Think Biden’s a Bust? Check Your Cynicism


Frank Bruni

Credit…Ben Wiseman

Frank Bruni

By Frank Bruni

Mr. Bruni is a contributing Opinion writer who was on the staff of The Times for more than 25 years.

It’s easy to be cynical. Hell, it’s fashionable. It’s also safe. Over some 35 years in journalism, I’ve routinely seen pundits and reporters ridiculed for believing too much in someone or something, but believing too little? That’s a measure of mental toughness, of professional incorruptibility. Or so many of us in the news business tell ourselves.

Is that why we’ve rushed quickly past the $1 trillion infrastructure legislation that President Biden signed into law on Monday and resumed our preferred focus on the more sprawling and thornier Build Back Better bill, whose fate is uncertain? Does that explain an obsession with Biden’s troubles that blots out his progress?

He indeed has troubles: We’re not making up his job-approval numbers, which are dangerously low. But we may be depressing them.

We’re not making up the bitter differences between moderates and progressives in the Democratic Party, we didn’t hallucinate Democrats’ recent comeuppance in Virginia, and we’re not inventing the signs that Democrats could fare badly in the midterm elections.

But — hello! — those elections are still almost a year away. You’d never know it from the frequency with which they’re mentioned in the news media, which has made them the dominant and sometimes sole lens through which everything in Washington is viewed. The furious metabolism of the news and the unpredictability of events (pandemic, anyone?) suggest that the situation in November 2022 won’t precisely mirror the situation in November 2021. But we blithely ignore that.

And we too seldom pull back and look at the longer narrative, the larger picture. We certainly downgrade the positive. Soon after Biden took office, Congress passed and he signed the American Rescue Plan, a nearly $2 trillion economic stimulus and relief bill. After that, Congress passed and he signed this $1 trillion infrastructure package. That’s a troika of trillions. That’s not nothing.

And it’s not nothing that the infrastructure legislation garnered bipartisan support. Too many of us have skimmed over that, too.

So my eye was drawn to the headline on Politico’s West Wing Playbook on Monday evening: “Biden proves the haters wrong.” I’d quibble with the rosiness of the paragraphs below it, by Alex Thompson and Tina Sfondeles, except that they seem to me a necessary retort to, and rebuke of, our skimming. They right the scales. And the haters have been loud and proud.

What Biden signed on Monday is a major deal. In an article in The Times, Jim Tankersley called it “the most important step in a generation toward upgrading critical infrastructure.” In The Morning newsletter in The Times, David Leonhardt noted that it would “raise federal infrastructure spending to its highest share of G.D.P. since the early 1980s.” David also wisely acknowledged its ambiguities, the impossibility of knowing exactly how much good it would do and “some hyperbole” in Biden’s description of it.

Even so, the country took a step forward. Washington got something done. Biden racked up an accomplishment. There’s no arguing with any of that.

The quirks and cruelties of American politics are such that he and Democrats may not reap much gratitude or credit, though. Many voters look narrowly at their immediate economic circumstances — how flush or not they feel, how anxious or not they are — and decide from that whether to stick with the party in charge or give the opposition a chance, and inflation is pummeling Biden. Supply-chain problems aren’t helping. He can’t fully control either. He’ll answer for both.

And Democrats do find themselves on a difficult side of a culture war, with a set of talking points about it that don’t resonate with some of the voters whom the party needs, and with an aura of arrogance that turns plenty of voters off.

But the oft-repeated assertion that Biden and the party are flat-out failing isn’t fair. I myself fell prey to excessive negativity and overstatement when, in a newsletter a month ago, I wrote that he was lurching about in a manner that called his administrative and legislative competence into question.

It’s true that this infrastructure bill traveled a tortured path, that the prior American Rescue Plan was passed along strictly partisan lines, that the southern border remains a mess and that Biden’s avoidance of interviews and occasionally jumbled remarks don’t inspire enormous confidence. It’s true that all these developments and dynamics don’t add up to the efficiency and normalcy that he promised during his campaign.

