A Tale of Two Presidents

“This above all; to thine own self be true.”

– William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Scene 3

For one president, it could be challenging times. For one who thinks he’s president, it could be worsening times.

For President Joe Biden, it’s about fighting with members of Congress, including two stubborn ones in his own party and losing two big bills – voting rights and social policy/climate change. For pretend president Donald Trump, it’s fighting and mostly losing in the courts.

For Catholic Biden, it’s been a time for mea culpa (a Latin prayer said during confession meaning “it was my fault”). For his predecessor, there’s never a time to apologize for anything.

For one, there seems to be comfort in sharing his thoughts and being open to the truth, at least on his terms, as a way of building trust. For the other, there’s little but persistent lying, with trust the loser.

For one, there is hefty voter dissatisfaction, with polls showing his favorability rating in the low 40s percentile. For the other, about two-thirds of the voters in his Republican Party want him to run for president again.

For the people, the times are just about the worst, pandemic and inflation included.

President Harry S. Truman, who popularized the phrase “the buck stops here,” had a sign on his desk given to him by a prison warden saying so. Biden seems to have adopted it because of his willingness to accept responsibility for the presidency as much as loser Trump denied it for everything, always blaming others.

Biden’s acknowledgement of errors he said he made surfaced during his near-90-minute news conference last week to mark his first year in office.

He apologized for not being more proactive on virus testing, for not having traveled around the country more often to meet and greet, for not getting the word out on the significance of voting rights – Republicans rejected bills on the crucial issue for the fifth time – and for underestimating GOP opposition to his agenda.

“I did not anticipate that there’d be such a stalwart effort to make sure that the most important thing was that President Biden didn’t get anything done,” he lamented. The Republicans “weren’t nearly as obstructionist [during President Barack Obama’s two terms in office] as they are now.”

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, then the Republican, leader, greeted Obama in 2009 by saying he wanted the new president to serve only one term in office. Maybe Biden was thinking obstructionist McConnell would go easier on him because of the 36 years he spent in the Senate. Biden should have known better.

I found it interesting he opened to reporters the way he did, as unusual as that is among top leaders. But when he does that, and he’s made similar remarks about not doing what he thinks he should have done about something, he runs the risk of sounding weak and naïve.

Biden has had a tough year despite his victories in getting the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan – one of the biggest such bills in history – and his $1.2 trillion infrastructure/jobs plan through Congress. Problem: Such expenditures probably added to the 7 percent inflation we’re experiencing. But they also helped a swifter economic recovery.

I don’t believe the alternative was to do less. Obama tried that in 2009 with his $787 billion stimulus package to get us out of the Great Recession, but it proved not to be enough, slowing the economic recovery. Biden did the right thing and wanted to do more but was stopped first by his two Democratic nemeses, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who voted against his signature $1.7 trillion social planning/climate change bill. They even opposed getting voting rights back on track.

Yet Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., blamed the Republicans, not so much those two rogue Democrats, for destroying much of Biden’s ambitious agenda.

“It’s not only those two,” he told “Meet the Press” Sunday. “It is the 50 [Senate] Republicans who have been adamant about not only pushing an anti-democratic agenda but also opposing our efforts to try to lower the cost of prescription drugs, trying to expand Medicare  . . . to improve the disaster situation in home healthcare, in childcare, to address the essential threat of climate change.”

“You’ve got 50 Republicans who don’t want to do anything but criticize the president,” Sanders said.

Biden plans to try again with his Build Back Better plan by breaking it into smaller pieces. He should have done that in the first place after having already committed $3.1trillion in spending.

Trump, though out of office but trying mightily to get back in the game, definitely faces legal problems.

He lost another round in the Supreme Court last week when it rejected his request to withhold 800 pages of White House records dealing with the Jan. 6 insurrection, for which the House impeached him for instigating it. He argued executive privilege prevented those materials from being released to the House panel investigating the siege of the Capitol, saying it was a “witch hunt.”

The ruling opens the door to a witch’s brew of possible secret planning to overthrow the government, a plot that may have been spurred on by the sitting president of the United States.

Trump has other legal worries. One is a request for a special grand jury by the Atlanta-area District Attorney Fani Willis, a Democrat, to look into, in part, Trump’s phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger Jan. 22, 2021. He asked him to “find” 11,780 votes that would give him one vote more than Biden scored in the 2020 election. Raffensberger, a Republican, refused.

This grand jury, Willis said, will not indict but could recommend criminal prosecution.

And New York state Attorney General, Letitia James, also a Democrat, accused Trump’s family business of misleading tax and insurance authorities of the value of its properties in Scotland and in New York. Conviction could mean civil charges, meaning it could cost a lot in fines.

“We have uncovered significant evidence that suggests Donald J. Trump and the Trump Organization falsely and fraudulently valued multiple assets and misrepresented those values to financial institutions for economic benefits,” James told the Guardian after filing her 114-page request in a New York court.

“The House of Trump is crumbling,” Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney, told the newspaper.

Biden’s house could crumble, too, unless he gets more done and raises his polling numbers before November’s midterms. The Republicans can’t wait to take over.

Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East and was foreign editor of United Press International, served as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.