Bob Neal

Politics is full of litmus tests.

Where are you on the Second Amendment? Abortion?

Such tests met me often as I campaigned (unsuccessfully) last year for the Maine House of Representatives.

Often, I wasn’t sure whether the voter who had asked was for or against on a litmus-test issue. But on one test, I always knew. “Who won the election in 2020?” No voter who leaned Republican ever asked that. But independents and Democrats did. If I had answered anyone but Joe Biden, they would have shut the door. For good reason.

Anyone who doesn’t recognize that Biden soundly defeated Donald Trump in 2020 lives in a world beyond fantasy. (And I did encounter a few dozen like that, way out in Mara-la-la Land.)

Today is the 731st, or middle, day of Biden’s 1,431-day term, an apt day for assessment. The word that comes to mind is mixed. So, let’s look at pluses and minuses.

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On the plus side: support for Ukraine, support for the middle class, a new tone in Washington, party unity and an added seat in the U.S. Senate. On the minus side: the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the crush of would-be immigrants at our border, losing the House of Representatives, the optics of his aging and the discovery of classified papers on his property.

I like to think of myself as generally positive, so let’s look first at his accomplishments.

Vladimir Putin wants to rebuild the Soviet Empire: South Ossetia (in Georgia), Crimea, client states (Belarus). He would add Ukraine to his portfolio. Biden has reacted correctly to send Ukraine all types of weapons and getting allies to join in, some even moving ahead of us in their zeal to help. If the goal is a new Soviet Empire, then pull out all stops to stop it (pun intended).

Early on some feared Biden was captive of the far left. But New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks disagreed: “We have … funneled money and resources and wealth to highly educated people in large metro areas. (Biden’s) plan funnels money to all the people who are not in those categories. I think it rebalances our society in an important way,” he told PBS.

In other words, the president proposed boosting the middle class, reversing decades of boosting the rich. Biden didn’t get all he wanted, but he got enough that indicators of middle-class status are rising. For example, the number of children with too little to eat has fallen by about a third.

Biden’s greatest achievement, to me, is the new tone in Washington. Not that the crazies at each fringe are muted, but now the president isn’t among the crazies. As Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers put it when he was re-elected last year, “As it turns out, Wisconsin, boring wins.”

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I believe, as Evers suggests, that the calmer tone in Washington contributed to the Democrats’ gaining a seat in the Senate and losing only 10 in the House, after having lost 64 in 2010. To a large extent, Biden has united his party behind him, and the election results showed that.

To the down side, and best we start with the worst. Our withdrawal from Afghanistan was a disaster. With nearly two years to get our troops and supporters out before the Taliban took over, we managed to strand thousands and to lose 13 troops in a bombing near the Kabul Airport.

Biden’s defenders will remind us that he had to withdraw after his predecessor signed a get-out-of-Afghanistan pact. But we did it badly, ruining our reputation for standing with allies, in this case those who worked with us during the 19-year war. As a Democratic candidate, I often said that as the party of government, we had to make government work. In Afghanistan, it didn’t.

Some on the far left who would open our borders to all, no questions asked, play into the hands of those on the far right who would close our borders, no questions asked. Biden has appeared indifferent, though a trip this month to the Texas border, shows a bit more concern.

We must secure our borders, we must have a workable process for admitting both political and economic refugees and we must not cut off our access to the world’s best, brightest and neediest.

The question of Biden’s age — he’s two years younger than I am, so I take umbrage at the notion that old fahts are beyond hope — comes up in every discussion of who’ll run in 2024. Anyone can see that the president is no longer at his physical peak. Some of that shows up in his speech, reminding us of Biden’s lifelong struggle with stuttering, so this isn’t entirely new.

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And I can’t get out of my mind the image of his predecessor needing help walking down a short ramp at West Point, less of a chore than walking into the Hannaford to do a week’s shopping. Neither is exactly hale.

Optics are also part of the latest failing, the finding of classified documents in some of Biden’s personal haunts. Though his situation is very different from that of his predecessor, the two blur easily in the mind, former officials taking secret documents home to keep. Bad look.

Both cases remain alive and lively, so it’s too early to figure exactly what each did wrong. One good thing may come from the classified-documents cases. We are starting to examine the government’s bent for classifying every piece of paper it can. If the discoveries bring new rules to cut over-classifying, that’s good.

Transparency matters. The more we know, the better.

Bob Neal, a self-described militant moderate, voted for Biden. He doesn’t regret it and is happy we can now see through the smog of Tweets and other lies to watch government “in action.” Neal can be reached at [email protected].


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