Nineteen months into his first term as president, Joe Biden appears to be the lamest of lame ducks. The rapidity and completeness of his political collapse is unprecedented in my long life as an observer of such things, and possibly in our history. It’s as if the death scene that wrapped up an elaborate plot happened 15 minutes into the movie. What on earth can we expect for next two hours? Similarly, with Biden disappearing into a tar pit of irrelevance, the next two-plus years until the 2024 presidential election present an uncertain and inscrutable aspect.
The array of disasters accumulated by Biden in less than two years is impressive: defeat and humiliation in Afghanistan; the outbreak of war in Europe; spiking inflation and energy costs; a sputtering economy; a resurgent pandemic; supply chain disruptions of essential goods like baby formula. The response to each crisis has followed a recurring pattern. Ignorance and denial come first. A few comic pratfalls later, the rhetoric turns to panicked scapegoating. The essential duty of government, which is fixing the situation, gets skipped altogether.
Such impotence is, in large part, a function of the astounding levels of unreality and policy incoherence that afflict decision-making in the administration. I defy anyone to explain how Biden believes U.S. interests are engaged in the Ukraine-Russia war, or what he thinks about the not-inconsequential matter of energy extraction and supply.
A sullen public has judged the president’s performance and found it wanting. According to one poll, a remarkable 71 percent say that he should not run for a second term. In the same poll, an equally remarkable 62 percent think that “Biden is too old to be President.” Biden’s popularity ranges between 36 and 41 percent—but he has been plummeting for months and has yet to touch bottom. He is perceived as a leader who does nothing well: His “approval on management of issues is weak across the board,” proclaims a recent Harvard/Harris poll. Adding horror to injury, Donald Trump, arch-fiend to the Democratic faithful, handily defeats Biden in many matchup polls (see here and here).
The numbers are devastating and almost certainly fatal. Furthermore, they reflect, in my opinion, a just assessment of President Biden. He was, in his prime, an empty suit, a hanger-on whose chief ambition for decades had been to cling to the top of the pyramid—and he is today diminished by the usual ravages of age. This means that, unlike Reagan or Truman, he can’t tap into some iron principle or a defiant character to save himself from catastrophe. Never much of a political force, Biden is now done.
He is himself dimly aware of his premature burial. Like many persons of a certain age confronted with a circumstance they can’t quite comprehend, he has responded with fits of anger. Articles in Politico and NBC News portray a president railing at White House staff for correcting his misstatements, at prominent Democrats for presuming to test the waters as 2024 presidential hopefuls and at the general public for saddling him with those humiliating opinion polls. He has blasted the Supreme Court for what he called its “outrageous behavior” and mocked reporters for asking uncomfortable questions (“You sound like a Republican”).
At times he resembles a new-age version of broken old King Lear, forsaken in the heath, screaming imprecations at the storm. Here is Biden on the Fourth of July, a day usually reserved for inspirational bromides timed before millions of hamburgers hit the grill: “Liberty is under assault, assault both here and abroad. In recent days, there has been reason to think this country is moving backwards, that freedom has been reduced, that rights we assumed were protected are no longer.”
Of course, this is Washington, D.C., not Shakespearean tragedy. The protagonist never really goes mad or dies—but there will be talk of firing his staff.
The Betrayal of the Elites
Democratic officeholders, together with their allies in the prestige news media, have watched the spectacle at the Oval Office with a mounting sense of alarm. Biden has frightened away key elements of his winning coalition: Hispanics, suburbanites, independents, the young. The consequences will be felt in the midterm elections this November, which are expected to result in a slaughter of Democratic candidates. If the Republicans win majorities in Congress, as now seems likely, the president’s troubles will only multiply. The existential question for Democratic Party leaders is: What is to be done in 2024?
Biden is entirely a creature of the party establishment, a politician devoid of hard edges, known to drift safely within the mainstream of elite opinion. He was chosen as a last-gasp backstop to block the anti-establishment Bernie Sanders in the 2020 primaries and to defeat the detestable Trump. These tasks he accomplished. Quite naturally, he’s looking for gratitude—particularly now, when his fortunes are at a low ebb. Though it’s easy to forget this, Biden is president. He has revealed his intention to run for a second term. He believes he has earned the right to the establishment’s support.
He may not get it. Institutional loyalty has been bred out of contemporary elites. Most Democratic grandees are cut from the same cloth as the president: All that matters is staying at the top. From their perspective, Biden was the right tool to accomplish this purpose in 2020 but may be totally wrong for 2024. After all, he’s polling behind Trump. The holocausts a vengeful Trump might wreak on Democrats, if returned to power, can justify any number of betrayals.
