With the coming of the new Congress, in which a Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives seems more intent on dragging us into a maelstrom of hyper-partisan maneuvering and antagonism than serving us, this seems an appropriate time to review President Joe Biden’s first two years in office and ponder his political future.
All presidents since World War II have at least one notable positive achievement to their respective credits. (Even those of us who abhor President Donald Trump must concede that the development of extremely effective COVID-19 vaccines in an unprecedentedly-short amount of time through his Administration’s Operation Warp Speed probably saved millions of lives.) That said, I would submit that at this point in his term, the most consequential American president we have had since Franklin Delano Roosevelt is Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr.
The positive value of a president’s accomplishments is determined by the gravity of the challenges s/he faces. I consider Presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Mr. Roosevelt to be our three greatest presidents due to the manner in which they successfully addressed the existential threats to our nation that respectively confronted them. President Biden has – thus far, successfully – faced challenges of the same character.
Mr. Biden resolved to run for the presidency after watching Mr. Trump’s waffling response to the unrest arising from the white nationalist marches in Charlottesville, VA, in August, 2017. The President has indicated that after Charlottesville, he considered Democrats’ primary mission to remove Mr. Trump from the White House in 2020, and that he believed (as voting patterns ultimately demonstrated, correctly) that he was the only Democrat who could defeat Mr. Trump (an assessment shared by Mr. Trump). Through his (albeit uncomfortably narrow) victory (by less than 1% in each of the states of Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, which provided him the decisive 57 Electoral College votes), Mr. Biden saved America from descending into the fascist autocracy that many of us feared would attend Mr. Trump’s re-election – a fear since confirmed by the uncontested findings of the U.S. House’s “January 6th” Committee.
One could argue that simply by beating Mr. Trump and thus (at least at present) protecting American democracy, Mr. Biden should be placed at the head of his post-WWII peers. Although the President has begun to tout the legislative achievements wrought during his first two years in office, I consider the way he has conducted the presidency – decent, stable, open – and the effective manner in which his Administration dispensed the COVID vaccines becoming available as he took office to be his most notable domestic contributions. I view his legislative accomplishments, while unquestionably impressive given the faction-driven Congress with which he had to deal, to pale in comparison to the manner in which he has protected America and other global democracies by first fostering cohesion among NATO allies when Russia invaded Ukraine – a point at which the alliance was in its greatest disarray since its founding — and since marshalling its effective support of Ukraine while deftly managing American domestic sentiment. Putting aside the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin would obviously be dancing in Kyiv today had Mr. Trump been re-elected, I would venture that none of Mr. Biden’s other living presidential predecessors could have done as well in the face of the Russian aggression as Mr. Biden did within the circumstances he found the world when he took office.
The President hasn’t been perfect – no president is. I think the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was a strategic mistake, there is clearly an unresolved mess at our southwest border, and I question – without knowing the innards of both Congressional and Democratic caucus maneuvering — whether a “small ball” approach to legislation might not have achieved more than his “Go Big” approach, but Mr. Biden has gotten a lot more right than he has wrong.
All Americans owe President Biden a debt of gratitude, whether they see it or not. Even so, he should announce before his upcoming State of the Union Address that he is NOT going to seek re-election.
The President has frequently asserted that we overstayed our mission in Afghanistan, which is why he ordered the withdrawal. If counseling him today, I would remind him that the reason he got into the presidential race in 2020 – the mission – was to beat Donald Trump. He was the only guy who could. He did. The mission was accomplished. Whether by divine providence or fortunate happenstance, he was probably the only 2020 American presidential candidate who, when the situation demanded it, could have as effectively rallied NATO against Russia’s offensive in Ukraine. He did. That course is set.
Presidential elections are about matchups. While Mr. Biden correctly assessed that he was the only Democrat who could defeat Mr. Trump in 2020, I will venture that given Mr. Trump’s obviously significantly-weakened political standing with independent voters, if Mr. Trump wins the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, any moderate (or even moderately-progressive) Democratic candidate facing Mr. Trump, not just Mr. Biden, will be able to claim enough swing voters in enough swing states to win the presidency.
