If Donald Trump Wins Next Year, Don’t Blame the Voters. Blame Joe Biden.

It’s the job of politicians to appeal to voters. Right now what Joe Biden is selling is two wars and an economy that isn’t working for far too many ordinary people. If Donald Trump wins, don't blame the electorate: this is Biden's election to lose.

President Joe Biden walking on the South Lawn of the White House on July 20, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

This time three years ago, as difficult as it may be to remember, a hot topic of political discussion was “going back to brunch.”

It was a callback to a few years prior, when a rash of signs at anti-Trump protests had proclaimed that If Hillary Had Won, We’d Be at Brunch Right Now. “Brunch” became a shorthand for the attitude of liberals whose political complacency had been shattered by the rise of Donald Trump — and who now wanted their complacency back.

As 2020 drew to a close, Trump finally seemed to be out of the picture. He’d decisively lost the election — with Biden beating him in the crucial swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arizona, and Georgia and racking up almost seven million more votes than Trump overall. So the debate between leftists and “brunch” liberals was about whether to keep pushing for a more just and equal society or to call a return to the Obama-era status quo good enough.

As 2023 draws to a close, Trump is beating Joe Biden in Michigan. And Pennsylvania. And Nevada. And Arizona. And Georgia. (Biden is leading by two whole points in Wisconsin if you want to take comfort in that.) A lot could change in the next year, of course, but as of this moment a second Trump administration looks not only possible but disturbingly likely.

Some liberals are reacting by expressing anger or incredulity at voters to Biden’s left who aren’t satisfied with what the president has offered them so far. They find the idea that some of these voters may stay home or vote for an independent candidate like Cornel West outrageous. Biden hasn’t been perfect, but the job numbers are good and he did some good things and if he hasn’t done more, that’s not really his fault — he’s trying! — and anyway Trump would be worse.

This reaction misses the point. It’s the job of politicians to appeal to voters. If Biden isn’t winning them over with what he’s currently offering, that’s his fault, not theirs.

The solution isn’t to chide the populace to be more satisfied. It’s to offer them something better — or get out of the way so another candidate can do so.

Biden, Trump, and the Great Brunch Debate

Much of what the liberals who once wrote that playful slogan about brunch on their protest signs found horrifying about Trump really was horrifying. I don’t want him to come back any more than they do. In 2016, Trump said he wanted a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims from any country traveling to the United States, even as refugees. When he became president, he issued various executive orders to try to come as close as the courts would let him to doing exactly that.

Later, his “family separation” policy at the Mexican border added a new layer of inhumanity to an already cruel system of immigration enforcement. Whatever they got wrong, the brunch crowd got both of these issues right. They were also right about the disturbing contempt for a democratic election he’d already started to show in late November 2020, as he furiously denied having lost the election and tried to find someone — anyone — to overturn the results.

Perturbed by the back-to-brunch ethos, leftists insisted that the deep injustices built into the American status quo considerably predated Trump, and that a corporate-friendly centrist like Biden couldn’t be counted on to enact the kind of sweeping reforms that could move American society in a meaningfully better direction. That was true too. “Brunch” liberals were wrong not to care more about that bigger picture.

What many people missed at the time, though, was that something much better than a return to business-as-usual was going to be necessary not only to achieve loftier goals of social progress — but also, it turns out, just to keep Trump from coming back.

Why Voters Are Unhappy

Rapper Cardi B was speaking for millions of people when she expressed disgust about Biden saying, “We could fund two wars” — in Ukraine and Gaza — while the infrastructure is crumbling in many American cities. It’s broadly insulting that there’s always money for war while meeting the material needs of ordinary Americans is considered “too expensive.” Additionally, right now many younger Democratic-leaning voters in particular are morally disgusted with Biden’s financial and diplomatic support for Israel’s horrific assault on the civilian population of Gaza.

