vision 2024

Joe Biden’s Actually Not-at-All-Bad Year

Now he just has to prove he’s still electable.

Biden at his 2022 State of the Union Address, before his political fall and rise. Photo: Saul Loeb/Pool via REUTERS
Biden at his 2022 State of the Union Address, before his political fall and rise. Photo: Saul Loeb/Pool via REUTERS

For an awful lot of Americans, especially those lucky enough to escape homelessness, drug addiction, dangerous illnesses, gun violence, or incarceration, but not lucky enough to be rich and bulletproof, 2022 was like a long slog down a rocky road to an uncertain destination. A lot of working people lost a lot of purchasing power to inflation, and a lot of slightly wealthier people lost of a lot of retirement assets to an unhappy stock market. Many got used to regular mass shootings and confusion over public-health measures. Polls showed confidence in the direction of the country to be so chronically low that nobody even noticed.

For the president who headed up this dissatisfied republic, his 2022 went a whole lot better than its early trajectory suggested. Joe Biden’s job-approval ratings as president dropped steadily the first half of the year, then rallied, then mostly bumped along at a mildly depressed level. Fairly or not, he and his party got blamed for much of the economic doldrums and panics the country faced. But one very bad thing that happened on his watch, the abolition of a federal constitutional right to choose abortion, got blamed on his political enemies and lifted his party’s midterm prospects immeasurably. At about the same time a state of gridlock in the Democratic-controlled Congress that had stymied Biden’s plans for economic, climate change, and energy legislation and was a great symbol of administration fecklessness suddenly ended and produced a whimsically named bill (the Inflation Reduction Act) that was greeted with perhaps greater rapture than its provisions warranted. Another great symbol of a supposedly failed Biden presidency, high gasoline prices, also subsided as the summer ended.

Ultimately 2022 delivered a great and surprising political gift to Biden: a non-catastrophic midterm election in which his party retained control of the Senate (and hence the essential power to approve presidential appointees) and lost the House by such a small margin that it is sure to become a major headache for its new Republican proprietors. Since midterms are invariably treated as referenda on the sitting president and his party, the results were something of a vindication for Biden despite his meh measures of popularity. He did not, after all, drag his party down to the ignominious defeat so many people in both parties expected for much of the year. And thus there was no post-election hand-wringing among Democrats about finding a way to talk the president into folding his tent after one term. Indeed, his 80th birthday, which could have well been a national commemoration of presidential decrepitude, came and went on November 20 without much public notice at all. That was quite the birthday gift!

Still, the loss of the Democratic trifecta in Washington effectively means Biden probably won’t have any significant legislative accomplishments in the last half of his first term as president. And so his reputation going into 2024 could well depend on factors largely beyond his control. Maybe the economy is headed to a “soft landing” where inflation is conquered without a recession, but nobody really knows that right now. Maybe relations with a chastened Russia and a bristling China will get better rather than worse. We don’t know that either.

One thing we do know is that Biden is presently in something of a catbird seat when it comes to the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination, assuming (as we should right now) he intends to pursue it. As the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake reports, polls are showing a modest but very real improvement of sentiment for a second Biden term among rank-and-file Democrats. In the absence of an actual challenger emerging, Biden could well wind up being like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — Democratic presidents who inspired a lot of activist grumbling that never rose to the level of a revolt — rather than Jimmy Carter, who defeated a challenger but entered the general election grievously wounded. Biden also has a bit of an insurance policy: a vice-president who isn’t very popular among party elites or voters (at this point) either, but who could not be passed over as a Biden successor without a huge intraparty rupture over lingering racism and sexism (as my colleague Gabriel Debenedetti put it, Kamala Harris is “a successor-in-waiting who is just as disliked as the standard-bearer but is also exactly as irreplaceable”).

At the moment there’s just one really dark cloud on the horizon where a Biden renomination is expected to appear, barring some blow to the president’s health or some unforeseen calamity that makes him a 21st-century Herbert Hoover: his odd, symbiotic relationship with Donald J. Trump. If he announces his retirement tomorrow, Joe Biden will go down in history as the man who rescued America from the horrors of a second Trump term. And he’s thus the obvious choice to keep Trump from making a comeback in November of 2024. Or at least he was until Trump’s recent patch of bad publicity and feckless political maneuvering, leading to a botched 2024 campaign launch and a general sense that GOP elites and now even a sizable number of rank-and-file Republicans are tired of his act and in the search for someone who can combine his savage MAGA-base appeal with a lot more stability. Someone like, say, Ron DeSantis.

A lot of the early 2024 polling that shows Biden competitive with Trump (he leads him by 0.1 percent in the RealClearPolitics averages) also shows Biden leading DeSantis. But that could change if the Floridian begins actively campaigning. Unlike Trump, he (and potentially other Republicans who could jump into a 2024 race if Trump folds his tent or is vanquished in an early contest) is not the ultimate known quantity (as is Biden himself).

In other words, if all hell breaks loose on the Republican side of the 2024 election, nervous Democrats may need Biden to reestablish the very quality that improbably won the 2020 nomination for him after a very poor start: electability. If that’s in doubt by the time the 2024 field firms up, then challengers to Biden could be tempted to enter the race — especially if the incumbent remains coy at all about his own intentions. His sudden decision to intervene in the Democratic National Committee’s deliberations on the 2024 primary calendar may have simply represented a token of gratitude from Biden to the voters of South Carolina, who very much saved his bacon in 2020. Or it could mean Uncle Joe is deadly serious about heading off an intraparty challenge and wants potential rivals to know he’s not messing around. If South Carolina does go first in 2024, you won’t get too see one of those long-simmering grassroots-based insurgencies build strength like Bernie Sanders’s did in Iowa in 2016 and 2020. As he ends this surprisingly positive year, Joe Biden cannot overemphasize the impression that he’s in charge of his party and his country, and represents the still point in a turning world.

Joe Biden’s Actually Not-at-All-Bad Year