Other Democrats are younger and nimbler, but Biden has been a better president than many expected – and he could be Donald Trump’s nemesis again..
Joe Biden was in his element this week on his genial tour of Ireland, meeting the politicians, meeting the people, being Joe. But in keeping with the strange – often absurd – state of US national politics, the really big event, his amble into the 2024 race for president, took shape a few days earlier at the White House Easter egg roll.
Speaking informally to Al Roker, best known as the weather presenter for NBC News, Biden made his plans all but official. “I’m planning on running, Al,” Biden said in answer to Roker’s query about whether the president planned to take part in this springtime frivolity after next year. “But we’re not prepared to announce it yet.”
The setting, however, is far from the only absurdity about the presidential contest, still more than 18 months away. Consider the latest polls which depict essentially a dead heat between Biden – whom many (and certainly not just liberals) evaluate as a highly effective president – and Donald Trump, whose April activities include his indictment on 34 felony charges involving hush-money payments to the adult film star Stormy Daniels.
Interpreting polls, of course, is tricky, which we should have learned in 2016 when relatively few Americans believed that Trump, the reality-show star and con artist, could actually be elected president of the United States.
But it’s still startling to see how little awareness many Americans have of how hazardous the next election will be. Media coverage of election-as-horserace makes the problem worse.
“Not the odds, but the stakes” is the excellent recent advice to journalists about how to focus their politics coverage from Jay Rosen, the prominent media critic and New York University professor. That counsel, though, is widely ignored, as sensation and speculation eclipse substance nearly every time.
That’s a shame, because the stakes could hardly be higher. Trump, after all, both during and after his term in office, has chipped away at the foundations of American democracy, including doing his best to overturn the results of the 2020 election, and has steadfastly, if baselessly, denied its legitimacy.
Another Trump term – complete with appointments of Trump loyalists instead of competent experts in the courts and throughout government – would be nothing short of disastrous. It would be, quite possibly, the end of the US as we know it.
Biden, by contrast, has done a far better job than most who voted for him could have hoped or even imagined. Politico’s John Harris compared him to the less-than-stellar student who pulls an all-nighter and slips a major paper under the professor’s door at 6am. “It turns out the paper is actually pretty good,” Harris writes. “A solid B is within reach.”
And Russell Berman, senior fellow at the (mostly conservative) Hoover Institution, offered this evaluation in the Atlantic: “The signing of just three enormous bills – the $1.9tn Covid-19 relief package, the roughly $1tn bipartisan infrastructure law, and (last year’s) climate-and-health spending bill – made Biden’s first two years among the most productive of any president in the past half century.”
Biden also put the first Black woman on the supreme court, has successfully led the west’s support for Ukraine and, however chaotically, got the US out of the quagmire of Afghanistan. He also is difficult for his opponents to label as a raving radical leftist since his background simply doesn’t bear that out, and because his entire persona is that of your “aw shucks” uncle.
So why isn’t he a slam-dunk for reelection? Even for those who appreciate him most, Biden’s age is a major worry. Already 80, Biden would be 86 by the end of a second term. (Trump is just a few years younger, but somehow that rarely surfaces as a concern.)
Writing in the New York Times, the progressive columnist Michelle Goldberg summed up the disconnect in a column carrying this headline: “Biden’s a great president. He should not run again.” Like others, she argues that now is the time for Democrats to make way for the next generation of leadership.
And, to be sure, there are some impressive and capable Democrats out there. Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan, has shown her mettle and acumen. Sherrod Brown, the Ohio senator, is downright admirable. Julián Castro, the youngest member of the former president Barack Obama’s cabinet, has significant appeal, as does his brother Joaquin, the Texas congressman. The vice-president, Kamala Harris, certainly has experience and readiness. Elizabeth Warren, always articulate, is on the right side of the messiest questions, from banking improprieties to gun control. Jamie Raskin, the Maryland congressman, is inspiring. The California governor, Gavin Newsom, has brains and charisma.
To varying degrees, they all are younger, quicker on their feet, less likely to make one cringe in anticipated fear when giving off-the-cuff remarks. But what Biden has, in addition to his other accomplishments, is something that can’t be improved upon: a proven record of beating Donald Trump.
The twice-impeached Trump, of course, has declared his candidacy, used his legal troubles to raise millions, and has the enduring adoration of the Maga crowd. Because of his iron grip on those stalwarts, and thus his control – even if waning somewhat – of the benighted Republican party, it’s hard to imagine a Ron DeSantis or a Glenn Youngkin, the governors of Florida and Virginia respectively, actually wresting the Republican nomination from him. Or anyone else doing so.
Trump’s re-emergence on the rightwing propaganda network Fox News tells the story. The network’s brief, though intense, flirtation with DeSantis seems to have given way to reality – if you can call it that.
Americans’ resistance to Biden makes me think of Winston Churchill’s famous line in support of popular rule (I am condensing slightly here): democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.
Biden is flawed, no doubt. But could any of the aforementioned Democrats – “all the others” – have done as well? Could any of them, in 2020, have beaten Trump, the worst threat to American democracy in modern history? And do any of them stand as good a chance in 2024 against Trump?
So the answer to who should be the Democratic nominee is easy: the Trump-slayer, Joseph R Biden Jr. Yes, the very guy who’s too old and not especially popular, the one who doesn’t speak all that eloquently, and who has been kicking around American politics since his election to the Senate in 1972 when he was 29.
Thus, with a few words to a weather man at a White House Easter egg roll, the most significant presidential election of our time is shaping up a lot like the last one.
If we – and the rest of the world – are lucky, the outcome will be the same, too.
By Margaret Sullivan is a Guardian US columnist writing on media, politics and culture