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If no one is unhappy, you aren’t leading
Biden’s failure of nerve
Joe Biden has gotten into hot water this week for his inability to lead. He isn’t fulfilling campaign promises about student loan debt forgiveness. He is allowing his party to be held hostage by a single senator from West Virginia, the man Joe Manchin, who was elected by 290,000 voters, while Biden won the support of 81 million voters.
Joe Biden’s approval rate has been dropping since late August, and so the administration, in my viewpoint, is acting a little anxiously about how forcefully it should act. Anxiety and fear about leading with nerve is common for people who are afraid of pushback or losing popularity – but a failure of nerve in leadership contributes to the same pushback and lack of popularity. Biden is losing popularity because of a failure to lead with any consequence, and if he wants his party to have a successful midterm season, he’ll need to take a side.
Extending student loan forgiveness is a sure way to win the popularity of young voters. Holding Manchin’s feet to the fire is a better way to get him to act than coddling him is. Sanders and Schumer are right in saying that the Senate should force Manchin to vote "no" to a bill that would benefit his constituents (and is actually popular among them!). If the Democrats demonstrate this nerve, they make their yes, a yes, it may win them seats in 2022 and re-election for Biden. So far, the anemic administration and the Congressional leadership have only successfully decreased their own popularity, even after a strong electoral college win and beating a woefully unpopular president.
Biden’s signature legislation is on the shelf, or completely dead. The legislation that he named after his successful campaign slogan dying is quite a failure that is nearly impossible to paper over. The idea that shifting to voting rights legislation – also dead – is a way to make up for the administration's abject failure on Build Back Better is a foolish one, since the filibuster rule will keep that from legislation from occurring since it can’t be passed through reconciliation (which is a way to bad budgetary bills with a simple majority, instead of doing through the archaic and racist filibuster).
Not mincing words about omicron
In Biden’s defense, though, his administration has messaged strongly about covid-19 in the face of the growing omicron variant in the United States. As mask mandates are put back into place and lockdowns loom, the Biden administration made it clear that the best option forward for everyone is to get vaccinated. For the vaccinated, the increase in omicron is not necessarily deadly, and though we should take precautions (like testing and masking), we don’t need to take the same precautions we did last winter so long as we interact with vaccinated people. Even people with toddlers or families with immunocompromised people can relate safely, if they are spending time with vaccinated folks.
The risk, the administration made clear, is for the unvaccinated, whose holidays will be much more dangerous. Here’s how the administration put it:
“We are intent on not letting Omicron disrupt work and school for the vaccinated. You’ve done the right thing, and we will get through this.
For the unvaccinated, you’re looking at a winter of severe illness and death for yourselves, your families, and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm.”
The administration’s message: get vaxxed, get boosted, wear a mask in public settings. Local municipalities should enforce mask and vaccinate mandates and turn this pandemic into what it is: one for the unvaccinated. That’s the administration’s message. Biden received criticism for not having a charming or a winsome message that would convince antivaxxers or empathize with their plight, but he didn’t do that for two reasons (and he should be lauded for them). 1) Biden knows that antivaxxers aren’t listening to him and that he is woefully unpopular among them – organizing around them is pointless. His name is toxified and he won’t be able to change that. Persuasion and empathy are not good tools for leading someone to change or transformation. Personal relationships don’t make a difference when you are facing forces that are much greater than they are. 2) Biden’s message is for those that do listen to him, who are mainly vaccinated. His message to them is that they don’t have to be as precautious as they were last year. Because they are vaccinated and boosted and generally conscious, they don’t need extreme caution. This is an important message for liberals because they are more likely to take (unnecessary) precautions, such as locking themselves in even when they aren't sick, instead of enjoying the relative safety of enjoying company with vaccinated, tested friends and family.
On Tuesday, Biden offered more. He said "we should all be concerned about Omicron, but not panicked." His message is consistent. Further, he added, "This is not March of 2020. Two hundred million people are vaccinated. We’re prepared; we know more." Biden also committed to buying 500 million rapid tests -- an essential component in keeping the vaccinated safe.
Some have critiqued Biden for being unsympathetic to those who can’t get vaccinated, or toddlers who aren’t eligible to be, but a decent reading of his announcement would make it clear that his assertive statement wasn’t antagonistic, merely practical. It is that sort of leadership that Biden needs to demonstrate in the varying areas of his administration, regardless of what pushback he receives. Leaders that have clear vision build a strong base of support that grows popularity and success. Biden’s impulse, politically, to pull his punches instead of delivering on what he promised, weakens his popularity.
Ignore your haters, lead with courage
Leaders don’t lead to convince their extreme detractors, they lead relying on the support of their base, and moving the teachable. If you are not teachable, if you are hostile and have no soft heart, the best leaders should ignore you as they move forward with what they think is the best vision.
Leading with nerve means needing to tolerate people’s bad feelings. Making people feel badly isn’t good leadership, but if you don’t make anyone feel badly, you aren’t leading. Sexual and racial minorities will be hated when they lead with nerve. Women will be demeaned and called names, especially by men. But that persecution is a sign of faithfulness.
In the Christian arena, we expect that not everyone will be able to follow Jesus and His Way. If we aren’t disturbing anyone with our message of truth and justice, the message of the Gospel, one wonders if we are being truthful and honest. Jesus came in peace and love. But that peace was the kind that disturbed violence; it didn’t make peace with violence. That love disturbed hatred; it didn’t love hatred. Leading with nerve means making some people necessarily unhappy, instead of, if you’re Joe Biden, making everyone unhappy. Leading without nerve is a recipe to disappoint everyone (and Biden’s approval rating is evidence). Leading with nerve may very well upset some people, but your vision will bring people along.
When it comes to the forces of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy, there is only one way to lead. The way of moderation, the way that tells us to spend our empathy on those who hate minorities is wasted. Rather, lead with nerve in a way that comforts and elevates the oppressed. Those moved by the Spirit will find and follow you, and those more committed to other gods will fall away. The ones that leave will call you the worst of names, and lie about you, and slander you. But you should expect that to happen, and take it a mark of your success that you are leading with such consequence that you are making enemies.