I would suggest to Mr. Biden that his focus for the 2024 presidential election shouldn’t be premised on Mr. Trump winning the Republican nomination; it should be based on what happens if he doesn’t. Mr. Trump’s outsized presence has dominated our collective view of the political landscape since at least the day he assumed the presidency. If Mr. Biden runs and faces any Republican challenger in 2024 save Mr. Trump – across a gamut as wide as FL Gov. Ron DeSantis to (about to be former) U.S. WY Rep. Liz Cheney – voters’ focus will no longer be centered on Mr. Trump, but will be where it generally is when an incumbent President seeks re-election: on the President.
I find it disconcerting that at least according to some reports, Mr. Biden and his team believe that the Democrats did much better than expected in the 2022 mid-term elections because of Mr. Biden’s and Democrats’ affirmative domestic and foreign policy achievements. One can certainly argue that those accomplishments should have been the reasons that the Democrats fared as well as they did, but I consider it a dangerous misperception to believe that they were; if they had been, Mr. Biden’s approval rating would be significantly higher than it is. While Democrats’ fortunes were clearly politically aided by the Republican-appointed U.S. Supreme Court Justices’ vitiation of women’s U.S. Constitutional abortion rights, I would assert that they did better than expected – while in reality, doing no more than squeaking by – principally because a majority of Americans (if not a majority of Republicans) couldn’t stomach the notion of turning their government over to election deniers – i.e., either liars or fools. Such hardly constituted a resounding mandate for Democrats.
I would submit that if the President seeks re-election in 2024 and Mr. Trump is not the Republican nominee, one issue will dominate voters’ minds: Mr. Biden’s age. He would be running for re-election when 4 years older than President Ronald Reagan was when he left the White House.
As most that read these pages are aware, we live in Madison, WI, perhaps the chief citadel of progressivism between the coasts. Even so, when the prospect of another Biden campaign comes up in conversation, almost to a person our friends – if called upon, certain Biden 2024 votes — either cringe or shrug. “He’s so old,” they say – the italics implicit in their tone. A decade younger than Mr. Biden, I myself wonder: How does Mr. Biden keep up the pace? Even if the President doesn’t fall subject to some significant physical ail during the next six years: How can he possibly maintain the presidential pace until he is 86? Any political handicapper cannot help but consider: If Mr. Biden’s age is a paramount concern to those who will be committed Biden supporters, how well will Mr. Biden score with independent voters in what promises to be an extremely tight race against committed Republican opposition if his (probably significantly younger) Republican opponent is not so overtly autocratically toxic as Mr. Trump?
A key part of a great performance is knowing when to leave the stage: an understanding shared by Johnny Carson and Joe DiMaggio, not grasped by Michael Jordan or Tom Brady. Aside from what seems at least to me to be a very uncertain political route to a second term, I would suggest to Mr. Biden that it is not substantively good for the country to have a president as old as he is; only the existential dangers to the country presented by Mr. Trump even made him consider a candidacy in 2020. As long as he remains a viable political presence, the House Republicans will be hell-bent on tarnishing his name and dragging his son, Hunter (whom he clearly truly loves) through the mud. It is a presidential power maxim that a president loses the ability to get things done when s/he either can’t run or indicates that s/he won’t run for another term; I would venture that in Mr. Biden’s case, the opposite might be true. He can govern above the fray, establish an apolitical credibility. Republicans will lose interest in his son the minute he announces he isn’t seeking re-election. Since no progressive legislation is going to get through the House Republicans in any case, Mr. Biden might be able to achieve some moderate bipartisan agreements with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and swing district House Republicans they don’t see such resulting legislation as directly aiding a Biden re-election effort.
In the last two years, Mr. Biden has successfully protected democracy at home and abroad. While I sincerely hope that this will not always be the case, it seems overwhelmingly likely that in order to win the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, the Republican candidate will need to accommodate MAGAism to at least some extent, which I would assert means that s/he will, to at least that extent, present a continuing danger to American democracy. I would advise Mr. Biden that the best way he can secure what he has won for us is to step aside for another Democrat better positioned to defend his advances against what will undoubtedly be a fierce and cohesive Republican onslaught.
Thank you for the honor of sharing these posts with you again in 2022. May you and all of your family and friends enjoy a Healthy and Happy New Year.