An information campaign to ease Biden out of the White House has already begun. Conservative commentator Steven Hayward perceives an organized “pincer movement” in three parts to “dump” the president “when it becomes evident that he’s a certain loser in 2024.” The first part of the maneuver is a spate of media stories by liberal and progressive authors complaining about Biden’s weakness and unwillingness to take on the Republicans.
Here is Ronald Brownstein in The Atlantic: “Is Biden a man out of time? Democrats have a growing sense of panic about conservative advances but are not seeing a president who shares their urgency.” Here is Edward-Isaac Dovere in CNN: “After a string of Supreme Court setbacks, Democrats wonder whether [the] Biden White House is capable of [the] urgency [the] moment demands.” Here is Ja’han Jones in MSNBC: “Team Biden appears to be waving the white flag after Roe—and infuriating Democrats.”
The second part of the “pincer movement” consists of party leaders openly bad-mouthing the president. “There is this sense that things are kind of out of control and he’s not in command,” David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s gray eminence, is quoted as saying. “Rudderless, aimless, and hopeless,” is how one anonymous member of Congress described the White House operation. “Two dozen leading Democratic politicians and operatives, as well as several within the West Wing” told CNN that the problem “goes deeper than questions of ideology and posture … to questions of basic management.”
The third part is a steady drumbeat of publicity given to dreadful polls showing Biden to be unelectable. I can think of no finer example than “President Biden—a lackluster candidate in 2024 Democratic primaries,” which reports that only 24 percent of Democrats would vote to make the president their standard-bearer.
The objective of all this signaling, Hayward argues, is to persuade the president to decline a second term, voluntarily and with grace. I think that’s roughly correct. Party elders lack the cunning to organize such a conspiracy, but they can get there by other means. There isn’t a high school clique in America more conformist than our elite class: Once the hive mind starts to wobble on a subject, it can slip to the opposite extreme in a hurry. Biden rode the wheel of elite approval to the heights; the next turn may well plunge him in the dust.
But this is a delicate game that can go bad in many ways. If Biden refuses to retire, the negative comments remain on the record, and may force establishment figures to swing behind other candidates. Given his terrible numbers, Biden can probably be defeated in the primaries—but what’s certain in this scenario is that the Democratic Party would be shattered and demoralized long before the November 2024 election.
Even if the president steps down, there’s still the vexing question of choosing his successor. Historically, Democratic presidents have been succeeded as party chief by their vice presidents: That was the case with Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Al Gore and, of course, Biden himself. The difficulty is that the current incumbent, Kamala Harris, has actually failed at the job of vice president and is even more unpopular than Biden. Harris seems unable to utter a word in public without delighting the meme-makers of the internet. However, in a caste obsessed with identity, can tradition be overturned to deny a female “person of color” her shot at the top spot? That would not be a good look.
Behind Harris, ambition runs high but presidential timber gets scarce. Members of the cabinet, like Pete Buttigieg, are lightweights already tarred with failure. Elizabeth Warren crashed and burned early in her last try at the nomination. Gavin Newsome, governor of California, is the white, male equivalent of fellow Californian Kamala Harris. Bernie Sanders is about to turn 800. We can gauge the desperation of the liberal flock by current whispers that maybe, just maybe, this is finally Hillary Clinton’s turn. Clinton is the worst politician of recent times—but she’s competitive with this bunch.
The Once and Future Trump
The best hope for Democrats in this bleak landscape is the second coming of Trump. Despite improved polling numbers that, at 42 percent approval, make him the “most favorable” political figure in the country, the former president strongly unites and galvanizes the opposition while having the opposite effect on his own party. Like Biden, Trump would enter the contest burdened by an immense weight of baggage. Like Biden, he would be an old man seeking redemption rather than a fresh face on the offensive. And if Biden can be said to bar the way to more attractive Democratic candidates, Trump does much the same to Republicans: He’s too volatile to embrace but too important to ignore.
For all this, Democrats remain terrified of Trump and are spending vast amounts of energy plotting his destruction. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s January 6 production in the House, for instance, is an attempt to persuade the public that the most important issue confronting it lies in the past: namely, Trump’s supposed machinations to engineer an “insurrection” against our democratic system. This is futile stuff: Trump’s popularity has actually increased during the hearings. Opponents have never learned that attention is the helium that lifts this strange political mutant above the competition.
