Question of the Week

Has Joe Biden Abandoned Trumpism and Populist Politics?

November 01, 2021 BU Today Season 1 Episode 8
Has Joe Biden Abandoned Trumpism and Populist Politics?
Question of the Week
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Question of the Week
Has Joe Biden Abandoned Trumpism and Populist Politics?
Nov 01, 2021 Season 1 Episode 8
BU Today

College of Arts & Sciences political scientist Lauren Mattioli assesses Joe Biden one year after his election. Promising to abandon Trumpism, the president has lowered the rhetorical thermostat, Mattioli says, but in areas like immigration, Biden is disappointing supporters with a populist politics, while GOP obstructionism imperils the rest of his agenda.


Show Notes Transcript

College of Arts & Sciences political scientist Lauren Mattioli assesses Joe Biden one year after his election. Promising to abandon Trumpism, the president has lowered the rhetorical thermostat, Mattioli says, but in areas like immigration, Biden is disappointing supporters with a populist politics, while GOP obstructionism imperils the rest of his agenda.


Dana Ferrante: This is Question of the Week, from BU Today. Has Joe Biden abandoned Trumpism and populist politics as promised? In this episode, Rich Barlow, senior writer at BU Today, talks to Lauren Mattioli, an assistant professor of political science at BU, about whether Biden has lowered the temperature, as he promised, and abandoned the incendiary style of governance of his predecessor.

One year after the 2020 presidential election, Mattioli discusses which aspects of Trumpism Biden has rejected, and whether there are some aspects he has not. 

Rich Barlow: Thank you, Professor Mattioli, for joining us this week.

Lauren Mattioli: Sure. Happy to be here.

Barlow:  We are roughly one year after the presidential election of 2020. Has Joe Biden abandoned Trumpism and populist politics as he promised?

Mattioli: I wanted to push you a little bit on your working definition of Trumpism, to see if we have the same one. I think I might have a guess or what your definition of Trumpism is, but if you wouldn't mind explaining a little bit, that would probably make it easier for me to answer.

Barlow: Well, partly, stylistically being the incendiary center of attention 24/7 with tweets in the wee hours that consume the news cycle. And substantively, I guess populist politics would be policies that made up his MAGA platform, from immigration restrictions...and I think, what a lot of people would say, being a window, or a channel, for white grievance.

Mattioli: So yeah, it sounds like we're working with the same ideas. I guess I was thinking more about the substance... I think the question of whether the Trumpistic style rhetoric has changed is pretty self-evident. Not only do we see a different tone when Biden speaks, but also he's letting the members of his administration do the talking sometimes. And relying on his very competent communication staff and press staff. So I think that's one feature of the rhetoric that's really different. Also, just in terms of the text analysis that I've done, he's using less incendiary language. He's not using the types of words that we would normally associate with ideological extremism.

And then substantively, I guess, I thought of Trumpism as having three primary components, at least as far as he and Biden differ. So, the sort of general international relations isolationism, where it was a very America-centric, isolationist policy. And I think Biden, by reengaging in the Paris Climate Accord and with the WHO, reversing the travel ban from primarily Muslim countries, rebuilding our refugee resettlement program, that those are all policy steps that he's taken that I think show a distinct, substantive shift.

Another is...I think Trumpism, as you mentioned, is sort of a window, or a sounding board, or a welcome set of thoughts around white grievance. And to me, Trumpism was about conserving the status-quo around race and gender and anti-progressivism on those fronts. And I think Biden has made some progress on that.

He's done a couple of things within the administration, like creating this gender policy council and asking the Department of Education to look back over their policies regarding education and sexual violence rules [which Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education secretary, had rolled back]. President Trump talked about COVID as being the "China virus," whereas the Biden administration has created a task force to combat racism against Asian [Americans] and Pacific Islanders.

So I think that's a big distinction just in policy, and in rhetoric around race, gender, and sexual violence. I forgot to also mention the reversal of the transgender ban on the military. And last, there was this element of Trumpism that was like very pro-business, pro-elite, which is sort of in opposition to what we would normally think of as populism.

But I think if anything, Biden is more populist in that regard, in terms of focusing on labor and the economically marginal, whereas some of the Trump administration policies were either actively antagonizing problems that the economically marginal face. But, I wouldn't say "complete abandonment" is the right characterization of the Biden administration, because there's still lots of rhetoric that is very popular around traditional isolationism, like this "Buy American" policy within the Biden administration, which is reminiscent of the economic isolationism that was characteristic of the Trump administration.

[Biden has] maintained the steel tariffs that were so controversial during the Trump administration... Also I think the maltreatment of allies, which [has not been] so bad in the Biden administration, but was particularly heightened during this recent debacle with the withdrawal from Afghanistan. And so I don't think it’s a total abandonment of populist policies and rhetoric, [but] it's certainly toned down.

It's definitely a shift away from this individual-centered, charismatic leadership that's vested in ideological extremism. And so, definitely a shift rhetorically and substantively, but maybe not as far as Biden supporters might have hoped.

Barlow: You mentioned [it's] not as far as his supporters had hoped...critics would also say that Biden's immigration policy and his fumbled withdrawal from Afghanistan are also reminiscent of Trumpism.

What changes should he make in his approach?

