This is a week that tries the souls of Democrats. Just like, in all probability, every week from now until the 2024 election.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll released on Sunday found that President Biden’s approval rating has dwindled to a new low at 36 percent. Even more alarming, 68 percent of those polled said they believe that Biden (who will be 82 on Inauguration Day in 2025) is too old to serve another term in the White House. Biden also loses premature head-to-head matchups with both Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis. That alone is enough to cue the shark-in-the-water music from Jaws.
That poll can be dismissed as an outlier, especially since it surveyed all adults instead of registered voters. Other recent horse-race polls have Biden tied with Trump or slightly ahead. But it’s undeniable that even among Democrats, a Biden reelection campaign arouses all the enthusiasm of a vacation weekend at a Motel 6. A recent Economist/YouGov poll found that only 49 percent of Biden 2020 voters want him to seek a second term. Clearly, there is a hunger among many Democrats for a plausible alternative to Biden.
But Democrats, hear me out: The outlook for your president and party is not nearly as bleak as it seems. You just have to take a breath, take a step back, and look at the big picture.
What you should not do is fall for fantasy scenarios like the one concocted by Peter Beinart in a New York Times op-ed headlined, “Imagine if Another Bernie Sanders Challenges Joe Biden.” Beinart, a former editor of The New Republic who now teaches at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York, wants this mythical primary candidate to force Biden to the left on foreign policy by challenging the president’s hawkish stance on both China and military spending. Harking back to Eugene McCarthy bringing down Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 New Hampshire primary, Beinart writes, “Long before Bernie Sanders ran for president, progressives had a long history of using primary challenges to convey their frustration with Democratic Party elites.”
There are two major flaws with this argument. Running protest candidates to act out policy frustrations is a luxury that the Democrats can ill afford at a time when the Republican Party has abandoned conservatism for trumped-up authoritarianism. A nomination fight against an incumbent president is an invitation to general election defeat, as Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush found out. (Biden’s most serious rival for the nomination is Robert Kennedy Jr., the anti-vaxxer winning plaudits from Tucker Carlson and Steve Bannon. If Ted Kennedy’s 1980 challenge to Carter was a tragedy, his nephew’s race against Biden is a farce.)
Also, while Beinart obviously cares deeply about foreign policy, most voters do not. In the Economist poll, Americans were asked which of 15 separate issues they considered “the most important for you.” Foreign policy came in dead last as the top concern for 1 percent of Americans, most of whom I assume are dues-paying members of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Even if all sensible Democrats reject Beinart’s siren song to challenge Biden, pundits will keep the dream alive every time the polls and the portents look ominous for the president. Political junkies love primary fights, and it is hard to accept that reality only offers the thin gruel of RFK Jr. and the ethereal Marianne Williamson. And in reality, Biden, despite his infrastructure bill, faces a road filled with potholes on the way to the 2024 Democratic convention.
Unemployment is at a modern record low of 3.4 percent, and inflation is moderating, but only 43 percent of Americans in the Economist poll approve of the way that Biden is handling “jobs and the economy.” Yet there is no guarantee that prosperity will hold until November 2024. It is easy to envision an economic downturn triggered by the recent run of bank failures, Republican incendiaries driving the nation into default over the debt ceiling, or the cumulative toll of the Federal Reserve raising interest rates.
Immigration remains a can’t-win issue for the Democrats. Every president (with the possible exception of Trump) is blamed for failing to solve insolvable issues. And the crisis at the Mexican border defies workable and humane solutions. No matter how far Biden tacks to the right (and suddenly the buzzword of this administration is “enforcement”), Trump and the Fox News megaphone will demonize the issue and rail against “open borders.” Short of actually building Trump’s phantom wall, there is no plausible way for Biden to avoid being permanently on the defensive on immigration.
We have arrived at the structural point in this article where the reader might expect me to unveil a surefire formula for Biden’s reelection strategy. Instead, I feel compelled to offer a tough-love rundown on the realities of the situation.
Biden will never be a compelling candidate. That was not his persona when he limped through the 2020 Iowa caucuses (fourth-place finish) and the New Hampshire primary (fifth place). As Biden insiders will privately concede, the pandemic helped Biden in the 2020 general election since it gave him an excuse to limit public campaigning. President Biden, to be honest, is boring. Last Friday, he gave his first TV interview since declaring his candidacy in April with a three-minute video. His White House conversation with MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle produced little news and less excitement.
That’s why suggestions that Biden galvanize his presidency with a dramatic Oval Office address, or even my own 2022 proposal for a Harry Truman–esque whistle-stop tour, misread reality. The combination of Biden’s workmanlike oratory and the unprecedented ability of Americans to change channels means that this president cannot command a national audience for anything less than a flying saucer landing on the White House lawn.
Television ads, no matter how slickly produced, will not create a “morning in America” mood for Biden. A saturation ad blitz this early in the political season would require funds well beyond the current resources of the Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee. And anything less than Michael Bloomberg–level spending will only be seen by hard-core viewers of CNN and MSNBC.
Try as he might, Biden cannot defuse the age issue with a clever quip or a poll-tested boast. In his MSNBC interview, Biden argued, “I have acquired a hell of a lot of wisdom and know more than the vast majority of people. And I’m more experienced than anybody that’s ever run for the office.” The problem is that voters are not only judging the Biden of today but also imagining an 86-year-old Biden in the White House in 2028.
But every election is a choice between two candidates, not a quest for a modern-day Pericles. And whether GOP voters choose Trump the Sexual Abuser or another candidate from the right-wing fever swamps, that nominee is going to come with more baggage than a 1930s movie star on a trans-Atlantic crossing.
Unless the GOP miraculously picks someone like Asa Hutchinson, the former Arkansas governor and ardent anti-Trumper, the Republican nominee will find it impossible to locate the political center even with a guide and a compass. From abortion to book banning, the Republicans are saddled with the politically unpalatable side of almost every emotionally potent issue except immigration. And if the nominee is Ron DeSantis, he may never live down the Peggy Noonan line that he “carries a vibe … that he might unplug your life support to re-charge his cellphone.”
If the Trump resurrection lasts until the Republican convention, negative partisanship will become a powerful force for the Democrats. Biden may be old and boring, but he has not been judged by a civil jury to be a sexual abuser. Biden may be old and boring, but he is not facing indictment in New York or maybe soon in Atlanta. He simply has to ask voters, in Reaganesque fashion, “Do you feel better about Trump today than you did four years ago?” The question, for almost all the voters who handed Biden the 2020 election, will answer itself as they contemplate an unhinged president motivated only by ego and revenge.