Yet Trump also is stuck in an ungainly posture that looks backward to the 2020 election. He’s no longer interested in making America great but in proving himself to be the greatest winner of all time. The Democrats would make 2024 about January 6, 2021; Trump insists that it should be about November 3, 2020. Meanwhile, the public is wholly concerned with bread-and-butter issues and has shown no interest in making the next presidential contest an exercise in the interpretation of history.
Though Trump presents a huge variable for Republicans, they retain two significant advantages. Biden is the incumbent. In politics, it’s always easier to attack than to defend. In addition, the issues that agitate the public are Biden-era conditions: inflation, the cost of fuel, supply chain disruptions. Republicans have had fun pointing out that, on the nefarious date of January 6, 2021, gas stood at $2.25 per gallon.
Secondly, the Republican Party has at hand a crop of viable national candidates whose names are not Donald Trump. Most interesting to me are a handful of Trump-lite governors, led by Florida’s Ron DeSantis and Virginia’s Glenn Youngkin, who have learned to fight the culture wars that thrill the base without alienating suburbanites or independents. They represent the evolution of a Trumpism devoid of drama and narcissism—hence, largely devoid of baggage.
At a minimum this group provides the answer to the question: What will the Republicans do after Trump? But DeSantis, for one, looks eager to test the former president’s strength without waiting for anyone’s permission. While Trump is still preferred by a sizable plurality of Republicans, DeSantis polls a solid second—and in the key primary state of New Hampshire, he has edged ahead by a nose.
Most analysts take it for granted that Trump will be a candidate in 2024. I’m not so sure. The golf links at Mar-a-Lago are less confining than the Rose Garden. He may choose not to run. If he does run, he’ll be sustained by a sense of inevitability. Should that aura be punctured by the possibility of a fresher, younger face, he is liable to collapse in a hurry, Biden-like, bringing to a close one of the most bizarre chapters in American politics.
Incredibly, however, if Trump does obtain the nomination, he could well earn a second term. That’s how far Biden has fallen.
A Shift in the Vibe
As matters now stand, the Republicans have the opportunity to win big in 2022 and win bigger in 2024. If the Biden presidency goes down in a frenzy of repudiation and disgrace, a major factor in that outcome will have been the barrage of friendly fire he has endured from his own camp. The president lacks a personal following: The only Bidenista is the First Lady. He has been unable to satisfy either wing of the party on any issue. Liberals think he has fallen captive to the extreme notions of the cult of identity. Identitarians see him as a wishy-washy liberal. While Republican mockery is predictable, the ferocity of the contempt shown by Democratic voices for a Democratic president is, to put it mildly, unusual.
Criticism has invariably focused on tactics and optics. The president is said to be hamstrung by a weak staff, the lack of a clear and “urgent” message, a character too mild and moderate when dealing with the devilish Republicans. The failure of his policies rarely makes it into the list of Democratic complaints: among activists and party professionals, never.
But there’s one exception to this rule. A group of liberal media commentators—I’m thinking of Noah Smith, Matt Yglesias, Yascha Mounk, maybe also Ezra Klein and a few others—have drawn a line in the sand between themselves and the nihilistic doctrines demanded by the grand inquisitors of identity. These writers share a potent intellectual wattage and a knack for original insights. They appear eager to save Biden from himself and do battle for the soul of the Democratic Party—a struggle likely to intensify under the shadow of Republican electoral advantage. For Democrats, this has to be viewed as a hopeful sign.
Old-fashioned liberalism can easily win majorities in this country. It has often done so in the past—not least in 2020, when many voters held Biden to be the moderate candidate. In contrast, the cult of identity is an alliance of small unrepresentative cliques, made powerful by their ability to unleash the digital mob. No candidate has ever won national office by promising to disband the police or exorcise the Founding Fathers. The fixation with sexual fluidity repels socially conservative minorities. The demonization of American history shocks many immigrant groups. It has been this rule of identity, embraced by an incompetent and diminished president, that has brought the party to the present pass.
Spurred by a new generation of thinkers, fear of defeat—or the pain of the actual thing—should start a conversation about first principles among Democrats, something that never happened after 2016. Put in the simplest terms, the party confronts two major forks in the road. The first pertains to President Biden: He must choose between his guiding instinct to obey the establishment and the strong pull of personal vanity.
The second and more important one concerns a choice between doctrines and factions. The return to liberal ideals can make Democrats competitive as early as 2024. The alternative risks banishment to the nether regions of hipsterdom and academia. Clinging to the destructive politics of identity could cost the party losses at every level and usher in an age of resurgent American conservatism—politically and culturally, what Marc Andreessen has called a “vibe shift.” Whether preserving moral purity is worth that price only Democrats themselves can say.