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Thursday, March 07, 2024

Opinion | Biden is failing to prevent Trump’s return - The Washington Post

Opinion Biden is failing at the most important task of his presidency

President Biden listens to Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni at a meeting in the Oval Office on March 1. (Tom Brenner/For the Washington Post )

"Even Democrats who are skeptical of President Biden’s chances of winning this November usually say he is doing a fantastic job, pointing to the strong economy and the long list of legislation that has passed in his tenure. The implication is that voters aren’t appreciating Biden as they should, perhaps because of his age.

But if Democrats were honest with themselves, they would admit the current state of American politics is nowhere close to what they hoped for three years ago: Biden at 38 percent approval; Donald Trump easily winning the Republican nomination and rising in popularity; Trump leading Biden in nearly every swing state; Arab Americans in Michigan furious with the president and threatening to vote against him in November; and Biden hawking a restrictive immigration plan written with little input from Latino lawmakers.

Biden has failed at the most important task for a Democratic president in the 2020s: eliminating or at least drastically reducing the chances of Trump or someone who shares his radical beliefs being his successor.

Biden’s tenure would be great for a president elected in 1992 or 2008 or even 2016. But not 2020. This presidency is not about passing legislation, working across party lines or fixing the economy. The Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans who went to protests throughout 2017 and voted in unusually high numbers in 2018 and 2020 felt American democracy was under threat, not that there wasn’t enough federal spending on microchip manufacturing. They certainly weren’t looking for anyone to brag about their close relationship with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who was an enabler of Trump’s terrible conduct as president.

In terms of weakening Trumpism, Biden has failed in two crucial ways. First, Biden is very unpopular (about 56 percent of Americans disapprove of him), making him vulnerable to losing even to Trump (roughly 52 percent disapproval.)

And that’s despite Biden trying very hard to be popular. The administration has particularly courted White voters without degrees, who have trended Republican over the past three decades, and moderate Republicans, who it seemed might connect with a centrist Democratic president. Much of Biden’s legislative and political strategy seemed designed for those two groups: government spending to create jobs that don’t require degrees and/or are in rural areas; centrist rhetoric and policies on immigration and policing; bipartisan deals on infrastructure and other issues; little emphasis on concerns that disproportionately affect minorities, such as voting and transgender rights.

Early in Biden’s tenure, White House officials would say privately that the best way to save democracy was for the federal government to be seen by the public as working effectively. So a strong economy would be a bulwark against Trumpism.

But this strategy didn’t work. Biden is very unpopular with the moderates and conservatives he has courted and also has lackluster numbers with his party’s base. The president and his team claim credit for the strong performance of Democratic candidates in 2022 and last year. But those candidates kept their distance from the White House and won by casting Republicans as extreme. That was the same formula Democrats used in 2018, when Biden wasn’t yet in office.

“To give Biden his due, I’d say he executed his vision almost exactly as conceived,” liberal writer Brian Beutler asserted last month in his newsletter, Off Message. “Democrats did not botch the implementation of his plan, to the contrary they implemented it almost perfectly. The problem is that, to this point at least, it has been a comprehensive political failure.”

Biden supporters are now trying to recast this presidency as one of massive policy accomplishments that justifies his unpopularity. I agree some important legislation has passed. But I suspect most people on the left and center would trade Biden’s agenda for a president with a 52 percent approval rating who was clearly leading in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin and might flip Florida, North Carolina and Texas and defeat Trump in a blowout. That’s not impossible — a Democrat (Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear) just won reelection in a state more conservative than Florida, North Carolinaor Texas.

Biden’s second failing in stopping Trumpism was choosing Merrick Garland as attorney general. Garland, like Biden, is known for his centrism. Under Garland’s leadership, the Justice Department moved slowly in investigating Trump’s role in attempting to overturn the 2020 election and encouraging the Jan 6. attack on the Capitol.

Three years after the alleged crimes, legal proceedings against Trump are very fraught, since he has become essentially the Republican presidential nominee. Judges and juries might be reluctant to act in ways that deny conservative Americans a chance to elect a president who shares their ideology.

More than any recent president, Biden needed to stay popular. He didn’t. He needed to make democracy issues a central focus of his presidency. He didn’t. He needed to pick an attorney general who would take the uncomfortable but necessary steps to prosecute the opposition party’s top leader aggressively and quickly. He didn’t do that, either.

Biden backers say this was all basically inevitable: Modern U.S. presidents are usually unpopular; virtually every leader of a Western nation has a higher disapproval than approval rating, because of pandemic-era inflation; complex legal cases such as Jan 6. often take years. The reality is more complicated. Barack Obama was in the Oval Office and popular eight years ago. There is a difference between being slightly unpopular (Obama for much of 2011) and extremely unpopular, as Biden is now.

Trump’s attempts to overturn the election were a profound assault against America that we all watched. There should have been urgency to investigate him, as opposed to Garland’s Justice Department winning convictions of little-known conservatives who followed Trump’s lead and forced their way into the Capitol three years ago. In my view, Trump should be in jail, not running for president.

What now? I disagree with New York Times columnist Ezra Klein’s recent call for Biden to withdraw and for Democratic delegates to choose a new candidate at the party’s convention in Chicago in August. I am uncomfortable with party insiders choosing a replacement instead of the voters deciding. And it’s too late now to have enough competitive primaries.

At the same time, I’m skeptical that Biden can make himself much more popular. He’s been stuck at about 40 percent approval for more than two years.

But I have a lot of hope in the voters and in other Democratic politicians. While Biden seems to pine for the Democratic Party of his youth, which was full of blue-collar White workers with more conservative views on issues such as abortion, many activists and officials, such Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, have fully embraced the party that exists today. They are emphasizing abortion rights and democracy and trying to energize young people, people of color and White women, fully aware that most White voters without degrees will stick with Trump.

Instead of leading the party, Biden’s campaign is increasingly following it, particularly in making abortion a central issue. Vice President Harris, once derided as a political liability, now has a very prominent role in a campaign desperate to generate enthusiasm with the party’s base.

Perhaps Biden turns around his numbers and cruises to victory. Or Trump is tried and convicted before Election Day. Or more likely, voters terrified of Trump vote for Biden despite not liking him (and the president again unjustifiably claims credit for Democratic victories). But up to now, Biden’s political strategy has flopped, making a second Trump term far more likely than nearly anyone anticipated three years ago."

Opinion | Biden is failing to prevent Trump’s return - The Washington Post

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