U.S. President Joe Biden
U.S. President Joe Biden arrives for a meeting at the White House on December 13, 2023 in Washington, D.C.
(Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Has Biden Gone From Democracy's Best Bulwark to Its Greatest Liability?

The sitting president’s stubbornness and self-righteousness may be jeopardizing not simply his legacy or his party’s electoral chances, but democracy itself.

The question must be posed: does defending democracy still mean supporting Joe Biden?

And the simplest answer must immediately be proffered: yes, if Joe Biden is the Democratic presidential candidate in November, then defending democracy means vigorously supporting him.

But November is many months away, and a lot can change between now and then. And at the same time, at least one thing has not changed: Biden’s poll numbers are weak, Biden’s candidacy seems extremely vulnerable, and Biden’s advanced age is becoming an increasingly important liability, because of the way opponents have successfully framed it, but also because of his own performance, as an elderly man who lacks the physical and mental vigor that many Americans reasonably associate with the job of President of the United States.

Biden’s general vulnerability was neatly outlined in a Tom Edsall’s column last December, aptly entitled “’This is Grim,’ One Democratic Pollster Says.” A series of recent pieces in New York Magazine have continued to raise the question, with Jonathan Chait asking nostalgically “Do You Remember the Ecstasy of Electing Joe Biden?” and Gabriel Debenedetti noting “The Alarming Calm of the Biden Campaign.” But by far the most careful and powerful piece I’ve read is the transcript of Ezra Klein’s recent podcast, published in the New York Times this weekend under the title “Democrats Have a Better Option Than Biden.”

If Joe Biden is the Democratic presidential candidate in November, then defending democracy means vigorously supporting him.

Klein’s piece centers on the absolutely crucial distinction between being president and campaigning for the presidency, and it boils down to one crucial point: even if Biden is a good president who still has what it takes to be a better chief executive than Trump or even Haley, in order for him to continue to serve in the office, he needs to effectively run for reelection and then win reelection. And the electoral process is not a civil service exam or a poll of the most distinguished political scientists and historians in the land. It is a grueling competitive process, one that makes demands on candidates that Biden does not seem able to meet, because of his advanced age and the way he appears in public, but also because the disillusionment with him is already so pervasive that he would have to be an Obama-type figure to surmount it. And he is not such a figure.

In short, as Klein argues, the chances of Biden being able to win the election are simply too slim right now to bet on them. And so he proposes something that is very unlikely to happen, but that should happen: Biden gracefully changes his mind and completes his term, and the Democratic party selects its presidential candidate this year through an open convention.

I completely agree with Klein, because the argument he lays out is utterly compelling, but also because he is giving voice to something that almost everyone who cares knows but is afraid to say.

But I would even go a bit further than Klein does in his piece. It is not simply that Biden increasingly appears to be a weak candidate given the demands of the contest. It is also that every week that passes makes clearer that the stakes are so high, and the risks too great, to “bet” on Biden as if this were a normal election.

And the stakes are nothing less than the question on which Biden himself has staked his entire presidency since 2015: the survival of America’s tattered democracy itself.

Joe Biden has played a historic role in the defense of constitutional democracy in the United States. He entered the Democratic primary in 2019 as the candidate defined by his opposition to Trumpism and the claim that he alone was best positioned to defeat Trump in 2020. He won the primary in 2020, campaigned as a man of decency and a defender of democracy, and won the election. He stood the course throughout the tense post-election weeks leading up to and immediately following January 6, and has been by many measures a successful president. He promised to be a bulwark in defense of democracy, and he has made good on this promise, or at least as good as anyone in his precarious political position might have done.

All the same, the future of American democracy remains in jeopardy. And neither Biden nor any top Democrats are currently taking the full measure of the situation. And there is simply no time to waste before they do.

It was reported by the Washington Post that back in 2018 Biden “became obsessed” with Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die, carrying it everywhere and regularly sharing its passages with others. The central theme of that book was a simple one: democracies can only survive if their informal “guardrails” persist, keeping autocratic leaders within bounds of the pluralism without which any democracy will die. The most important of these guardrails was responsible political parties that are committed to the democratic “rules of the game” and willing to act, when necessary, to protect the game and its rules, by avoiding capture by autocrats and by placing the rules of the game above any particular individual, policy, or sense of partisan loyalty.

Joe Biden ran for president in 2020 as Democratic Guardrail Personified.

And he was elected president because he promised to lead the Democratic party in a non-partisan and indeed bi-partisan defense of democracy in the face of a GOP that had been captured by Trump and then steered by him way outside the guardrails and towards an authoritarianism, bordering at times on neofascism, that exceeded the worst fears of many. Retired U.S. Judge J. Michael Luttig–one of the most widely-respected conservative Republican legal scholars and Federalist Society eminence grise–was an unknown to the public at large, until he testified before the House Select January 6 Committee hearings in June 2021. And ever since he has become ever more famous as he has become more critical of not simply Trump and his followers, but the entire Republican party, for “going off the rails” and posing a mortal threat to the Constitution and to democracy.

In 2020, Biden could very plausibly claim that he alone could defeat Trump. And he did. But such a claim right now is increasingly implausible and perhaps even risible.

