It's March — again — and a certain restlessness is stirring among President Joe Biden's allies. After a long winter, which followed four years that felt like an eternity, folks are getting antsy.
If you want proof, look no further than the news reported Thursday by Politico that the White House is weighing negotiations with Republicans to raise the federal minimum wage. Progressives already saw it as a "gut punch" that the wage hike was stripped out of the Senate version of the next Covid-19 stimulus bill without much of a fight. That decision has supporters wondering how on Earth the $15-an-hour rate that Biden campaigned on will come to pass.
You can chalk the broader impatience up to a few different things — advocates who want their particular issues directly in the White House's field of vision, the heavy lift required to reset things after the Trump administration, voters who want promises to be kept, the constraints of linear time and the 24-hour day. But on topics from immigration reform to the use of the military to revamping the Federal Communications Commission to delivering on the promised stimulus checks, there's a concern that Biden's team is dragging its feet on delivering the changes it guaranteed before it won the election.
In contrast to this feeling is the refrain from some Democrats that now isn't the right time to criticize Biden and his policies. The No. 1 reason people have cited this belief to me is that he's been in office for less than two months — we have to give him time! Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither is an agenda! Why handicap the president or bet against him with all of this discord in the ranks?
New York magazine's Ed Kilgore took a similar stance in an article published Thursday, in which he marveled that, even though he is on the verge of getting a $1.9 trillion stimulus measure passed and most of his nominees confirmed, Biden is "currently being beset by criticism from multiple directions." In his view, "the wins far outweigh the losses and omissions. Give the 46th president a break."
I can see where this instinct comes from, as Kilgore makes a lot of salient points about the headwinds against Biden and his progress so far. But I still have to disagree. Now is exactly the right time to criticize Biden. In fact, this is when it's most critical to be critical.
Biden enjoys 52.7 percent approval now, according to FiveThirtyEight's aggregate of various polls. That's below where his two Democratic predecessors were 45 days into office and about 10 points above where former President Donald Trump was at this time.
Popularity in the polls is often used as a stand-in for "political capital" — the idea that politicians have a pool of goodwill that can be depleted or replenished. And early in a president's term is when that pool tends to be at its highest and ready to be spent, like a credit card with zero dollars on its balance.
Biden already faces questions about how he wants to spend that capital, especially once the stimulus bill passes. Immigration reform advocates, for example, are "frustrated" that Trump-era policies to detain and deport families who arrive at the southern border because of Covid-19 concerns are still in place. Meanwhile, some Democrats are upset that Neera Tanden's nomination to head the Office of Management and Budget tanked — but for differing reasons.
In one corner, you have the people who think that the opposition to her was sexist and tinged with anti-Asian racism and that Biden should have fought harder for her; in the other, those who wonder why the administration spent capital on defending her nomination at all given her combativeness toward Republicans and other Democrats alike.
Beyond the immediate challenges, and there are many, now is when priorities are being set for the rest of the term. Campaigns are malleable; their focuses can shift more easily, lacking as they are in the power to enact their proposals. In contrast, governing is chiseled into stone — there's no getting back time spent on issues that are of lesser importance in the eyes of the White House.
The Obama administration decided early on that health care reform would be its main focus after the 2009 stimulus bill passed. In the months after, it was clear where the White House's priorities were, leaving open the question of what could be bargained away or shelved to achieve that ultimate goal. Now is the time for outsiders in Congress, the media and the broader public to help shape those priorities.
But maybe you think the united GOP opposition to Biden's biggest goals is the best reason to avoid criticizing him. Yes, it's true that Republicans are adept at exploiting weaknesses and division among Democrats. Wedge issues work for a reason.
But that obstructionism also shows why it's important to hold Biden's team to account. It's entirely possible to call out Republicans and to make sure the administration isn't wasting its time in pursuit of deals that don't exist. See: the decision to move forward with reconciliation on the stimulus bill, despite Biden's pledge of bipartisanship.
And finally, there are some areas where it's just baffling that Biden hasn't used his authority to move further and faster. Things like not lifting Trump's sanctions against the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, not taking stronger action against Saudi Arabia for killing Jamal Khashoggi and not engaging Iran on its nuclear program more quickly are missed opportunities, and we should be able to say so.
Again, I understand the desire to protect Biden from criticism — but if you're looking to the media (including opinion columnists) to shield him, you're mistaken. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd correctly pointed to a growing misunderstanding of the media's function, even on the left. "They loathe Fox News but assume that the mainstream media are basically on their side, the same way Fox commentators are on Trump's," Dowd wrote Saturday. But that's just not the case.
Nobody is calling on the perfect to be the enemy of the good here. Deals have to be made, and wielding power like a sledgehammer is messier than a lot of people think. Nor am I saying a lot of rhetorical trash isn't going to be thrown Biden's way in the near future to block him. But fair, good-faith criticism is a necessity for good governance. There has to be room in a healthy democracy to call out mistakes, or even just bad ideas, especially by the people who in theory are in your camp.
So, sorry, Joe. It's nothing personal, but I'm going to keep calling 'em like I sees 'em.