Is This Joe Biden's First Crisis of Confidence?

The online left was never going to be thrilled with Joe Biden. His candidacy was flawed, his history was rough, and many of his campaign promises felt empty. Still, running against Donald Trump made him an obvious choice, even among those who considered him a lesser of two evils. And maybe with the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic and an economic crisis worse than any since the Great Depression, Biden would step up and use Democratic majorities in Congress to provide people the help they so desperately need.

Or maybe he’ll order an airstrike in Syria. Yeah, that sounds more like it.

The strike was launched against an Iran-backed militia in Syria. It was described as “defensive” and “designed to deter rocket attacks” made against American targets in Iraq. Reports were couched in military and politispeak to make the strikes seem as benign as possible, but when this is one of the first major actions of Biden’s presidency, it’s a terrible look no matter the justification. And it was made worse by news later last evening that the Senate parliamentarian ruled the proposed $15 minimum wage hike must be dropped from Biden’s proposed COVID-19 relief bill. Democrats don’t have the numbers to overrule the arbiter (because of Sens. Krysten Sinema and Joe Manchin), although Vice President Kamala Harris could still push the minimum wage provision into the bill. But the administration doesn’t appear to want any part of it.

Either one of those items makes for a dire news day for the Biden administration. But the Syrian airstrike and parliamentarian ruling back-to-back is an absolute gut punch. It’s a clear signal that Biden believes in executive power and direct action when it comes to military strikes but shrugs about it when it comes to sending out stimulus checks or overriding arbitrary Senate norms. And this was piled on top of news that the administration reopened a facility for migrant children earlier this week—the kind of facility Biden roundly criticized Trump for maintaining and said he’d close for good.

Even if you want to factor in the inherent dissatisfaction of the online left, though, these are problems of Biden’s own making. He campaigned in part on direct immediate relief to people and families suffering during the COVID-19 pandemic. That wasn’t just what voters wanted to hear but what many of them actually needed. A month into his presidency with (albeit slim) majorities in both houses of Congress, his administration has balked at promised stimulus checks, arguing retroactively that they should be means tested. They’ve effectively torpedoed one of its most popular policy measures by deferring to the Senate parliamentarian’s ruling on a $15 minimum wage. And they’ve launched an airstrike in Syria to send a “message to Iran” before bringing any kind of material financial aid to Americans.

If there’s any hope for the Biden administration it’s that there’s plenty of time to alter their course and for things to improve. His administration is clearly handling the COVID-19 pandemic far better than Trump ever did, and if infection rates and deaths continue to dip perhaps he’ll get some of that goodwill back. And hey, maybe he’s sincere about raising the minimum wage some point down the line. It’s just hard to take the administration at its word when its first month has been full of bad looks, worse politics, and broken promises. Democratic majorities are slim, but based on the first few weeks, Biden doesn’t seem particularly interested in building on or even maintaining them. Tasked with a clear mandate from more than 81 million people who voted for him, Biden & co. are clanging one open layup after another. Perhaps this is what “nothing will fundamentally change” means.