“This is the United States of America. There’s nothing, simply nothing, we cannot do if we do it together.”
It’s a line you’ve heard countless times if you’ve followed Joe Biden’s most recent presidential efforts starting in 2019, and it pops up once more in the commercial Biden’s camp released today for his official reelection launch. “Let’s finish the job!” the ad implores. What job? You’d be hard-pressed to find out by watching the ad.
Sure, there’s talk of “MAGA extremists” trying to cut Social Security, attacking reproductive rights, banning books, discriminating against LGBTQ people, and undermining voting rights. The country is still in the middle of a “battle for the soul of America,” we’re told.
Unfortunately, Biden and the Democrats haven’t made a whole lot of progress on these issues. Biden rejected his own party’s push to eliminate the debt ceiling last year, which would have neutralized the current hostage scenario that has given Republicans the leverage to try and slash Social Security. Other than use it as get-out-the-vote fodder, Democrats have done little on the federal level to protect reproductive rights, while Biden reportedly won’t take on the Supreme Court that’s driving this assault because he’s worried about hurting its public standing. The Democratic voting-rights bill went nowhere — the president quickly moved on after the party refused to eliminate the filibuster, and following mounting frustration from voting rights activists who found a White House distinctly uninterested in the issue. It’s hard to know how to take a measure of the country’s “soul,” but the fact that 71 percent of Americans think the country is going in the wrong direction surely isn’t a sign of good health.
More importantly, there’s no indication of what Biden and his party plan to do about any of this. Outlining an ambitious, inspiring vision of his presidency if reelected, and giving some sense of his legislative priorities in term two — reviving the very popular Build Back Better bill that died two years ago and formed the backbone of his presidential agenda, for instance, or vowing to expand Social Security benefits — might give despondent, checked-out Americans some reason or even, dare I say it, enthusiasm to come out to vote for Biden and his party next year, to give them the congressional seats they need to finally get this program over the line. But there’s no such call to action. Vote for Biden because, somehow, he’ll finish the job, whatever it is.
Biden’s reelection pitch is, in short, a retread of his September speech about the threat to democracy from “MAGA Republicans,” which itself was a retread of the stale, uninspiring Democratic campaign approach of the past decades: don’t promise to do anything positive for people, just point to how scary the other guys are.
Rough Seas Ahead
There’s little point these days in making electoral predictions, if there ever was. Our political era is virtually defined by its unpredictability. And the midterm results showed that a strategy of pure fearmongering about the horribleness of the opposition still has some juice in the tank.
But it’s also important to recognize, for the Biden campaign if no one else, that the president will be running in a vastly different environment from 2020, one that make his reelection — even against today’s Republican Party — far from assured.
Biden’s not going to have a problem securing the Democratic nomination, chiefly because of the party’s characteristically antidemocratic behind-the-scenes maneuvering. They’ve moved the South Carolina primary to the very first election on the schedule — as great for Biden as it is terrible for the party — and have nixed any presidential debates, protecting the president from the handful of insurgents who have raised their hand to run against him, and forestalling any open discussion about the party’s priorities and future direction.
But the general election campaign is not the primary, and Biden won’t have the benefit of Democratic functionaries and various loyalists putting their thumbs on the scales to help him win. And he’ll need it. Doubts about Biden’s fitness, which is distinct from his age, are not unreasonable. As of January this year, Biden has spent all or part of 197 days of his presidency away from the White House in Delaware, at his home or his beach property, along with more than sixty days at Camp David. By October last year, when this number was smaller, it constituted more than a quarter of his entire presidency, and far outpaced Donald Trump, who had been frequently criticized by liberals for skipping out of the White House. It’s why party strategists have questioned if the president is up to the rigor of a presidential campaign.
Building on his 2020 strategy, Biden has spent the past three years steadfastly avoiding the press. Biden often skips the traditional practice of holding joint press conferences with world leaders, and has sat down for interviews only fifty-four times in his first two years — roughly a quarter of the amount Trump did, and about half of what even Ronald Reagan managed. He averages fewer news conferences per year than any president since Calvin Coolidge, apart from Reagan and Richard Nixon. He’s taken the unprecedented step of refusing to sit down for an on-the-record interview with the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. As the Times noted, he’s “taken steps to reduce opportunities for journalists to question him in forums where he can offer unscripted answers and they can follow up.”
This worked in 2020, when the pandemic gave the president a ready-made excuse to disappear for days and avoid public appearances. And while the demands of the presidency might offer another such reason, the wisdom of doing so is an open question, given the importance to a campaign of traveling the country and appearing in front of voters.
Nor will Biden have the unique historical conditions that his own advisers privately acknowledged were the only reason he won three years ago. COVID may have been “the best thing that ever happened to him,” as adviser Anita Dunn remarked at the time, but the president himself and much of the country now believe that “the pandemic is over.” Exit polls from 2020 showed Biden voters were driven in large part and even mostly by opposition to Trump, including because of his disastrous pandemic response, but the president no longer has an unpopular incumbent to run against — in fact, the unpopular incumbent is himself.
Biden’s approval ratings are desperately low right now, and fell still further — among GOP voters, no less — after he recently shifted to the right. Recent polling indicates 70 percent of Americans don’t want Biden to run again. (A majority also don’t want Trump to run again, but a smaller majority of 60 percent). On top of this, with his domestic agenda stalled, Biden has — partly thanks to historical accident, but also partly thanks to his own deliberate choices — presided over a dramatic shrinkage of the US welfare state, one that had largely been expanded, again largely as a result of historical accident, under his right-wing predecessor.
That shrinkage is all the worse for the fact that it’s come amid deteriorating economic conditions. Nearly a quarter of US adults are food insecure, roughly five points higher than the already-staggering rate recorded last year. More than a third say it’s been “somewhat” or “very” difficult to pay their bills, a jump of 25 percent from the year previous. The latest Census Bureau report puts nearly 38 million people, or 11.6 percent of the population, living in poverty as of January 2021, a number that’s almost certainly grown since various forms of pandemic aid that existed then have faded away. US life expectancy has dropped for the second year in a row. And a recession is being widely predicted in the next year, exactly the kind of pandemic-like shock that could derail a presidency.
Past presidents have pulled through in similarly tough spots. And Trump, who looks increasingly likely to be the GOP nominee, is a deeply polarizing, chaotic, and, for the Democratic base, energizing opponent, who could easily engineer another defeat for himself and his party — arguably the most likely to do so out of any of the other possible Republican choices, even.
But these are not conditions that anyone would want to be running in. And other than once more telling everyone how bad the alternative would be, there seems to be no impetus inside the gathering Biden campaign to so much as pretend, as they successfully did the first time, that they will fight for specific policies to improve people’s lives, like a public health-insurance option or a $15 minimum wage — possibly because they don’t want to be on the hook again for a bunch of promises they have no intention of carrying out.
One thing’s for sure: it’s going to be a bleak nineteen months.