Discover more from Discourse
Will Joe Biden’s Luck Hold?
So far, things have been going the president’s way
When asked what qualities he looked for in a general, Napoleon Bonaparte supposedly said he’d rather have one who was lucky than one who was good. Luck can be a superpower, something President Biden must know given the amazing trajectory of his recent political life. Despite being prone to gaffes and verbal errors, Biden—previously a twice-failed presidential candidate—has gone from strength to strength over the past 15 years, starting with the good fortune of being chosen as Barack Obama’s running mate. But as Biden kicks off his campaign for reelection, will his luck hold?
So far, things have been going the president’s way. But we’re still almost a year away from the first primaries and more than a year and a half out from the general election. It may be trite to say that a few months can be an eternity in politics and that a lot can go wrong in even a few days, but these cliches also happen to be true.
However, before we discuss the perilous road ahead, let’s look at the recent good news for the president. In the run-up to the midterm elections, Biden desperately needed two things to happen … and both did.
First, the Democrats had to avoid a bloodbath in the midterms. Given his age and his consistently low public approval ratings, Biden has always been one very bad news cycle or major blunder away from being pressured by party leaders and up-and-coming Democratic governors and senators to step aside and announce his retirement. While most Democratic voters like Biden and think he’s doing a good job, a majority don’t want him to run again, with people often citing his age as the reason. So, in the run-up to the midterms, Biden faced a likely revolt if, as many polls indicated, the GOP swept the field, handily winning the House and even the Senate.
However, due to a number of factors—including a GOP slate that included many poor MAGA candidates and outrage on the left over the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade—Democrats greatly exceeded expectations, keeping control of the Senate (even slightly growing their margin) and narrowly losing their majority in the House. Biden may not have had much to do with his party’s midterm successes, but given that he surely would have been blamed had the Democrats fared badly, he could take credit for his party’s strong electoral showing. Ambitious Democrats, such as California Governor Gavin Newsom and Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, put away their knives and went back to minding their own business, clearing the path, at least for now, for Biden to run largely unopposed for his party’s nomination.
A second term? After months of speculation, President Biden has announced he's running for reelection. Image Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Second, Biden needed former President Donald Trump to retain his control over the Republican Party and to take a commanding lead against other GOP presidential aspirants. After all, Trump is the poster child for anti-Democratic dangers that Biden continuously warns against—as recently as in the video announcing his reelection campaign. Trump also may be the only major political figure more likely than Biden to say something completely and embarrassingly outrageous. Moreover, he’s a mere four years younger than his 80-year-old successor, making Biden’s age much less of an issue than if the president ran against candidates in their 40s or 50s.
Initially, on this front, Biden’s luck looked like it might not hold. One of the few Republicans who came out a big winner in the midterms, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, seemed poised to supplant Trump as GOP favorite in the coming primaries. Several polls taken in the weeks following the election showed the Florida governor running neck and neck with Trump among GOP voters. But the glow from DeSantis’ 20-point reelection win in Florida didn’t last long, in part because the Democrats, intentionally or not, succeeded in making Trump the big political story.
This began before the midterm elections, with the Jan. 6 committee hearings and the FBI’s raid of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence to recover classified documents. However, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s history-making indictment of Trump earlier this month for allegedly falsifying business records and violating campaign finance laws created a huge “rally ’round the flag effect” for Trump among Republican voters and gave the former president the “big mo” he needed to solidify a commanding lead in public opinion polls against all possible GOP challengers, including DeSantis. Right now, Trump enjoys a whopping 29-point lead (52% to 23%) over his next closest challenger, DeSantis, in the RealClearPolitics average. All other declared or possible candidates are in the low single digits.
So Biden is kicking off his reelection campaign in an enviable position. His party is, if not enthusiastically united behind him, largely resigned to his renomination. And, if polls are to be believed, the one Republican Biden wants to run against, Donald Trump, is increasingly seen as the likely GOP presidential nominee. And there’s even more possible good news: Inflation, which has dogged American households for almost two years and has contributed to the president’s low approval ratings, has been coming down. And after the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan badly damaged Biden’s reputation as an experienced foreign policy hand, his success in rallying the West and helping Ukraine defend itself from last year’s Russian invasion has helped restore at least some of his lost luster on the international stage.
Finally, Biden enjoys the advantages of incumbency, which often gives presidents unique opportunities to enhance their status and reputation in the run-up to an election. It’s one reason why, since World War II, eight sitting presidents who ran for a second term won, with only four (including Trump) losing.
A Gathering Storm?
But Biden also faces many challenges that could easily block his road to a second term. For starters, Trump’s early lead among Republican candidates could easily evaporate. While he’s certainly acting like a candidate, Ron DeSantis hasn’t even announced his intention to run for president yet. Assuming he gets in and begins campaigning and spending the considerable money he’s already raised, the dynamics of the GOP race could quickly change. Indeed, while DeSantis might wilt on the national stage (think Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in 2015), he also could prove a tough and effective campaigner, as he certainly has in Florida.
Assuming his campaign survives some early tests, DeSantis also brings one thing that many GOP voters will be hungry for: the prospect of victory. Sometimes political parties self-sabotage. For instance, in the 1980s, the Democrats chose presidential candidates, such as Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, who were wholly unsuitable to the national mood. And in hindsight, it’s clear that during the last election, the GOP engaged in some self-sabotage of its own, with the nomination of failed candidates such as Kari Lake in Arizona and Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania. But most of the time, both parties are interested in winning, which explains Joe Biden’s surge during the 2020 primaries, even if much of the early enthusiasm and energy, particularly among progressives, was with Sen. Bernie Sanders.
