The Biden Conundrum
On the president's prospects, plus a rattle bag of stimulants and delights
A major new set of polls from the New York Times shows Joe Biden trailing Donald Trump in five of the six most important swing states for 2024. He isn’t behind by just a point or two either:
Across the electorate, voters preferred Trump to Biden on the economy, on immigration, and on national security. Since 2020, black voters and especially Hispanic voters have shifted towards Trump (awful as he is, I never bought the idea that Trump is a white supremacist; in 2016 he did better among non-white voters than Mitt Romney did). The NYT says, “the more diverse the swing state, the farther Mr. Biden was behind.” That is extraordinary. Biden has also lost ground to Trump among younger voters generally.
Polls taken a year or more out from a presidential election are notoriously unreliable, but there’s reason to think these ones are not just noise. First, they are part of a broader pattern. Not only are Biden’s ratings really, really bad - comparable to Carter’s at the same stage - they are ominously stable. They fell back after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan half a year into his presidency and never recovered. Second, it’s rare that we know, at this stage, who both candidates are going to be, and even rarer that the electorate knows them well. It’s not like voters need much more information on either Trump or Biden before reaching a view.
Why is Biden doing so badly? He has been, by objective standards, a reasonably successful president. The pandemic ended and the US economy recovered well - it suffered an unpleasant bout of inflation but that is subsiding. The manner of the Afghanistan withdrawal was a black mark but in the two major foreign policy crises of his term to date, Ukraine and Israel, he has acted decisively and smartly.
Domestically, he has got more done than most recent presidents. His legislative program has not been controversial or obviously “progressive” - he has done what centrists always advise, which is to focus on policies with broad appeal, like infrastructure investment, rather than ones that only please the base. His public statements have included little to scare the median voter. He has avoided any major scandals. In Trump he faces an opponent who is very unpopular by historical standards. Given all this, and given the rate at which presidential incumbents get re-elected, Biden should be coasting to a second term.
But he’s in real trouble, and girl you know the reason why:
Yes, a whopping 71% of voters think Biden (about to turn 81) is too old to be president, twice as many as said so in 2020.
That is very, very hard to dismiss. It’s no good pointing to Donald Trump’s age (77) and saying, what’s the difference? It’s not just about the number of years, it’s about the appearance of vigour. I’m sorry to say it, but Trump just presents as more dynamic than Biden. The man has demonic energy. Remember how he caught Covid during the campaign and seemed to barely break stride? We joke about Keith Richards living forever but it’s even harder to see Trump fading away.
Biden moves more slowly and hesitantly, he has a weaker-sounding voice, he slurs his words. Actually, he has always behaved, in some ways, like an old person. He rambles, he blurts, he says weird shit, he has memory lapses. But what people once put down to Joe being Joe, they now attribute to age. Personally I think the biggest problem is his eyes, which have become little black slits on the screen. If you can’t see a person’s eyes, you can’t gauge their soul; it’s hard to connect with them or to trust them. This might seem superficial but a lot of politics turns on the superficial, because humans are quite superficial. None of this means Biden can’t be an effective president - his record shows that he is. But he has a huge perception problem.
My guess is that many of Biden’s 2020 voters expected him to serve one term and are annoyed he has broken what they took to be an implicit promise. Indeed, that’s what I expected, from afar. ‘He’ll bow out gracefully, having saved American democracy, and be a hero for the ages!’ To imagine Biden ever saw it this way was naive. He may be older than most successful politicians, but in other regards he’s the same: he likes being in power, he has bulletproof self-belief, and he’s an inveterate optimist. He was never in this to be a half-term president. And now he looks upon his very creditable record in office and convinces himself, if he ever needed convincing, that the country, indeed the world, needs him more than ever.
I don’t think this is entirely delusional, either. He has done a good job, and there isn’t somebody obviously as good or better than him waiting in the wings. His choice of Kamala Harris for VP is starting to look like a tactical masterstroke. There is certainly no clamour for her to run in his place (although the NYT polling suggests that even she might now be a stronger candidate than him). More substantively, the Israel crisis has shown Biden at his best, even if voters haven’t appreciated it.
Listen to Jonathan Freedland discuss the president’s trip to Israel in the wake of October 7th to appreciate just how well Biden has played this. It wasn’t just that he condemned the Hamas attacks - any president would have done that - it’s that he did so with unmistakable sincerity and force. He sounded furious on Israel’s behalf, and then - drawing on his own experience of bereavement - heartbroken for the victims. This display of solidarity and friendship, and his swiftly-made visit to the country, bonded him to Israelis in a way that no American president has done in decades. (Obama was just too cool, temperamentally, to have ever managed such a feat.)
Why does this matter? Because it increases Biden’s political clout with the Israelis. American is pushing the Israeli government, divided and directionless, to think more strategically about the conflict. Biden told them not to make the same mistakes American did after 9/11, a shrewd way to frame the message. They are more likely to listen because they know he cares. In my book Conflicted I talk about the first principle of difficult conversations: ‘first, connect’. That is, don’t get to the difficult or tough part too quickly. Find some point of connection first, then go there. That’s what Biden has done, drawing on his unique qualities and experiences.
So - I can understand why he wants to stay. That doesn’t change the fact by staying, he’s putting America in jeopardy. Perhaps I should have written that Biden put America in jeopardy, past tense, since he has already taken the decision to run and it’s almost certainly too late to reverse now. It would actually be destabilising and risky in all sorts of ways to instigate a succession battle one year out, with two foreign policy crises raging away. Hence ‘conundrum’. It’s clear that Biden is a very weak candidate, yet he’s (now) the least bad, the only, the inevitable option.
Should we just resign ourselves to another term of Trump, or indeed to permanent rule by Trump and subsequent Trumps? Not quite yet. I will leave the psephological analysis to others, but I see reasons to believe that Biden can squeak it…