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Joe Biden and the Magic of Perception
Democratic elites, pundits, and reporters diverge from the public
In my left-leaning media and writerly circles, I hold an increasingly heterodox, even alienating, view—I am not sure Joe Biden should run for president again. This stance has little to do with the Biden presidency itself, which has racked up some remarkable successes despite the slimmest of Senate majorities. The Covid bailout of 2021, if too unfocused, offered crucial aid to Democrat and Republican-run states alike, preventing brutal cuts to public schools, hospitals, and transportation systems. Unlike Donald Trump, Biden oversaw significant bipartisan infrastructure investments that will pay tangible dividends in the coming years. With the Democratic Congress, Biden lowered the cost of prescription drugs, helped spur semiconductor chip manufacturing in the U.S., and created a tax credit program to incentivize the transition to cleaner and more efficient energy use. He has attempted, at least partially, to cancel student debt. Biden may lack the signature program that wholly defined his first term—there is no Affordable Care Act equivalent—but, added up and accounting for his far weaker majorities, his policy victories may be more impressive than anything Barack Obama ever did.
The midterms only validated the Biden defender’s view. Despite Biden’s consistently low approval ratings, Democrats grew their Senate majority, held Republicans to slim gains in the House that only resulted in a tenuous GOP takeover, and made inroads in state legislatures. There was no national red wave. A lot of this, in the end, had to do with the fall of Roe v. Wade at the start of summer, but Biden still became the first president in decades to not preside over a midterm bloodbath for his party. Trump and Obama weren’t so lucky. And last night’s State of the Union address seemed to further cement the dominant view, among liberal journalists, pundits, and Democratic politicos, that Biden is ascendant. His popularist tilt—focusing on broadly-appealing economic issues like cracking down on “junk fees” in travel and entertainment, as well as hiking taxes on the wealthy—held particular appeal. Biden, one reporter noted approvingly, was “going sicko mode.” Harold Meyerson at the American Prospect said Biden had “exhibited such a surprising display of vigor, such a capacity for empathy, such a knack for storytelling, and such a mastery of political improvisation that it’s easy to overlook the fact that the speech itself was almost a refoundation of American liberalism.” Biden’s speech had put Democrats on “sounder economic and political ground than they’ve been since the New Deal.”
Perhaps because I’ve been reading much about the 1960s of late, the response to Biden on Tuesday night had some unsettling echoes of the elite reaction to Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 throttling of Barry Goldwater. Johnson had won so thoroughly on a platform of domestic social expansion that liberalism itself—the muscular New Deal kind, soon to wither—was regarded as the new default, what the nation would be forevermore. No one predicted in 1964 that Johnson, after carrying 44 states, would not even run in 1968. My point is not that Biden is wrong on the merits or about to watch the war in Ukraine spiral into a Vietnam-style quagmire—too few Americans care for the war to ever undercut him—but that the certainty so many journalists and politicos feel for Biden’s future is notable.
It’s notable because it diverges so much from the public view. A recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that just 37 percent of Democrats want Biden to seek another term. These polls have, for the most part, been consistent, like Biden’s low approval rating. The approval rating (always around the high 30s or low 40s) itself may mean less, considering Trump had similarly abysmal numbers and managed to run competitively in 2020. Given the reality of political polarization, any major party nominee is guaranteed somewhere around 46 percent of the electorate, with the remaining bits struggled over. Since no Democrat of note wants to challenge Biden, he will be the nominee for 2024, barring a health setback. That, as of now, is inarguable. If he wants the nomination, it’s his. This is not 1968, with Robert F. Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy hungrily waiting to take Johnson on directly. Biden’s stature within the party, despite his advanced age and unpopularity—and less impressive accomplishments, when matched up against the sweep of the Great Society and civil rights legislation—is currently much more secure than Johnson’s ever was by the mid-1960s.
Still, a question persistently nags: why do only 37 percent of surveyed Democrats want Biden to run again while 98 or 99 percent of Democratic politicians and pundits want it so badly? Some of it, perhaps, is because the insiders understand the primary process a little more, and that Biden not running means his vice president, Kamala Harris, is the putative front-runner. Harris has been mostly adrift in the VP role, a figure who is even less popular than Biden. She ran a disastrous campaign for president in 2019 and is no one idea’s of an ideal standard bearer in a national election. Any suggestion of Biden not running inevitably turns to Harris—you want her instead? Well, not particularly. Still, I don’t think Harris’ status answers it entirely. The insiders don’t just doubt her. They believe in Biden. They’ve followed the policy trajectory of the presidency. They know what he’s done. They venerate him for defeating Trump and in, some sense, saving American democracy. If he did it once, why can’t he do it twice? There’s a moderate-progressive convergence here. The centrist or center-left pundits prefer Biden because he is so resistant to avert leftism; he stood in the way of Bernie Sanders, after all. Progressives have warmed to Biden because he’s defied their expectations and been more likely to give their policy ideas a hearing. There are no Rahm Emanuels or Tim Geithners running rampant in the Biden White House. Anti-monopolists are particularly enthralled.
And yet! The theory isn’t much of a theory—it amounts to what the average person perceives and what someone immersed in Democratic politics might push aside. Biden is old. Biden will turn 82 in 2024. Biden said, twice, his son died in Iraq, when his son actually died of cancer many years later. Biden thought a dead Republican congresswoman was alive. Biden tried to shake a hand that wasn’t there. Defenses of this behavior inevitably fall flat with people who do not spend their days and nights watching CNN and reading Politico. They see a man who means well but, perhaps, should not have the most powerful and stressful job in America any longer. Most Americans, at age 80, are retired. My 83-year-old father, sympathetic to Biden’s presidency, thinks it’s ludicrous he wants to run again. “Old white Joe,” he calls him with a smile. And now Biden has left classified documents in all sorts of places. We’ll see where that leads.
It is simply not normal for such a large segment of voters in a party to not want to see their incumbent president run again. Democrats always wanted Obama to seek a second term. Republicans wanted the same for Trump. Politicians, as much as they represent voters, do not always behave like them; they follow their own internal logic. They defer to power. The Democrats have a very large bench of younger, viable contenders for a presidential election next year. Gretchen Whitmer, Raphael Warnock, Jared Polis, and Josh Shapiro, the new Pennsylvania governor, are just some of the politicians who could mount credible campaigns. Add John Fetterman to the list if he makes a full recovery from his stroke. An open, chaotic primary terrifies party elites but would likely produce the strongest nominee. Let Harris compete against the field and see what happens.
If I suggested this to a person completely divorced from politics—a man or woman who votes in a presidential year but otherwise doesn’t show up—they would probably nod along. Of course, why not have an open race and let the best candidate win? This suggestion, to the well-wired Democrat, is the mark of derangement. What is not, apparently, is pushing forward a man in his 80s who has exhibited the evident signs of age. Biden’s 80, for example, is not Nancy Pelosi’s 82. Pelosi has never made, publicly, glaring factual mistakes. She has not caused anyone to cluck about senility. If Biden draws Trump again, it may not matter, since the former president will turn 77 this year. But what of Ron DeSantis, still 44, or someone else? At that point, Democrats will have to acknowledge the reality in front of them.