Biden’s failure to press forward the passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act/Freedom to Vote Act in 2021-22, when he had a slim but real Congressional majority in both houses of Congress, was a significant missed opportunity that also gave the lie to his belief in his ability to reach across the aisle with so-called “institutionalist” Republicans. All the same, the Biden administration, and the Democratic party under Biden’s leadership, has gotten the country back on track and has at least kept the forces of MAGA authoritarianism at bay. And everyone committed to democracy–from Luttig and The Bulwark and the Lincoln Project to Bernie Sanders and AOC–has more or less rallied to Biden’s support.

But will this continue to be true moving forward? And should it be true?

Does Biden continue to represent a democratic “bulwark?” Or has his moment passed, and does he represent vulnerability, and lack of energy, at a moment of real crisis when “normal politics” has been completely overthrown by Republican obstruction, hardball tactics, and obvious hostility to constitutional democracy?

The answers are clear: no, he does not any longer represent a strong democratic bulwark, and yes, he has done his job, and his time has passed.

Only Biden’s own vanity prevents him from seeing this, and only the understandable fear of Democratic leaders—by nature a fearful bunch—prevents them from saying it.

As has been widely reported and nervously discussed, Biden’s polling numbers continue to be alarmingly low, especially among young and minority voters, and especially in five key battleground states. Biden’s ongoing inability to effectively communicate his real policy successes continues to weaken him. In addition, his reflexive embrace of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the brutal October 7 Hamas attack, along with his strong and unconditional support for the IDF massive bombing campaign in the months following the attack, has weakened him further politically, especially among young voters and Arab American voters—and justifiably so, for his policy has been a moral and political disaster. And this has opened up real divisions within the Democratic party—a point that has been made by literally dozens of recent news articles and commentaries, and something that is too late to be remedied by Biden’s recent and lame criticisms of Netanyahu.

Biden does not look strong against Trump, and he looks even less strong against any other potential Republican candidate.

In 2020, Biden could very plausibly claim that he alone could defeat Trump. And he did.

But such a claim right now is increasingly implausible and perhaps even risible.

Biden does not look strong against Trump, and he looks even less strong against any other potential Republican candidate. He looks vulnerable politically, and he looks very old and very tired physically, every time he walks or talks in front of a camera. (And let’s be clear, Biden may be in great shape for an 81-year-old man, but the presidency is the hardest job in the world; Obama was 56 and Bush II was 63 when they completed their second terms, and look how they aged on the job.)

A great many of the people who actively supported Biden in 2020 know this and are talking about it. But few are willing to talk openly, or to do anything about it.

And canned Biden team rejoinders about how ‘Obama also looked weak in 2012, there is still a lot of time,’ ring increasingly hollow especially given the gravity of the situation, summed up by the observation that Joe Biden is no Barack Obama and, more importantly, Donald Trump is no Mitt Romney, and did not pose the grave risk that Trump now poses.

Biden’s decision to run for re-election looks increasingly like an act of political narcissism undertaken in blithe disregard for the current situation and the need for energetic new leadership to carry the fight forward.

Yet the leadership of both the Senate and the House Democratic caucuses, and the public-facing leadership of the party more generally, is following the lead of the sitting president.

This might make sense in a normal situation. And in any situation, there is a strong mobilization of bias in favor of a sitting president; to seek to depose an incumbent president in a primary is a highly risky proposition.

But this situation is exceptionally and dangerously abnormal, and the question is not whether Biden should be primaried, but whether he should be persuaded and pressured by Democratic leaders that the statesmanlike thing to do is to step aside gracefully.

Donald Trump is poised to be the first and only president in U.S. history to have over a million citizens die of a pandemic due to his negligence, to be twice impeached, to attempt to undermine the peaceful transfer of power and fail, to face three major indictments for his criminal malfeasance in office—and to run again for the presidency and to win.

And Joe Biden is poised to be the first president in U.S. history to be an incumbent defeated by a cruel and boastful liar who has dedicated over a decade to destroying democracy and the rule of law, is under federal indictments for doing so in the past, and has made very plain that if elected he will throw off all existing constraints, using the Justice Department to persecute and prosecute his critics, and using his executive power to destroy the civil service and repress public opposition.

This situation is beyond dangerous. It is literally insane. And yet it is very real.

Joe Biden has been sermonizing about “the soul of the nation” and “democracy is on the ballot” for years, and Democratic party leaders have followed along with him—and there is little reason at this moment to doubt their sincerity.

This situation is beyond dangerous. It is literally insane. And yet it is very real.

Now they face a situation in which the sitting president’s stubbornness and self-righteousness may be jeopardizing not simply his legacy or his party’s electoral chances, but democracy itself.

If to defend the guardrails of democracy is to place democracy over partisan political loyalty, the question must be asked: are Democratic leaders right now treating the defense of democracy’s guardrails with the seriousness and gravity that it deserves?

Are they doing everything they can, both in private and in public, to make sure that they are not succumbing to wishful thinking and the narcissism of a president who started out in politics in 1970, over fifty years ago?

Are they doing enough to persuade worried supporters of democracy that they are serious about the situation and have real plans in place to address it and to prevent a Trump victory in 2024? And are they doing enough to encourage and excite the organizers who will have to work very hard, and soon, to get Democratic voters to the polls?

The answer to these questions is “no.” And time is running out. And more than an election is at stake.

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