But it’s also true that he just did more for American’s beleaguered infrastructure than his immediate predecessors in the White House managed to. It’s true that the stasis broke and sense prevailed. To respond with skepticism is perhaps appropriate: The infrastructure legislation almost surely represents an inadequate level of investment, and it’s a mere fraction of the Biden agenda. But cynicism is off base. While it pantomimes sophistication, it reeks of simple-mindedness.


Credit…Bridget Bennett for The New York Times

I’ll always remember the first time I saw, in person, Chris Christie work an audience. He was the headliner at a fund-raiser for charter schools nearly a decade ago, and for some 30 minutes, he spoke largely without notes, in shapely paragraphs, mixing erudition and folksiness in perfect measures, his energy never flagging. Few politicians are gifted quite like that. I was certain he was going places.

I felt the same way about Beto O’Rourke. As he campaigned in Texas in 2018 to dislodge Ted Cruz from his Senate seat, he conveyed a similar amalgam of learnedness and looseness. He had that same crazy fluency. Every story he told had a beginning, an end and a moral, and every room he entered crackled with his presence. He felt it — you could tell. He fed off it.

Both men re-emerged over the past week: Christie in a new role as Trump apostate; O’Rourke as a candidate in the 2022 race for Texas governor. Both are intent on comebacks. And that speaks to something else they had in common: Both were in a rush. Exhilarated by their reception, they overestimated their powers, overplayed their hands and stumbled, Christie flopping badly in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, O’Rourke limping away from the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. They learned — and retaught us — that political favor is fickle and contextual, and timing is everything.

That’s not to equate them. O’Rourke has nothing like Christie’s George Washington Bridge fiasco or past indulgence of Trump to answer for. They have markedly different strains of hubris, with significantly different implications. Christie’s belongs in a scary thriller, O’Rourke’s in a romantic comedy.

But they’re comparably fascinating because they’re comparably talented: How will each respond to his party’s predicament? Might he have answers that his peers can emulate? Can Christie, with his considerable gifts, chart a post-Trump, pro-truth path for Republicans? Can O’Rourke, with his, connect with voters alienated by the Democratic Party’s cultural progressivism?

Whatever the case, the American political scene is more interesting with than without them.


Credit…Jordan Strauss, via Associated Press

There were many priceless moments in Caity Weaver’s profile in The Times of Sam Asghari, a.k.a. Mr. Britney Spears, and while most can be wholly appreciated only in the context of the entire article, a few sentences do just fine on their own. Like this one, about two of Asghari’s intrusive and fidgety handlers: “If Mr. Asghari is the heart of the Sam Asghari business, Maxi and Mr. Cohen are the palpitations.” And this one, about his response to all their fussing: “After each disruption, he retrieved the path of his thoughts as nonchalantly as a storm-blown songbird recovers its migratory route to the tropics.” (Thanks to Allan Tarlow of West Hollywood, Calif., and Susan Hembree of Albuquerque for these nominations.)

Amanda Hess’s take on the cultural evolution of Botox is a similar buffet of delicious sentences, and I nominate these representative morsels: “Though there are several competing brands, Botox is the Kleenex of the category. It presents the kind of bargain one might strike with a nefarious sea witch: She will grant you eternal youth, but at the price of being able to move your face.” “Botox once suggested vanity, delusion and self-consciousness, but now it has fresh associations: with confidence, resilience, even authenticity, as the idea of ‘having work done’ has come to be seen as a legitimate form of work.” “Female movie stars are no longer buried after a certain age; instead they are embalmed.”

Sticking with The Times, Alexis Soloski described Juliette Lewis and other members of the cast of “Yellowjackets,” a Showtime series, as actresses “who shot to fame in the ’90s and are still picking out some of that shrapnel now.” (Jean Grossman, Kalamazoo, Mich.)

Ginia Bellafante noted that Zephyr Teachout, who once ran against Andrew Cuomo for governor of New York, could benefit from his exile, “given that any political aspirations she had were unlikely to thrive while Mr. Cuomo remained in power, drinking thirstily from the spigot of retribution.” (Rudy Brynolfson, Minneapolis)

Here’s Genevieve Ko on a late-stage step of proper mashed-potato making: “The fork shouldn’t violently and erratically slice through the mash, but instead circle like a Ferris wheel, steady and gentle, up and down and back around.” (Jo Wollschlaeger, Portland, Ore.)

