early and often

Democrats Have a Biden Problem

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Donald Trump is so hungry for a comeback that he’s reportedly willing to kick off a presidential campaign before the midterm elections, violating decades of political orthodoxy and potentially costing himself campaign cash. The damning revelations of the January 6 hearings are no deterrent — he wants another shot at Joe Biden, and he’s probably going to get it.

Trump’s impending return should be great news for Biden, who is deeply unpopular and craves the most noxious foil any Democrat has ever known. Biden needs a Trump campaign to recreate his own winning coalition. No one else is going to do it for him. At the same time, Biden is damaged enough to give Trump another chance at victory, with one recent poll showing him trailing Trump by five points.

The story of the Biden years is one of both genuine accomplishment and profound exasperation — a malaise that was, in retrospect, entirely predictable. When Biden ran for president a third time, he vowed that “nothing would fundamentally change” and promised to govern with the sort of sangfroid that would be sorely needed after four years of chaos. He made a political bet that was essentially correct: Democrats, largely, didn’t long for the deep structural change Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were promising and couldn’t trust an unproven commodity like Pete Buttigieg in an existential showdown against Trump. Biden pitched himself as the most electable Democrat, the trusted sidekick to Barack Obama, and a man who could restore order and make American politics work again. He was a vessel for the rage of millions. Even party elites didn’t seem to think too hard about how he’d govern.

Great hopes were invested in Biden as the 2020 election drew near, because many believed that the anti-Trump wave would crest high enough to elect large congressional majorities for Democrats. For a moment, Biden appeared in position to benefit from a surge of support akin to 2008, when his ticket with Obama rode into office with almost 60 Democratic senators. Instead, Democrats were massacred down the ballot and the first promise of the Biden years was broken: Historic turnout didn’t do much beyond electing Biden himself. It took two long-shot bids in Georgia by Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in January 2021 to give Democrats their 50-50 Senate majority. The House Democrats, meanwhile, had seen their advantage narrow.

Before enumerating Biden’s failures, it’s worth reflecting on his achievements. With a virtually deadlocked Senate and recalcitrant Democrats such as Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema attempting to thwart progressive priorities, Biden worked with Chuck Schumer to pass another COVID rescue package that delivered much-needed funding for state governments (and $1,400 stimulus checks) and later delivered a major infrastructure bill that garnered support from moderate Republicans. Although the Afghanistan withdrawal was chaotic, Biden was the president who finally ended the war there, a goal neither Obama nor Trump could meet. If Biden loses his reelection, he can say credibly that he accomplished more than most — if not all — one-term presidents.

But the failures are glaring for a president who is now as unpopular as Trump used to be. Some of them are in style and messaging rather than in substance. Biden seems incapable of meeting the moment and articulating a vision that can inspire voters. He has pitched few compelling or workable solutions for the inflation crisis or other logistical failures — like the baby-formula shortage. He allowed, along with Democrats in Congress, a potentially transformational child tax credit to expire after just one year. His reaction to the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade was strikingly detached and listless, with aides oddly unprepared for the generation-defining court decision. There was no subsequent plan of action, no federal strategy or detailed calls for local governments to mobilize for abortion rights. He belatedly called for the end of the filibuster to codify Roe. By then, few were even listening.

One obvious problem for Biden is his age. He’s a poor candidate for 2024, because he’ll be turning 82 shortly after Election Day. Unlike other septuagenarians and octogenarians in American politics — Sanders and Warren in particular — Biden lacks the apparent vigor or drive to make an affirmative argument for what the Democratic Party should do for the U.S. Younger politicians are trying to fill the void. California governor Gavin Newsom is running television ads in Florida to taunt Ron DeSantis and urge Floridians to reject toxic culture-war policies. Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker wants to be a leader on gun control. Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer has risen to prominence for her staunch defense of abortion rights in the wake of Roe’s death. And in Georgia, Warnock, both a senator and charismatic pastor, may be a serious presidential contender if he can survive Herschel Walker’s challenge in November.

Most of these Democrats, arguably, would be better positioned to top a 2024 ticket than Biden if he chooses not to run again. None carry his political baggage or lingering questions about their age. Trump’s return to power could be paved by a second Biden campaign. If Biden’s political team is honest with itself, stepping aside may be the best bet to head off a second Trump term. Kamala Harris would be the favorite as the sitting vice-president, but she would not be a lock in such an open field given her low approval ratings. The competition, at least, would toughen whichever candidate emerges in such a scenario — whether Harris or someone else.

The next open Democratic primary for president can’t be an attempted coronation (like Hillary Clinton’s slog in 2016) or even a race to find a candidate who can simply beat one kind of Republican (as Biden’s 2020 campaign became). What’s damning for Biden is how little he seems to be promising as another presidential bid draws near. If he wants to run again, what exactly does he want to do, especially since Republicans are poised to take control of at least one chamber of Congress after the midterms? Most of Obama’s signature accomplishments came in the first two years of his presidency — before the House fell to Republicans. The lack of urgency from the Biden administration is stunning; it can be argued that there are less than five months left to force any sort of significant policy through Congress. It is easy, even worthy, to vilify Manchin, but the grim reality is that any new reconciliation package must meet his demands. Going into a tough election, it would be helpful for Democrats to have another tangible accomplishment to tout. The Biden administration alienated Manchin after its doomed voting-rights push, a failure of the inside game that a 50-year veteran of Washington was supposed to have mastered by now.

Trump’s resurgence would momentarily focus Biden, because there is no easier target in politics. Once more, Biden’s argument to the U.S. can be simple: Don’t elect that arsonist of democracy. Though Trump is alienating enough to drag moderate and swing voters into Biden’s camp, it may not prohibit Trump from returning to the White House. After all, Trump won the Electoral College once before, and he can do it again with a change of tens of thousands of votes in key swing states. In 2020, Biden successfully argued that he was the only Democrat who could unseat Trump, but in 2024, he could be the one to put him back in power.

Democrats Have a Joe Biden Problem