Opinion Biden might be the Democrats’ worst possible nominee (except for all the others)


HR King
May 29, 2001
President Biden’s popularity tumbled a year ago, during the bungled pullout from Afghanistan and a resurgence of covid-19, and it has never recovered. His approval in Gallup polling stands at a rock-bottom 38 percent — lower even than Donald Trump at this stage of his failed presidency. A recent CNN poll found that 75 percent of Democrats would prefer a different standard-bearer in 2024.

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Yet even as the perception has taken root that Biden is too old and too out of it, he has quietly been racking up an impressive list of legislative achievements. Biden might turn out to be a more formidable candidate in 2024, should he run again, than he looks to be right now.
Democrats, despite their razor-thin margin in the Senate, have managed to pass a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package, a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, a $280 billion bill to fund semiconductor production and scientific research, and the most significant (if still inadequate) gun legislation in three decades. Now, after an unexpected deal with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), they might be on the cusp of passing a $369 billion bill that would reduce the deficit, lower prescription drug prices, raise corporate taxes and roll back greenhouse gas emissions. Oh, and there is a good chance the Senate can pass bills protecting same-sex marriage and making it harder to overturn election results. Biden’s devotion to bipartisanship has been widely mocked, but it is being vindicated.

In foreign policy, Biden stumbled badly in Afghanistan, but he has been stalwart in mobilizing an international coalition to support Ukraine and sanction Russia. I wish he were sending more powerful weaponry to Ukraine, but his diplomatic achievements recall the skill with which President George H.W. Bush mobilized allies after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The death of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a U.S. drone strike in Kabul is Biden’s latest national security achievement.
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This is hardly the record of a senile septuagenarian. The major reason Biden is so unpopular is because inflation is at a 40-year high. In response, the Federal Reserve has been compelled to raise interest rates, leading the economy to the brink of a recession even though the unemployment rate remains just 3.6 percent.
But while Biden might have contributed to the inflationary spiral with an overly generous stimulus bill, he doesn’t deserve most of the blame for what is a global phenomenon. The inflation rate in the euro zone, at 8.9 percent, is nearly identical to the 9.1 percent rate in the United States. When inflation inevitably comes down, Biden should reap some political benefit.

Where Biden has really failed is not in policy but in communication. The problem is not that he is 79 years old. The problem is that he spent 36 of those years in the Senate. Longtime senators tend to be far better at dealing with fellow senators than they are at reaching out to average voters who don’t know or care what a reconciliation package is. Voters are barely aware of all the Democrats’ legislative achievements. Biden has made less effective use of the bully pulpit than any president since George H.W. Bush, another longtime Washington insider, and we know what happened to him in 1992.
Yet for all Biden’s manifest weaknesses — chief among them that he would be 82 years old at the start of a second term — it is far from clear that the Democrats have any better alternative. Biden won the nomination in 2020 not because he excited anyone but because he was seen as the least bad option. That might still be true.
If Biden doesn’t run, Vice President Harris would be the prohibitive favorite for the nomination. Yet she is every bit as unpopular as Biden, and, unlike him, does not have a wealth of experience to draw on. Moreover, she would be vulnerable to sexist, nativist and racist attacks from Republicans. It’s not right, and it’s not a reason for her not to run, but it is a sordid political reality that Democrats can’t ignore.

Many of Harris’s potential competitors — e.g., Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker — failed, like her, in winning over Democratic voters in 2020, and it’s not clear that they would do any better in 2024. The only one who has a different job is Buttigieg, and being transportation secretary is only a marginally more plausible path to the presidency than being mayor of South Bend, Ind.
There are some intriguing outsiders, such as Govs. Gavin Newsom of California and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, who could be formidable competitors. But, having never before run national campaigns, they could easily fall flat with voters outside their home states, a la former Texas governor Rick Perry in 2016.
None of these potential candidates has indicated a desire to challenge Biden if he runs again, but if one of them does, that would be tantamount to handing the White House to an increasingly deranged Republican Party. Primary challenges to sitting presidents in 1968, 1976, 1980, and 1992 all led to their party’s defeat.
Of course, Democrats could try to persuade Biden not to seek reelection and make way for a new generation. But before party elders urge the elderly president to bow out, they should seriously ponder the possibility that he might be the very worst Democratic nominee except for every other.


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