Joe Biden Doesn’t Have What It Takes
A candidate in search of a message still hasn’t found one as president, beyond not being Donald Trump—and, polls show, that isn’t nearly enough.
That’s the impression I’m left with after thumbing back through Richard Ben Cramer’s classic tome about the 1988 presidential campaign, What It Takes, which features Biden as one of the profiled candidates.
In it, Biden comes off a little bit like Ted Kennedy in that famous Roger Mudd interview—a man who lacks a compelling rationale for wanting to be president. “Everybody in the country...knew that Biden wanted to run,” Cramer writes, “but he wasn’t going to run without [a] message…and he didn’t have a message.”
Biden’s team only developed a halfway compelling one after adviser Pat Caddell heard the Genesis song “Land of Confusion” and latched onto the theme of generational transformation. Unfortunately, “Land of Confusion” would make an even more appropriate theme for Biden’s current presidency.
A new ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that he’s in dire trouble. His “overall approval rating sets or matches career lows among nearly all demographic groups, with positive assessments among most down significantly from their peaks in the spring or summer.”
And as was hinted by the Virginia gubernatorial results earlier this month, the damage isn’t limited to Biden’s own 2024 re-election chances. “[I]f the midterm elections were today, 51% of registered voters say they’d support the Republican candidate in their congressional district, 41% say the Democrat,” according to the ABC News report. This constitutes the largest lead for Republicans since the ABC/Post poll started asking this question in 1981 (which means that Democrats are currently in worse shape than they were in 1994, a year referred to as the “Republican Revolution”).
Meanwhile, Democrats don’t seem particularly concerned. Consider this quote from the Washington Post: “By next year’s elections, top Democrats say, the national environment will look dramatically different. They project confidence that the coronavirus pandemic will fade, allowing Americans to fully return to their normal lives, and that supply chain bottlenecks and inflation will also ease, allowing the economy to improve.”
This seems, shall we say, optimistic. Indeed, 70 percent of those surveyed said the economy is in bad shape, which is no surprise, coming on the heels of rising inflation.
One interesting finding is that the bipartisan infrastructure bill Biden signed on Monday enjoys the support of 63 percent of independents, while Biden gets just 35 percent support from them. As such, it seems unlikely that Biden could reverse his polling problems by getting Congress to pass additional legislation, including his Build Back Better bill.
At least Biden got to take a victory lap on Monday, saying it was proof that “Democrats and Republicans can come together and deliver.” “Today, we’re finally getting this done,” he said. “Historians will look back at this moment,” he continued, and say this was “the moment America began to win the competition of the 21st century.”
For Biden, though, even a signing statement can be a mixed bag. In this case, after taking months to finally pass the elusive bill, the signing was overshadowed by the closing arguments in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon surrendering to the FBI.
No respect, I tell you. Not that a widely-viewed signing ceremony would turn things around. Biden’s problems partly stem from misreading his mandate. But an even more troubling theory is that he was always fundamentally ill-suited to the task of being president.
Biden’s incompetence was concealed by a 2020 campaign that first pitted him against a weak field of Democrats attempting to out-“woke” one another, and then against a uniquely chaotic and divisive president—during a global pandemic. This allowed Biden to succeed without having to demonstrate competence or by earning much of a proactive mandate.
Indeed, the answer to the competence question and the message question both boiled down to saying, “I’m not Trump!” This worked out well in the campaign, but it has not been an effective governing strategy. Sadly, though, his failure to govern effectively was somewhat predictable and foreshadowed by Biden’s first presidential campaign in 1988.
As David Sessions wrote in The New Republic last year, there is “no evidence of Biden ever having had an ideology in the sense of a coherent, historically grounded political worldview. In Biden’s own telling, politics as packaging and profession appealed to him from a very young age; inspired by John F. Kennedy as the first Catholic president, the young Biden famously looked up politicians’ biographies to find out how they got where they were.”
We’re left with a troubling question: What if Joe Biden was never really all that good?
As Richard Ben Cramer writes in What It Takes, looking to pop culture, Biden’s strategists were always trying to make him something he wasn’t during the 1988 campaign. “This was a new generation, the first MTV campaign…” his gurus insisted. “He’s got to break through The Big Chill!” one declared.
The problem? “Joe didn’t see those movies,” Cramer writes, “and rock 'n’ roll, well…it wasn't him. Joe didn’t know what The Big Chill was, much less how to break through it.”
“Sometimes he tried to explain to his guys,” Cramer tells us, “when they got into this generation thing: ‘68…he really wasn’t, you know, in that…He was married. He had kids. Anyway, even in college, he was the guy who wore a suit jacket to class.”
“But that didn’t matter to the gurus,” Cramer continues, “There was a truth to be sung: a generation, a nation, to awaken!”
Now here’s what I find hilarious. In 1988, the gurus wanted Biden to be a transitional figure—like RFK. And in 2021, the gurus wanted Biden to be a transitional figure—like LBJ. But Biden didn’t get the '60s in the '60s. He didn’t get the '60s in the '80s. And he didn’t get the '60s in 2020. Biden is many things, but a revolutionary, transitional figure ain’t one of them.
As Biden continues to drop in the polls—and as his tenure looks more and more like a failed presidency every day—that seems even more assured.
There’s “transitory” inflation, a border “crisis,” rising violent crime, an unwise Afghanistan withdrawal that turned into a debacle, and a delta variant on the loose.
Can't you see this is a land of confusion?