So far, Republican voters have been telling pollsters that Trump is their man. But that could definitely change if DeSantis proves to be a formidable national candidate, or if one of the other possible cases or indictments against Trump (E. Jean Carroll’s civil lawsuit alleging the former president raped her has just begun) proves too embarrassing even for him. And if Trump is indicted over his actions in Georgia following the 2020 election, his actions on Jan. 6, 2021, or his alleged mishandling of classified documents, he might find it hard to talk about anything but his legal troubles.
To date, talking about his troubles has worked for Trump, but in the months to come, Republican voters, even those who like Trump, might tire of the drama and look for a more stable and attractive alternative. DeSantis, as well as longer shots such as former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (who jumped in the race in February) and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott (who has indicated that he is likely to run), have shown themselves to be attractive candidates—at least with GOP voters. And they’re all decades younger than both Trump and Biden.
Biden’s age is definitely a wild card in the upcoming presidential contest. It’s hard to know exactly how many steps behind the president is, because he’s fiercely protected by his staff and largely limited to scripted events. But some of his rare impromptu moments haven’t always looked good. Recently, for example, the president told a number of off-the-cuff jokes concerning ice cream right before speaking about the tragic shooting of six people at a school in Nashville. Even without the gaffes, Biden often appears frail and unsteady. None of this necessarily means that he’s not up to the job. But if he is indeed having age-related cognitive and other issues, they will only get worse.
During the last campaign, Biden was able to largely avoid public events and famously “campaign from his basement” thanks to COVID restrictions. This time, he’ll need to get out and mix it up with voters. For someone who has always been prone to saying embarrassing things and who now routinely trips and even falls in public, a Biden presidential campaign will be a target-rich environment for his opponent. Which makes running against someone who is 44, like DeSantis, or 51, like Haley, particularly perilous. Even against 76-year-old Trump, Biden’s age may prove a liability.
Indeed, the assumption among some Democrats that Trump will be easy to beat may be wishful thinking. In a politically divided (and ossified) country, a losing Trump is still likely to receive nearly half of all votes. And, of course, Trump doesn’t need to win a majority of the electorate to win the election: He beat Hillary Clinton in 2016 even though she won the popular vote 48% to 46%. And he lost the 2020 election to Biden by just 44,000 votes in three states, even though, again, he came up short in the popular vote, this time 47% to 51%. It’s easy to cherry-pick a few states and overstate how close things were. However, in a relatively tight election, Trump could find a path to victory by winning a few toss-ups, such as Wisconsin or Michigan—states he barely lost to Biden and barely won against Clinton.
Whomever Biden runs against, his fortunes may ultimately depend on the state of the union in November 2024. There are a host of black swans (“unknown unknowns,” to quote the late Donald Rumsfeld) that could severely complicate the president’s reelection efforts. After all, in the months prior to COVID, the conventional wisdom was that a strong economy and weak Democratic field would propel Donald Trump to a second term.
And then there are the “unknown knowns,” periodic events that could make the situation challenging for any incumbent, particularly one with a 42% approval rating like Biden. Ask any ten economists and you’ll probably get ten different answers, but many still predict some kind of a recession is likely in the next year, just in time for the general election campaign. If a recession does come and proves even moderately severe, Biden could lose, even against Trump. That’s because most of the time, most voters tend to put pocketbook issues first.
And things in Ukraine could take a turn for the worse. The recent leaks of classified documents show that American intelligence officials are by no means convinced that the next phase of the war will favor the Ukrainian military. A failed spring offensive or continued Russian gains could rob Biden of what, so far, has been a rare foreign policy win.
Of course, even if the economic and geopolitical situation poses challenges for the president, he could still win. As the midterms showed, bad candidates and the 2022 Dobbs abortion decision could fire up Democrats to turn out in greater than usual numbers and convince independents that the GOP is too extreme to support. And some black swans, even tragedies, can work to the incumbent’s advantage, the way the 9/11 attacks helped George W. Bush win reelection in 2004.
Meanwhile, the abortion issue is likely to continue to hurt the GOP, at least until the party coalesces around a more coherent message on how the practice should be regulated, something it has yet to do. Even though Trump has recently been backing away from the abortion issue, his fulfillment of a 2016 campaign promise to appoint anti-abortion judges to the nation’s high court made the Dobbs decision possible and arguably turned Trump into the most effective anti-abortion president in history. As for DeSantis, he just signed a law in Florida banning most abortions after six weeks, a position a majority of Americans don’t support.
The abortion issue, Trump and the other factors I’ve discussed give Biden some real advantages as he begins his campaign. But thanks to his age, uncertainty over the economy in the near term and some mistakes such as Afghanistan, he’s also playing a relatively weak hand. So luck will be crucial if Biden is to win a second term.
But luck can be fickle. Like Biden, Napoleon and his generals had nearly a decade and a half of largely uninterrupted military victories, leading to France’s mastery of Europe during the opening years of the 19th century. But when their luck failed, as it did in the deserted, cold streets of Moscow in 1812 and then a few years later at the battle of Waterloo, it failed spectacularly. President Biden better hope Lady Luck sticks with him a little longer.