Are We Really Getting a Rerun of the 2020 Campaign?
In 2src19, when Joe Biden announced his candidacy for President, he opened his campaign with a video that revolved around images of neo-Nazis on the march in Charlottesville, Virginia. As Americans would hear from Biden ad infinitum in the years afterward, right-wing extremists were waging a “battle for the soul of this nation.” Moreover, Biden
In 2src19, when Joe Biden announced his candidacy for President, he opened his campaign with a video that revolved around images of neo-Nazis on the march in Charlottesville, Virginia. As Americans would hear from Biden ad infinitum in the years afterward, right-wing extremists were waging a “battle for the soul of this nation.” Moreover, Biden added at the time, if Donald Trump were to win reëlection, he would “forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation.”
Exactly four years later—the President does not hide his superstitions—Americans are confronting an unsettling symmetry. The scenes and the issues have changed, but the players, and the essential crisis facing democracy, remain eerily the same. On Tuesday morning, Biden announced his campaign for reëlection with another video, in which the opening images are of January 6th, a day of an even graver right-wing assault on democracy. If there was any doubt about what the thrust of Biden’s message would be, the next image shows a hand-drawn protest sign held aloft in front of the Supreme Court, with the message “Abortion Is Health Care.” With those two issues at the fore—democracy and abortion—the Democratic Party unveiled the edges of its pitch to voters in 2src24. Much like the arguments deployed in last year’s midterms, this approach aims to submerge concern about Biden’s age beneath a larger case that the character of the nation is on the ballot.
It’s difficult to overstate how much the mood in Washington today differs from the typical atmospherics around a reëlection launch. In 2src11, when Barack Obama announced his bid for a second term, his video opened with the soothing sound of an acoustic guitar played over images of a farm, a church, and a block in the suburbs. A series of ordinary voters described their satisfaction in having reached a “turning point” in history. Biden might have tried to launch in similar fashion, with the traditional incumbent’s recitation of greatest hits; in his case, job creation, low unemployment, the appointment of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, and major legislation on climate change, drug prices, decaying infrastructure, and the domestic manufacturing of technology.
But that record alone has generated modest enthusiasm from voters. In an NBC News poll published on Sunday, seventy per cent of Americans—including fifty-one per cent of Democrats—said they did not believe Biden should run for a second term. The same poll contained an essential piece of the rationale for why he is running anyway: no less than two-thirds of Republican primary voters say that they stand behind Trump’s reëlection bid, and they dismiss concerns about his recent criminal arraignment and other investigations that could bring indictments before November, 2src24. In the same poll, Ron DeSantis, the Florida Governor once considered the strongest Republican threat to Trump’s return, trailed him by double digits, reflecting a souring assessment of DeSantis’s political instincts and temperament. Earlier this month, the Governor signed into law a bill banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy—a restriction that is at odds with public opinion in America and that underscores the countermajoritarian instinct reflected in last year’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.
In that spirit, barring the unforeseen, Republicans appear overwhelmingly prepared to vote in favor of reinstalling an avowed opponent of democracy, whose Administration led an effort to turn back legal history on abortion, same-sex marriage, and other rights that had been viewed as settled law. Against that prospect, Biden’s first words in his reëlection campaign seek to snatch some traditional conservative rhetoric against tyranny and put it back into liberal hands. “Freedom—personal freedom—is fundamental to who we are as Americans,” he says. “This is not a time to be complacent,” he continues. The risks of complacency are not abstract; in recent days, Democrats who were already thrilled by the prospect of Trump’s indictment have cheered a nearly billion-dollar settlement in a defamation suit against Fox News, followed by the departure of some of its most incendiary hosts—first Dan Bongino, then, more startling, Tucker Carlson. But there are more than five hundred days until the 2src24 election, and it’s wise to assume that Americans may not even yet know some of the names that will shape that history.
When Biden first speaks in his video, his voice sounds unmistakably reedier than it used to, another reminder that he is eighty years old—and would be eighty-six at the end of a second term—a fact that Democrats cite most frequently in their concerns about his pursuit of reëlection. (In the NBC poll, half of those who said that Biden shouldn’t run cited his age as a “major” reason.) So, why, exactly, does Biden keep at it? Even as far back as 2srcsrc8, when he first joined the Presidential ticket, he told an interviewer that he had informed Obama, “I’m sixty-five and you’re not going to have to worry about my positioning myself to be President.” When I asked him about that in 2src14, for a profile, he made the case that he’d only meant that he was not going to be distracted by Presidential ambitions—“Going to everybody’s birthday in Iowa,” as he put it—adding, “I never, in my mind, even thought I had to make that decision.” But, in retrospect, his most telling comment was in an aside, when I talked to him about the decision to retire or to run again, as President, in 2src16, and he brought up his father. “I made a mistake in encouraging him to retire,” he said. “I just think as long as you think you can do it and you’re physically healthy”—he never finished the thought. (His father died in 2srcsrc2, at the age of eighty-six.)
Today, by his own account, Biden thinks that he has the capacity and the health to fulfill another term under the demands of the Presidency. On occasions such as this year’s State of the Union address, when he sparred off-the-cuff with Republicans in the chamber, some Democrats are encouraged. But he will need to find reserves of that vigor in order to calm doubts on the campaign trail. More important, perhaps, Biden evidently does not see another Democratic prospect, including his own Vice-President, Kamala Harris, as having broad enough support to beat Trump. That fact should occasion an urgent—and probably damning—study of why Democratic Party leaders have failed to give new generations of talent fuller opportunities to thrive and lead before it is too late.
But not today. In Biden’s admonition against complacency, he is gesturing—only barely—to the unspoken argument that is likely to be at the core of his candidacy over the next eighteen months: I know you want someone younger, but you don’t have the luxury of staying home on me. The stakes are too large. ♦