“Whether Joe Biden decides to run for reelection in 2024 or not, the central achievement of his presidency is already clear. He is the person who moved decisively to stop Donald Trump — first at the ballot box and now through his administration’s steady, unblinking application of the rule of law.
If Biden and his team can succeed in that mission over the next two years, I would bet that he will do what any chief executive around his age does, which is to think carefully about finding a successor who can carry on his policies and preserve his accomplishments.
Some presidents struggle in office to frame their legacy. But for Biden, it’s easy. His core mission from the beginning was to prevent Trump from destroying American democracy.
For all his ups and downs, Biden has been consistent in framing that goal. When he entered the 2020 presidential race in April 2019, he said bluntly: “We are in the battle for the soul of this nation.” If Trump won another term, he warned, “He will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation, who we are, and I cannot stand by and watch that happen.”
Biden was right, and he set his course to stop Trump. He recognized that only a centrist Democrat could win enough independent votes to displace the incumbent, and he held fast to that position despite withering fire from the left. The political class often echoed Trump’s line that Biden was too old and inarticulate to be president. Biden’s wry retort, way back in December 2018: “I am a gaffe machine, but, my God, what a wonderful thing compared to a guy who can’t tell the truth.”
Biden’s victory at the polls in November 2020 was a hinge moment in U.S. history. Trump, as we now realize with shocking clarity, was willing to do anything to cling to office. But he failed, thanks partly to principled Republicans who refused to join a coup — and thanks even more to Biden, who ran a disciplined campaign as a centrist who would restore normal order.
Biden’s inaugural speech on Jan. 20, 2021, focused on this basic mission. “Democracy has prevailed,” he said. He used the word “unity” eight times in the speech. And he seemed to understand his place in the American story, replacing Trump’s “carnage” with something decent. “We answered the call of history,” he said toward the end of the speech. “We met the moment.”
Biden at first hoped that Trump would accept defeat and go away. He avoided mentioning him by name for most of his first 18 months, referring to him as “the former president.” He must have hoped that Trump, starved of publicity to feed his ego, would shrivel to normal ex-presidential size. But Trump couldn’t adjust to reality. His stationery bore the presidential seal, he treated super-secret government documents as his personal property, and he insisted that he had never lost the election at all.
Ignoring Trump wasn’t going to work. It only made him clamber for attention more loudly and recklessly. And Trump’s supporters amplified the danger. So during a Sept. 1 speech in Philadelphia, Biden changed tone. He stated bluntly the idea that brought him into the presidential campaign back in 2019: “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.”
Biden’s language was tougher, but the message was the same one he delivered in his inauguration speech. If Trump’s extremism could be stopped, he said, “then ages still to come will say … we kept the faith. We preserved democracy. … We heeded not our worst instincts but our better angels.”
Biden’s sharp warnings about the threat to democracy might seem out of character for a career politician whose genial, back-slapping style was refined by decades in the Senate. But as Sen. Christopher A. Coons, the president’s close friend and fellow Delaware Democrat, told me, Biden got his start trying to dampen the politics of rage. His first elected office was as a member of the city council in a Wilmington, Del., torn by racial violence and occupied by the National Guard. “He has seen this moment,” explains Coons.
After a ragged 12 months, Biden seemed to rediscover the art of politics this summer, breaking the political impasse (within his own party as well as with Republicans) to pass significant legislation on climate change, technology investment and gun control. He convinced progressive House Democrats that half a loaf was better than none. It helped that he looked like a commander in chief in supporting Ukraine and the killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. And his wise decision to make Merrick Garland his attorney general has been validated by Garland’s slow and steady — but unyielding — pursuit of possible criminal actions by Trump and his supporters.
Biden has found a better groove, politically, in recent weeks. His approval ratings are up, and Democrats are hoping they can retain control of the Senate in the midterms, though an all-but-assured Republican takeover of the House will shift the balance of power in Washington.
Biden might have difficulty governing after the midterm elections, and 2024 remains a mystery. But as Trump’s political death spiral accelerates, Biden’s presidential legacy is nearly complete.