituents he wants to take back from the Republicans, hardly know about the big bills emanating from Washington with banal names. And they won’t believe in their efficacy in any case, unless they can see the fruits of the legislation with their own eyes.

Biden intends to deluge this group with relentless salesmanship—christening new airports and standing next to local officials as they break ground on new factories and tunnels. When he daydreams in the Oval Office, he imagines omnipresent road signs announcing new government projects in his name. In his mind, there will be Biden Rest Stops as far as the eye can see.

His second ambition is far trickier. He doesn’t just imagine scattered projects. He wants to comprehensively change the economy of entire regions of the country. By geographically concentrating investments—in broadband, airports, semiconductor plants, universities—he can transform depressed remnants of the Rust Belt into the next iteration of North Carolina’s Research Triangle. By seizing the commanding heights of the industries of the future, he can reindustrialize America.

But that vision requires mobilizing sclerotic bureaucracies—and aligning disparate agencies that don’t normally play nice with one another. The word implementation, perhaps the least sexy word in the English language, is his current fixation. He believes that the latent potential of these projects can be realized only if he pays close attention to them.

Large checks to semiconductor manufacturers will bring jobs and protect the supply chain from foreign threats. But that’s only half the mission. With his purse strings comes power. And Biden wants to use his leverage to create high-paying unionized jobs. He intends to pressure CEOs so that they don’t furtively funnel government money into stock buybacks. Even though the public doesn’t have this impression of Biden, he actually gravitates to the weeds. Obsessing over small details allows him to feel a sense of mastery of big processes.

Of course, Biden realizes that these projects will be mere sideshows in the press, as he spars with adversaries, foreign and domestic, bent on provoking apocalypse. But, in his mind, the role of Sheriff is connected to solving congressional crises, perhaps not in the near term but over time. All along, Biden has believed that he can exploit fissures within the Republican Party. That’s why he has always carefully drawn a distinction between the authoritarian MAGA faction and the traditional conservatives, whom he recognizes as his fellow politicians. There’s no dealing with the MAGA set. But the other Republicans have conventional interests, which he can exploit in his search for a deal.

He took this approach on January 4, in his appearance with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell at the Brent Spence Bridge, crossing the Ohio River, to celebrate new government investment. That event transpired as Kevin McCarthy flailed in his campaign to become House speaker. Biden knows that McConnell has little regard for McCarthy—and would rather cut a deal on the debt ceiling than crash the U.S. economy. (After all, McConnell cut that deal before, back in 2011.) McConnell could serve as an ally while Biden slowly cultivates relationships with the 18 Republican House members from districts that he won in 2020. If these Republicans have any prayer of winning reelection, they will need to evince some measure of independence from the Trumpists. They, too, will need to show their constitutents that they can govern. Biden is not confident that he will prevail in this quest, but it’s his best play.

In the face of Republican extremism, Biden will continue to periodically sound the alarm about the threat to democracy. But he also knows that his opponents will do most of this work for him—and that the Sheriff can’t just pose as the protector; he also needs to deliver.