In defense of Joe Biden’s switcheroo

H. L. Mencken, the famed crusty commentator, said one century ago: “A politician is an animal which can sit on a fence and yet keep both ears on the ground.”

I thought of that quip the other day when former Vice President Joe Biden magically declared that he supports federal Medicaid funding for poor women seeking abortions. Biden had staunchly opposed such funding for decades — and had restated his opposition as recently as June 5. But then the next day, he suddenly announced his support because — in his words — “circumstances had changed.”

You bet they had.

Biden is a front-running candidate for president, and even though polls show him beating Donald Trump by margins that exceed those of his Democratic rivals, he still needs to hose down liberals who think he’s too much of an old-school moderate. Most urgently, he needed to get himself in sync with a party base that supports abortion access for all women regardless of income — especially now with Roe v. Wade under attack as never before. So, in response, Biden made the decision to speedily flip-flop on federal Medicaid funding. All Democratic presidential nominees since 1992 have supported that funding.

In recent days, liberal activists and pundits long hostile to Biden have been quick to pounce on the guy, painting his policy reversal as a sign of weakness. But all politicians — indeed, often the most successful ones — are wont to be flexible from time to time, recalibrating their views for reasons of political expediency or exigent circumstances.

Some of our biggest flip-floppers are lionized on monuments. Thomas Jefferson hated public debt so much that he called for a constitutional provision that would strip the government of its power to borrow money. Then as president, he reversed himself. He bought the Louisiana Territory from France with borrowed money and justified it by saying, “Is it not better that the opposite land of the Mississippi should be settled by our own brethren and children than by strangers of another family?”

Abraham Lincoln campaigned for president and marked his 1861 inaugural by promising that the feds would not force existing slave states to free their chattel. He initially defended “the right of each state to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively.”

We know what happened to that promise.

One of the most notorious flip-floppers was Franklin D. Roosevelt, known back in the day as a chameleon of no particular fixed convictions. He stumped for the White House in 1932 by promising fiscal conservatism and a balanced budget; after he won, he launched the New Deal. He often shifted leftward only when liberal activists (including the First Lady) pressured him to do so. Frances Perkins, one of his Cabinet members, said that FDR was guided by “his feeling that nothing in human judgment is final. One may courageously take the step that seems right today because it can be modified tomorrow.”

More recently, Barack Obama reversed himself on same-sex marriage. He had opposed it as a senatorial and presidential candidate, but as president, he endorsed it and explained his change of mind: “Attitudes evolve, including mine.”

In fact, Obama — the only Democrat since FDR to be elected twice with a majority of the vote — had a string of reversals. He vowed as a candidate to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, but as president, he kept it open. He vowed as a candidate that he would not appoint lobbyists to help run his administration, but then he did. He campaigned against extending the Bush tax cuts that favored the rich, but then signed legislation extending the cuts. He said early in his tenure that secret campaign donations were “a threat to democracy,” but his 2012 re-election bid was buoyed by Democratic groups that took secret donations.

But John Kenneth Galbraith, the renowned economist who served four presidents, once said the best chief executives typically made “pragmatic accommodations to whatever needed to be done.” Joe Biden’s Democratic critics are predictably condemning his reversal on federal abortion funding in a bid to lower his poll standing (much to the Trump team’s delight, because they’d love to run against someone else), framing his pragmatism as rank opportunism, but one can easily view this episode as evidence that he’s willing to be flexible, that he’s responsive to the views of his constituents.

And isn’t that what we want from a politician?

Dick Polman is the national political columnist at WHYY in Philadelphia and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania. Email him at

More in Opinion

Greta Thunberg, outside the Swedish parliament. Wikimedia Commons.
Walk in the shoes of tomorrow’s leaders

Last year I participated in a community stakeholder group to provide input… Continue reading

Rotary Scholarship deadlines approaching

Rotary Club announces Vocational Technical Scholarship The Kingston North Kitsap Rotary Club… Continue reading

Fresh produce makes the difference

Community support helped us through another strong year providing to the neediest… Continue reading

County commissioner teamwork and community partnerships key to progress

Commissioner Chair Ed Wolfe ending his term in office

Public opinion is nearly unchanged on Trump’s impeachment

Only independents show signs of movement

December Rotary news

Kingston Prepares Start with a party. That was the counterintuitive message hundreds… Continue reading

There would be no woods, only rubble, if the two-inch long yellow-spotted millipedes didn’t consume vast amounts of fallen leaves. Photo courtesy Catherine Whalen.
Much to do in Hansville this December

It’s a good time to take a brisk walk in the woods.… Continue reading

It’s a country christmas in Port Gamble

Drum roll please … Port Gamble Country Christmas is here We are… Continue reading

What’s the deal with carbon?

Sometimes we hear people say things like “carbon is a big problem”… Continue reading

December developments on Poulsbo’s waterfront

Wow… does time truly fly! This is Scuttlebutt number 60, and the… Continue reading

Holiday traditions from Kiwanis

By Pat Bennett-Forman Kingston Kiwanis invites the community to share in two… Continue reading

Holiday Enjoyment and Self Care

How to enjoy the holiday season while avoiding its excesses Bremerton –… Continue reading