And here’s Bret Stephens on his own breakthrough case of Covid: “I’ve lost my senses of taste and smell, which, given that I’ve received multiple care packages from Zabar’s, makes me feel like the eunuch at the orgy.” (Larry Berman, Westfield, N.J., and Betsy Johnson, Ipswich, Mass., among others)

Boris Johnson, like Donald Trump, has been the subject of so many writerly put-downs that novel ones are hard to come by, but Marina Hyde cleared that hurdle in The Guardian by mentioning “an edifying week in the government of Britain, a country run by the third prize in a competition to build Winston Churchill out of marshmallows.” (Ellen Hubbard, Oxford, England)

On the Celtics Blog, Adam Taylor recently asserted: “While the Boston Celtics offense is still a work in progress, we’re seeing signs of life on the defensive end, not microbial life either — we’re talking fully-fledged civilizations.” (Bob Bahm, Cape Elizabeth, Maine)

And in Mother Jones, Stephanie Mencimer had this to say about the sale of a certain property in the nation’s capital: “It turns out not even Rudy Giuliani’s bar tab could save the Trump International Hotel.” (Barbara Sloan, Conway, S.C.)

To nominate favorite bits of recent writing from The Times or other publications to be mentioned in “For the Love of Sentences,” please email me here, and please include your name and place of residence.


Credit…Frank Bruni

I hadn’t spent an autumn in North Carolina since I went to college here more than three decades ago, so I couldn’t remember what the leaves did.

Clearly, they loosened and then surrendered their grip on the branches to which they’d clung all summer long — though I’m hardly an arborist, I could tell that just by the looks of them. But before the fall? Did they fade in a sickly fashion from green to brown — death by dullness — or did they go out in a blaze of orange, a burst of burgundy, a blast of yellow? Did they simper or strut?

I got my answer from the Japanese maple in my front yard. About a week and a half ago, seemingly overnight, it went from whatever color it had been — a hue so unremarkable I had no memory of it — to a dazzling standoff between ruby and magenta. In the bold light of late morning, it shimmers. In the gentler light of late afternoon, it glows.

It’s the focal point of the view from my dining room downstairs. It fills the picture window in my upstairs office. When Regan and I pass it at the beginning and end of every walk, I stand still beside it, marveling at its brilliance, marinating in its beauty. How wondrous it is.

And how instructive.

It arrived without warning, a gift that I hadn’t been hoping or waiting for, consistent with the generous, serendipitous ways of this world. It will depart soon — not the tree, but this glorious phase of it. As with so much else, its preciousness is twinned with its evanescence. And so, a choice: Do I brace myself for the loss of it? Moderate my attachment to it accordingly? Or do I revel? Do I rejoice?

Is the autumn half empty or half full?

I always wrestle with that during this favorite season of mine, when the ground below me is magically carpeted with color and the sky above me miraculously canopied with it, an assertion of life that’s an announcement of death, a treat that’s a taunt because it times out so soon. But this year — my first in this house, in this neighborhood, in this chapter of my life where I’m bent on appreciation — the answer is easy. I revel. It’s the happy-making response, which makes it the wise one. And I’ve learned that gratitude is the serotonin of emotions. Why not pump my brain full of it?

That’s what I’m doing when I lengthen my and Regan’s walks in the forest, so enchanted right now. It’s what I’m doing when I elect a slightly longer route home from my office at Duke, down a road whose edges are more densely wooded than those of the faster path. I pull extra slowly into my driveway, I behold my maple and I smile.

“The tree in your front yard is stunning!” Patty, who lives next door, texted me early Sunday evening, as if reading my mind.

I thanked her and said I agreed. Then, in a shameful lapse, a moment of foliage folly, I added that we should enjoy it “while it lasts,” that final phrase spinning the experience in a sour direction.

Patty was having none of it.

“Something to look forward to next year!” she responded.

Indeed. But not before savoring it fully this time around.

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