It’s all very well to lecture these voters that Trump might have been even worse in this moment — supporting Israel’s war without even the half-hearted humanitarian reservations Biden will occasionally mumble. That’s probably true. But to win elections you don’t just need to have a rational case that the other guy will be even worse than you on some issue of concern to voters. You need to get those voters excited about coming out to vote for you. “The war crimes going on right now aren’t quite as bad as they would be if the other guy was in power” is unlikely to get that done.

Perhaps Biden is confident that this won’t be a problem for him. Maybe he’s made the cold calculation that everyone will have forgotten about the slaughter in Gaza by this time next year, or that Arab American voters in Michigan who can’t imagine voting to reelect Biden will be balanced out by some other group of swing state voters who approve of his actions. Similarly, what little polling we have on this specific question shows that a large plurality of voters think Biden should be doing more to pursue a diplomatic resolution of the war in Ukraine — but he might be confident that this preference won’t change many votes.

Fine. But if he’s not going to give us peace abroad, what is Biden offering at home?

So far, his instinct has been to play up good economic indicators and talk about “Bidenomics.” The instinct to emphasize economics is right, as far as it goes: appealing to people on the basis of improving their material well-being can unite a far larger coalition than just about any other set of issues. And some indicators really have been good under Biden, such as the employment rate. The problem is that ordinary Americans keep telling pollsters they don’t see much to brag about in Biden’s economy. And what they feel is what matters on election day.

Exasperated liberal pundits keep expressing incredulity about this. Many of them seem to think voters have somehow been tricked into not giving Biden credit for a “good economy.” The pundits are getting this wrong on two levels. First, as Matt Bruenig points out, you don’t have to sift through the numbers for long before you get to some much worse indicators:

I used the CPS ASEC to determine whether an individual’s family-size-adjusted, inflation-adjusted disposable income (SPM Income) increased or decreased from the year before. Then I determined what percentage of individuals saw their income increase from the prior year and what percent saw their income decrease.

In a typical year, over 45 percent of people see their income decline from the year before for one reason or another. Since Biden got into office, that number has actually gone up 15 percentage points. This probably reflects the unwinding of the COVID welfare state and inflation, which were one-off events, but nevertheless not great experiences for many.

Second, in a democracy voters should the ones who get to decide what kind of economy counts as “good.” If tens of millions of Americans aren’t satisfied with their material conditions, the question for politicians who want to be reelected should be how to better meet those expectations, not how to convince the voters to expect less.

Biden’s Terrible Message

Biden came to office promising reforms like a “public option” for health insurance and a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour. None of those promises have been fulfilled, and in some cases he never even tried. The idea of a public option, for example, seems to have been all but completely erased from mainstream political discourse.

In the cases where Biden did try, he’s mostly been defeated either by forces outside his control or by the half-hearted nature of his own efforts. At best, he’s implemented scattered bits and pieces of what he originally talked about — like his executive order mandating a $15 minimum wage for federal contractors.

I’ve made the case over the course of the last few years that some of Biden’s excuses for accepting defeat on these issues have been extremely dubious. Let’s assume for the sake of argument, though, that I’m wrong about all that and Biden really is trying his best.

In that case, shouldn’t his message be all about playing up what he’s trying to do? “Vote for me so I can keep pushing.”

Sometimes, to be fair, that’s pretty much what he does say. But all too often — as with the administration’s catastrophically misguided “Bidenomics” rhetoric — the message is, “You should be satisfied with what I’ve already done. It doesn’t matter how little you like the wars I’m involving us in abroad or the declining real spending power so many of you have experienced at home. Just focus on the economic indicators that I want you to focus on and be happy.”

And frankly that message always reminds me of the satirical conclusion of Berthold Brecht’s poem “Die Lösung” (“The Solution”). It was written after the defeat of a 1953 general strike and uprising in East Berlin. The ruling party, Brecht wrote, had put up posters around the city saying that “the people had squandered the confidence of the government” through their disloyalty.

“Would it not be simpler,” Brecht asked, “for the government to dissolve the people, and elect another?”