Mattioli: I think I want to take those in turn. So, I think the Afghanistan withdrawal was going to be thorny for any president that tried to do something, instead of just continuing to kick that policy can down the road. But I think this was a particularly poor handling of it.

And policy obviously matters, but how we talk about policy decisions matters [too], and I think Biden's rhetoric around Afghanistan was really problematic. I think it was an Al Jazeera article that described it as "humility free," and I liked that because we've come to associate Biden with being almost self-effacing and a humble 'everyman.' But then in discussing Afghanistan, he really isn't owning the mistakes that are very clear to his detractors.

And I think that's sort of interesting, because that was what many people thought was good about Biden as a contrast to Trump. But I think on the Afghanistan thing, the idea of not owning the problems—there may have been problems inevitably—but I think failing to acknowledge them is undermining the overall effort.

It was going to be difficult no matter what. But the way he's dealt with it I think has exacerbated the problem. And then on immigration, this is the characteristic of democratic infighting...the rhetoric isn't the issue as much as the policy. So in contrast to Afghanistan, yeah, the border has still, I think as of two or three days ago, it's still using public health measures to keep people from entering the country, still putting children in cages.

And there's no rhetoric that can excuse that. So I think the change you need to make on immigration is to stop using [Title] 42 [the principal set of public health rules and regulations issued by US federal agencies] to expel immigrants. It's offensive to the public health policy. We can't say we have this new turning point in the administration of a pandemic and then co-opt public health to serve a political agenda.

And then I think, generally, the move after that sort of long-term goal needs to be developing a legitimate process for dealing with asylum cases that can deal with this influx. If the system is overwhelmed, it's not the asylum seekers' fault, it's the system's fault and the system needs to be reformed.

And I think that would require effort and also acknowledgement of the failures of the administration. And I haven't seen that decisively.

Barlow: You're a scholar of the American presidency and American government. So let me play devil's advocate and ask you this: you talked about the president's failures of humility on Afghanistan and policy on immigration, but with Republicans bent on obstruction, pretty much of anything he does, and Democrats bitterly divided among themselves, is quiet and successful governance possible for any president these days?

Mattioli: This is a question that I might steal from you and put on my final exam the next time I teach the presidency. I'm not sure if we've ever had quiet, successful governance, I want to push back on that, [but] you're right, the policy for Republicans in Congress has been total obstruction of a Democratic president's agenda.

And that's forced Democratic presidents and some Republican presidents facing divided government to act unilaterally. And so the source of successful governance comes from the executive branch and to a lesser extent the judiciary. So the prospect for good governance if nothing substantive can come out of Congress—we still have options, maybe less attractive options and less democratic, majoritarian options, but there're still possibilities for governance through unilateral executive action and through case-by-case policy-making, what I call judicial policy-making in the courts.

And Democrats are divided on breadth and depth of policy change, and the sort of exhaustion of effort amongst themselves is...I think they're putting a lot into identifying precisely what policy should look like without an eye towards actually getting those policies through Congress. Not to say that they're totally not forecasting the possibilities, but I think the focus needs to be on overcoming obstructionism rather than overcoming their own internal factions, which is easier said than done, of course.

And then, probably the better approach politically for them will be focusing on winning a unified government come election time next year. And in the meantime, putting Republicans in a position where they have to make unpopular votes and force them to sort of call the bluff. That's something that...we've seen [in] the sort of "blame game" politicking that has been successful to a certain extent in the past.

But who's going to suffer are the people who need policy, like Americans who need health care and need food aid and need unemployment insurance. And so the cost of obstruction then is public good. So a successful governance is going to have to come from someplace other than Congress, I think, so long as trends continue as they have been.

Barlow: And that place would be?

Mattioli: I think the executive branch and the courts. I think the prospects for major policy changes—except for maybe on infrastructure, which is sort of shown to be the only bipartisan issue that's getting real momentum—we'll have to see about any major policy advancement; I think that's going to have to happen unilaterally through the executive branch, which will be unpopular, but so will not doing anything.

Barlow: I was going to ask, that's a gamble for the president, right?

Mattioli: Of course. 

Barlow: Some pundits are saying that if he can't achieve anything between now and the midterms, or can't achieve much of his agenda, and a lot of his agenda can't be achieved, unless I'm wrong, solely by executive action, the Democrats can take a shellacking next year.

Mattioli: Yeah, I think Democrats want to avoid committing the sins of the 2010 midterms, where having a unified dDemocratic cCongress, they were able to get a lot of policies through and were basically saying, we take full credit for everything that's happened, and then sort of got blamed for everything that didn't happen that may have been due to obstructionism.

Unified government doesn't mean complete consensus on everything. So I think if they're smart, Democrats will have to make it clear what they're going to really take credit for. And politicians are horrible about this, right? They take credit for successes even if they aren't theirs, and they reject their culpability and failures, even if they are theirs.

And then it'll be up to voters to decide who's responsible. So it's possible, you're right, that Democrats could take a shellacking and could really face defeat in the midterms, if Biden doesn't get a lot of [his agenda] through, with the caveat that if he can successfully blame Republicans, it may not be the case.

Ferrante: Thanks to Lauren Mattioli for joining us on this episode of Question of the Week. If you liked the show, subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts and never miss an episode. I'm Dana Ferrante; see you next week