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It's Going to Be Biden
Here's why euphoria and despair are both misplaced.
Biden has made it official: He’s running for re-election. I will vote for him because I consider the Republican Party a malignant force in American politics. I’ve felt that way, and voted accordingly, since 2004. Let’s just say that events since 2016 have only reinforced that judgment.
If that sounds more like a vote against the GOP than a vote for the Democrats, that’s because it is, in the sense that I know I won’t vote for the Republican candidate, but voting for the Democrat isn’t as automatic. (Not voting at all is always an option.)
I can think of some Democratic officeholders I would have a hard time voting for. But I haven’t yet been confronted with that kind of dilemma in a presidential contest. Over the past 20 years, supporting the Democratic nominee has never been a problem or a struggle for me. I didn’t have to agonize about casting a ballot for John Kerry, Barack Obama (twice), Hillary Clinton, or Biden in 2020—and I won’t agonize about voting for Biden again in just over 18 months. Whether he’s facing Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, Tucker Carlson, or some other right-wing populist in the general election (a non-populist has no shot of making it through the GOP primaries), the choice will be an easy one: Biden has my vote.
But that doesn’t mean I’ll be excited about it.
Let’s start with the liabilities.
Joe Biden is 80 years old now. He’s set to turn 82 a couple weeks after the 2024 election. And (if his re-election bid is successful) he’ll be on track to leave the White House in January 2029 having just turned 86.
He’s old. And he looks and sounds like it. Biden ran for president last time in the midst of the deadliest pandemic in a century, which allowed him to campaign virtually from his home office for much of the race. That won’t be an option this time. Is he up to it? How mangled and slurred is his syntax likely to become while crisscrossing our enormous nation for months on end? How well will he hold up in debates with his Republican rival? The questions answer themselves. The only thing we don’t know for sure is how much it will matter.
Ever since the summer of 2021, six months into his presidency, Biden’s approval rating has been stuck in the low 40s, and sometimes (during last summer) sinking as low as the high 30s. That’s the same range where Trump bounced around for four years. Biden’s average may be a point or so higher, but the difference is miniscule. That doesn’t mean Biden can’t win—especially if his opponent is more unpopular than he is. But it does mean his re-election bid is unlikely to be a cakewalk.
We also know that, barring some major (and exceedingly unlikely) improvement in her political skills and public image, Vice President Kamala Harris will contribute nothing positive to the campaign. It’s more likely she will be a drag on the ticket.
And what if Biden becomes incapacitated or dies between now and November 2024? If it happened soon, his party would have a chance to hold primaries to help decide on a possible alternative to Harris. But at a certain point, it would become too late and Democratic bigwigs would likely defer to her for fear of provoking a fight across racial lines within the party. I don’t at all like contemplating such scenarios—or even entertaining the thought of Biden’s increased fragility this time around contributing to voters taking a closer look at the person who would be more likely than most VPs to end up promoted into the top job. That could well turn a drag on the ticket into an anchor around its neck.
Biden’s greatest strength as a candidate isn’t his record, which is solid but modest. Or his policy agenda for the future, which is (with the House in Republican hands) pretty minimal. Or his ideological positioning, which is less moderate on cultural issues than I think it should be. (Defend abortion rights, but not without limits; strongly defend the rights of adult transgender Americans against right-wing bullying and cruelty, but don’t endorse “gender affirming care” for minors or label as bigots the critics of such care; etc.)
No, Biden’s greatest strength is his ordinary American patriotism and defense of normalcy.
The right talks about the country in a way that sounds like a dystopian nightmare: the economy in shambles, cities wracked with violence, Americans at each other’s throats, on the verge of civil war. You’d never know unemployment is extremely low (3.5 percent); inflation is 5 percent (higher than the norm over the past few decades but down quite a bit from its surge over the past year and a half); and violent crime, while up relative to a decade ago, is still far below where it was in the 1990s, and it’s falling.
That’s a mixed balanced sheet. We have some problems, but there are always some problems. A country that isn’t on the verge of a nervous breakdown tries to address such challenges. It doesn’t lose all perspective, throw a temper tantrum, and threaten to make a bigger mess of things. Biden’s case for re-election is that the Republicans are unhinged and that he and his party are not.
That’s what I take to be the import of Biden once again deploying the “fight for the soul of America” line in his announcement video. With Trump ensconced in the White House four years ago, that message promised an exorcism of our demons. With Biden the current president, that same message reminds the country that our demons are still on the loose, threatening to take possession of us once again, inspiring another episode of national madness.
Do you want calm? Sobriety? Politics as normal? Pragmatism in addressing the problems that confront us? Then you have only one choice in November 2024: Vote Biden/Harris.
The Ugly Truth
But here’s the thing: Roughly half the country is convinced of (or persuadable to) the opposite view—that things are terrible and getting worse, with the maladies caused entirely by “the left” and all those who are insufficiently committed to fighting and defeating it.
As long as that remains the case, a Republican candidate for president will be competitive. Yes, even if his name is Trump (or DeSantis).
I get worried whenever I see signs that Democrats are denying this reality. Yes, Democrats did very well in the 2018 midterm elections. Yes, Biden defeated Trump in 2020 by 7 million votes. Yes, Republicans underperformed in the 2022 midterm elections. I often hear liberals (and some anti-Trump conservatives) pointing to these facts in order to suggest Trump is a losing loser who led his party to three losses in a row, proving he’s a surefire super-loser for 2024.
But those making these arguments really should keep a few contrary facts in mind. For one thing, though the 2018 midterms went well for Democrats (a 41-seat gain), the partisan swing was much larger for the Republicans in 1994 (54 seats) and 2010 (63 seats).
For another, Trump came within just 42,900 votes in Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin from tying Biden in the Electoral College in 2020. (Of course, Trump won the presidency four years earlier by beating Clinton by just 80,000 votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin—making the 2020 election significantly closer than even the hair’s breadth one in 2016.) If Biden and Trump had both won 269 electoral votes in 2020, that would have thrown the election to the House of Representatives, where the greater number of Republican state delegations would have given Trump the victory.
As for the GOP’s disappointing showing in 2022, it was real enough. Yet despite losses for election-denying extremists and widespread anger among pro-choice women about the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, the Republican Party still managed to win more than three million more votes (or 50.6 percent) than the Democrats (47.8 percent) in elections for the House of Representatives. Republicans also continue to control many more state houses and enjoy more partisan trifectas (when one party controls both chambers in the legislature as well as the governorship in a state) than Democrats do.
My point isn’t that Republicans hold the upper hand in our politics. It’s that neither party does. As I’ve argued many times over the past year, we are a country deeply and very narrowly divided. It doesn’t take much for one party to prevail over the other in our winner-takes-all electoral system.
Which means that the 2024 election is going to be a nail-biter. I know where I’ll be standing as that election approaches: with Joe Biden. I only hope enough Americans make a similar determination to deliver him a win—or better yet, a decisive, indisputable loss for his opponent.
Damon Linker writes the Substack newsletter “Notes from the Middleground.” He is a senior fellow in the Open Society Project at the Niskanen Center and a regular participant in the weekly “Beg to Differ” podcast at the Bulwark.
The views expressed are those of the individual writer and not those of Persuasion.
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