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And there we have it: Crisis averted. A swell of worrisome headlines are in retreat. A development that could have been devastating relegated to an obscure footnote in history.
After years of living in a clown show of political reality, it has been difficult to remember how this is all supposed to work. Presidential leadership is not about trending on Twitter, attacking one’s political opponents, spewing lies, or fomenting an insurrection. It's about responding to clear and present dangers to the welfare of this country and its people. It’s about calming uncertainty with a steady hand. It’s about setting goals and achieving them. And it’s about using the power of the office to meet the moment, with whatever that moment requires.
In recent days, an ominous new development appeared on our horizon of current affairs. In the wake of unsettling numbers on inflation, with anxiety over the economy still high, and with midterm elections that may shape this country in profound ways less than two months away, talks between railroad companies and their union workers appeared to have broken down. A deadline loomed at the end of this week, with prospects for a national strike that would have sent ripples of disarray across the country and throughout the economy. Already tight supply lines would have been further strained. Passenger travel would have been disrupted. And vital goods, especially agricultural products, would have been stranded.
President Biden prides himself on being a champion for organized labor. And the specific demands of the unions, on issues like whether workers could take time off to visit a doctor, are the bread-and butter concerns that are difficult to negotiate away. On the other hand, a national strike would be devastating to the American economy. It would also likely harm Democrats’ chances in the upcoming elections and thus imperil all of Biden’s agenda.
That was the state of things when most of us went to bed last night. But while we were sleeping, the negotiating parties and the administration were hard at work. We awakened to news of a tentative deal and an averted strike. If the deal holds, and most close observers think it will, Americans will now have the luxury of forgetting that this was ever an issue. Workers appear to have received major concessions, and a labor movement that has been regaining some lost relevance lately can claim another step forward. Those on the management side deserve credit for negotiating in good faith and with the nation’s best interests at heart.
The deal should also be considered a victory for President Biden. His rationale in running for the office was that he was the person who could put a wobbly nation back on an even keel. He could achieve results. He could handle crises. He could bring people together.
Over the last year and a half, there has been much for him to boast about, according to these criteria: major legislative accomplishments for the economy, infrastructure, health care, and the environment, as well as rallying the world to rebuff Russia in Ukraine. There have also been missteps, particularly a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and being late in his focus on inflation. But on balance this is a record of which most presidents would be proud.
Meanwhile, it’s been something to watch Republicans try to reduce Biden to a caricature. They seem to have settled on two versions that are inherently contradictory: either he's a senile fool who has barely enough cognitive function to get through the day or a master manipulator conspiring to destroy all that “makes America great.” In averting the rail strike, Biden shows once again how ludicrous these Republican lines of attack are. He has made his mistakes and is by no means perfect, but by any objective analysis, he is engaged and leading in a way that seeks to protect both American workers and business.
It’s important to note once again that what the Biden administration did in this case is what administrations are supposed to do. Over the decades I have covered Washington, there have been numerous examples in both Democratic and Republican administrations when a president and his cabinet brought in contentious parties and said some version of, “we’re not leaving this room until we get this worked out.” This isn’t about politics. It’s about competence. It’s what the job entails, or at least what it’s supposed to entail.
We have been subjected to so much performative poppycock of late that we risk losing the correct yardstick by which to measure presidential performance. As it appears that wide-ranging criminal investigations of the previous president are intensifying, as he continues his rage-filled lies over “stolen elections,” as would-be Republican successors like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis stage “tough guy” photo ops at the expense of people’s lives, we are showered with dangerous spectacle. These autocratic pantomimes are not about actually accomplishing anything to make our country work better. Quite the opposite: They are intended to divide us in a cynical power play.
But actually helping Americans means bridging divides, not building canyons. It means facilitating dialogue and compromise when possible. It means recognizing that in the real world, progress is achieved with action, not internet memes.
In this way, Joe Biden could be called “old school.” And that’s why railway workers today are better off and this country has dodged a crisis. Maybe a little more “old school”— whether it’s Biden, some other Democrat, or an honorable, responsible Republican — is what we need for the future.
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