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Mike Johnson’s eye rolls are a reminder of what Biden is really running against this fall

Republican control of the House of Representatives is a sickness that ought to be excised from the body politic.

We can now count “keeping a poker face” among the skills Speaker of the House Mike Johnson is notably lacking, alongside “vote counting” and “swaying his own caucus.” It’s never easy for speakers from the opposition party to sit behind the president at a State of the Union address. They have to sit there knowing that the eyes of millions are upon them as a president says things that they disagree with — often strongly. But Johnson’s eye-rolling and head-shaking turned him into an instant meme across social media, his barely contained discontent providing some comic relief at an otherwise somber moment.

Johnson’s struggle to avoid rising to Biden’s bait highlights a key truth as he seeks to capitalize on a successful State of the Union. The president should keep Johnson — and the destructive caucus he leads — at the top of the list of foils he’s running against this fall. Republican control of the House of Representatives is a sickness that ought to be excised from the body politic. Johnson and the collection of clowns behind him should be put back in the minority, where they can shout all they want but won’t do so much to impede the country’s progress.?

Getting tougher on the denizens of Capitol Hill will not be easy for the president. It isn’t in his nature.

Biden has no shortage of tasks as he ramps up his re-election campaign: convince voters to credit him for a strong economy and other accomplishments, remind them of everything they hated about Donald Trump, and make sure they understand just how dangerous Trump’s proposals for a second term really are. But running against the House is urgent as well.

Getting tougher on the denizens of Capitol Hill will not be easy for the president. It isn’t in his nature. Biden sees himself as a dealmaker whose personal powers of persuasion can solve almost any problem. In fairness, he did win some Republican support for the 2021 infrastructure bill and the CHIPS and Science Act. But despite Biden’s efforts, those cases remain exceptions. Today, coming together is the last thing Republicans want, and when Biden says he hopes his good friends across the aisle will work with him, it encourages voters to see his opponents as reasonable people who just need a nudge in the right direction.

Look at what’s actually happened in the House, since Republicans took over after the 2022 midterm elections. This has been the least productive Congress in decades, with almost nothing that might actually improve Americans’ lives or solve complicated problems. Instead, we’re stuck in a loop of endless threatened government shutdowns because Johnson is held hostage by the extremists in his party, the ones who came to Washington pledging to sow chaos and are doing an excellent job of keeping those promises. When they’re not grinding government to a halt, Republicans are wasting months on farcical impeachment efforts aimed at Biden and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas. And after recent primaries in which yet more hard-right kooks won the party’s nomination in safe Republican districts, it looks like Johnson’s caucus will be even more reactionary next year.

When Republicans killed a bipartisan compromise to reform immigration policy, it should have been the final straw. That immigration bill would have given Republicans most of what they wanted when it came to beefed-up border security. Democrats got very little in return — in particular, no path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants — yet Biden endorsed the bill and most Democrats were ready to support it. Nevertheless, Republicans sabotaged the deal at Trump’s behest.

One poll soon after found that when asked about the failure of the bill, respondents blamed about equally Biden (49%), congressional Democrats (51%), and congressional Republicans (53%). Just 39% faulted Trump. A new Wall Street Journal poll found 59% of voters saying they would support the immigration bill, and 74% backed a path to citizenship.

There are many other issues on which Democrats should enjoy a significant advantage, if only the public understood the parties’ differences.

In his address Thursday, Biden pointed to the bill and asked “my predecessor” to “join me in telling Congress to pass it,” but that was hardly a stinging attack. Everyone knows the bill is dead, so the time for friendly invitations is past; the better approach is to say, loudly and repeatedly, that Trump and House Republicans want more border chaos, because they think they can exploit it with gullible voters.

There are many other issues on which Democrats should enjoy a significant advantage, if only the public understood the parties’ differences. Republicans have a budget plan that makes significant cuts to Medicaid, education and infrastructure, while also cutting IRS enforcement so wealthy tax cheats can avoid paying what they owe. Despite their occasional unconvincing denials, there is almost no doubt that if they have the power they will seek a national abortion ban.?

That’s just some of the ammunition Biden could use to make the case against Republicans in Congress. And while he did say in his address, “If Americans send me a Congress that supports the right to choose, I promise you, I will restore Roe v. Wade as the law of the land again,” he needs to go much farther than politely asking voters to “send me a Congress” that will do the right thing.?He has to describe not just the happy future in which his party achieves its goals, but the dark future to come if the Mike Johnsons of the world achieve theirs — and hammer it home until voters get the picture.

As much as people complain about partisanship, the unfortunate fact is that much of the public’s understanding of politics is insufficiently partisan. They blame things on “Washington” or “Congress,” lamenting that the parties are unwilling to “get things done,” when in many cases there is one party ready and eager to get things done, and another party determined to stop anything from getting done.?

We’ve heard Biden say that he’s ready to work with his opponents enough times. Now he should speak a more direct truth, loudly and often: The Republican House has to go. And if that makes Mike Johnson roll his eyes, so be it.

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