Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 1 May 2024

 

Opinion | Biden Is Not Winning. His Campaign Should Stop Acting Like It Is.

Joe Biden’s head is framed by the teleprompter and set against a blue background.
Credit... Damon Winter/The New York Times

Opinion Columnist

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In February, there was a flurry of discussion about whether Joe Biden’s advancing age and seeming weakness in a matchup with Donald Trump meant that he should step aside. I wrote a column on that theme, but the more notable (that is, nonconservative) voices arguing that Biden should consider withdrawing from the race included the polling maven Nate Silver and my colleague Ezra Klein. The report from the special counsel Robert Hur, which indicated memory problems for the president, was also part of the discussion — or, if you prefer the terms favored by the president’s allies, part of the unnecessary freakout.

“The Drumbeat for Biden to Step Aside Will Only Grow Louder” ran one headline from that period, from Robert Kuttner in the American Prospect. Kuttner was wrong; the drumbeat has quieted. All it took was Biden giving a passable State of the Union address: Thereafter his poll numbers marginally improved, the optimists on the Democratic side seized the rhetorical initiative, and the “should Biden step aside?” discourse faded into background noise.

But here we are entering May, with just six months before the election, and the basic dynamic that inspired the original discussion/freakout is still with us. Biden’s mini-surge was, well, miniature. He’s still slightly behind in national polling, and he still trails Trump in the swing states that won the Electoral College for the Democrats last time — Georgia, Michigan, Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The gap is narrow: Depending on your preferred polling average and what you make of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s polling numbers, Biden probably needs to make up just a few points to pull ahead — maybe three points, maybe four. But it’s also quite consistent; since last fall, both candidates are bouncing around within a very narrow range.

The Democratic response to this consistency blends unwarranted confidence with unwarranted fatalism. On the one hand, there’s the belief that Trump’s lead is unsustainable — because he has a ceiling and can’t get past 50 percent (but does that matter in a race with several well-known third-party candidates?), because voters aren’t paying close attention yet (but don’t they already know both of the candidates quite well?), because polls don’t matter until after the convention (in April 2020 Biden led the FiveThirtyEight polling average by about five points; he won the popular vote in the fall by 4.4 percent), because Trump’s trials haven’t yet had their effect (but what if he’s acquitted?).

On the other hand, there’s a “what can we do?” irritation with anyone who suggests that Biden should deviate from the way he’s approached policy and politics to date. He’s done great! The public is just ungrateful or confused, misled by the media or blinded by partisanship! He should be up by 10 points! If he can’t win with this record, America deserves what it gets!

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Here is an alternative view of Biden’s situation. One plausible lesson of the Trump years is that if you are consistently beating Trump in the polls, you want to be temperamentally cautious, focus on your campaign fundamentals and get-out-the-vote efforts, and project normalcy at every opportunity. This was what the Democrats did well in 2018 and 2020, their years of anti-Trump success.

If, on the other hand, you are losing to Trump (as his Republican rivals were in the 2016 and 2020 primaries), you cannot rely at all on events or Trump fatigue magically coming to your rescue. Instead you need to formulate a strategy that’s commensurate with the challenge and be willing to break the normal rules of politics (as Trump’s Republican rivals failed to do in both 2016 and 2020) in order to deal with the abnormality of Trump himself.

The problem with the Biden campaign is that it’s being run as though its candidate is in the first position, as thought it’s protecting a lead that Biden doesn’t have.

That means refusing the kind of big move that Klein and others urged, wherein a patriotic recognition of his own limits, physical and political, leads the unpopular incumbent to step aside and give his party a chance to reset the terms of the election.

It means eschewing the smaller kind of potential ticket shake-up, in which Kamala Harris, the worst possible backstop for an aging president, yields to a vice-presidential candidate who might actually be reassuring, even popular.

And it means letting the administration’s policymaking keep running on progressive autopilot. Rolling out a regulatory plan that aims to gradually phase out gasoline-powered cars? Exactly what those Midwestern swing states want. Using Title IX to impose trans-affirming policies on schools nationwide? Perfect for an election year. A new student loan forgiveness program that could cost over $1 trillion in the teeth of stubbornly high inflation? Exactly what younger voters are demanding. (Just kidding: Student debt was ranked 16th out of 16 issues areas in a recent Harvard Youth Poll of 18- to 29-year-olds.)

A set of aggressive new executive orders on immigration, to prove that if Republicans won’t make a deal, then Biden will act unilaterally to improve border security? Well, maybe the White House will get around to it someday.

To be clear, Biden can absolutely win this election. A few points is not an impossible deficit. He could time some brilliant triangulations to the closing days of the campaign when more voters pay attention. He could be boosted by a cease-fire in the Middle East and good news on inflation. Trump could be convicted and lose, let’s say, two crucial percentage points of support in Pennsylvania and Michigan. The left-wing part of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s support could come home to Biden while the Trump-friendly part sticks with the third-party spoiler. Trump’s disaffected, low-propensity-to-vote supporters could fail to turn out on Election Day.

But it’s good to have a reality check every few months about what’s actually happening with the stop-Trump campaign that Biden decided that he and only he could run. And what’s happening right now is that Biden is gliding toward defeat.

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