If US President Joe Biden is aiming for the sympathy vote to get him re-elected in 2024, his strategy is going well. He is lambasted on every side for getting his country’s troops out of Afghanistan, a policy that theoretically was supported by practically every voting American. His honeymoon with the Press is over, with questions so direct that the President is refusing to take them (but forgot to tell Boris this on the British P.M.’s recent visit). He can’t get his public expenditure bill through Congress – not because of Republican opposition, but because of his own party (we’ll go back to that). And if the megaphone of Mar-A-Lago has fallen silent, any comfort will not be for long: Mr Trump has asked a judge to order Twitter to restore his Twitter feed. You might feel that a man still less than a year into his presidency deserves better than this sea of troubles, but, alas, his greatest irritation is becoming ever more annoying.
This Biden irritant is the federal Representative for New York’s 14th Congressional district, Ms Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. A master of the hip catch-phrase and of social media, she likes to be known as AOC, taking, perchance, a little lead from JFK (though that would appear to be the only one). First elected to federal office in 2019 at the age of 29, she is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress and arrived there after a stellar rise to public prominence. She is from a middle-class New York background, but her family fell on hard times after the death of her father, an architect. She graduated from Boston University cum laude with a degree in international relations and economics, and during her time there worked as an intern for Ted Kennedy. AOC is undoubtedly academically bright, very driven, and very ambitious. She is also very left wing, and a self-proclaimed socialist, not a label lightly adopted by those who wish to succeed in mainstream American politics.
Her colleagues in the House have proclaimed her the most social-media-savvy member amongst their ranks, It is that which carried her to astonishing victory in the 14th District election, capturing 74% of the votes (it is one of the safest Democrat seats in the country, so once she had won the primary she was safely on her way). It continues to enable her to, in the modern idiom, “capture the conversation”, or in other words, make a great deal more noise than her junior status in the House would normally grant her. It has also brought her much support amongst those colleagues who recognise a rising star and would like to hitch their wagon to hers, or in some cases, hitch her wagon to theirs. Prominent in the former category is that perennial Presidential challenger, Senator (for Vermont) Bernie Sanders; AOC supported Bernie in his bid for the 2020 nomination. Presumably Bernie, now aged 80, has given up his presidential ambitions after two attempts at the Democrat nomination - pretty good for a man who is not even a member of the Democrat Party, but an independent. He is still a powerful man on Capitol Hill – more powerful than the President say many commentators. An alliance between the old war horse and the young New York Representative would be a suitable continuation of his legacy – suitable at least to the Left of the Democrat Party.
Bernie is not the only supporter of AOC (this AOC business is very irritating; she called herself Sandy Ocasio before stepping onto the public stage). She has been praised by Elizabeth Warren. But generally in the male-dominated, elderly and very hierarchical House of Representatives Ms Ocasio is thought a bit pushy.
In the White House she is felt to be more than pushy; she is felt to be very annoying. She has always been clear that she thought Joe Biden was the worst choice for the presidential nomination, and his success in toppling President Trump did not seem to endear him to her. (Mr Trump stumbled early by telling Ms Ocasio to “go home” – she got the better of that by pointing out that home was New York, just as it is, or was, for The Donald.)
But she now is one of the leaders of the opposition to Mr Biden’s attempts to get his various spending and tax bills through Congress. Needless to say, she is not part of the Richard Neal and Joe Manchin axis of moderate Democrats opposing the President’s plans for 28% federal income tax rates (and 40% on capital gains). Ms Ocasio is leader, in at least the amount of noise being generated, of those who think tax rises of this magnitude are not enough and should be only a beginning. Here she may be starting to part company with Mr Sanders. Bernie is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and a great negotiator and bringer together of successful caucuses. He has publicly said that he thinks the spending plan which Mr Biden is pushing, for post-Covid recovery and to rebuild the USA’s very worn public infrastructure, is too ambitious. Not that Bernie is against a much greater role for the State, he just thinks things have to go more slowly, mainly because American voters will not accept such swingeing tax rises just now.
Ms AOC has here taken the first major misstep of her career. In pursuit of a policy which will levy more tax on the rich (she suggested 70% on incomes of over US$10million a year) she appeared at that notable NY social event, the Met Gala, wearing a dress emblazoned with “Tax the Rich”. Tasteless, perhaps, but a good place to get the message to the right audience – Met Gala tickets are US$35,000 a throw. However, the media were rather scathing about AOC’s presence there at all. The accusation that, as a New York public official, she got the ticket gratis did not help much either.
The old joke that there is always one more economic theory than any given number of economists in a room does seem to describe the Democrat Party at the moment. Not only does the President have opposition from the Democrat Socialist members, and from the low-spend, low-tax Democrats at the other end of the room, but he has trouble from all sorts of opinion in-between. Josh Gottheimer, a moderate (we will leave it at that, but he is not to left or right, nor to Biden or to Pelosi), condemned Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker and leader of the Democrats in the House, for delaying a vote on the spending bill, or at least on part of it, the part that deals with infrastructure; and he condemned Mr Biden for going along with it. What else the President could do is not clear; he very unusually went to a private meeting in the House in the hope of patting a few backs and twisting a few arms (not at the same time we presume). But no sooner was Joe back in the White House saying that the deal to pass the deal was done than intra-Democrat war broke out again.
The reason for all this fractiousness is not hard to find, of course. The mid-terms are only a year off, they were always going to be difficult for the Democrats just given which seats are being fought (a number Democrat-held but really Republican marginals). The President’s slow but sure decline in the polls is taking his party down with him. Many members of Congress are trying to work out what would position them best to scrape a return. In the 14th District of New York that might work by a promise to slam the rich; but in many seats the definition of rich is key. Taxing billionaires will not do much good, and may well drive them out of the country. Taxing the middle class not-so-rich might raise the money but is very likely to lose the vote. Many Americans do want something done about roads, bridges and airports (most, unlike Joe, don’t care about loss-making train operator Amtrak) so they will accept some spending and limited tax rises to pay for that; say, a trillion dollars both sides of the balance sheet. Not $2.5trillion as per Joe, or $3.5trillion as per AOC.
The Republicans know this and, rather surprisingly perhaps, are broadly supportive of the bill. But not so supportive they will not take advantage of poor old Joe if they can do more damage to him and his confused and fractious party. To them AOC is a gift that just keeps on giving, and they wish her a long and noisy career. Poor JB; but does anybody feel sorry enough for him to re-elect him in 2024?