Joe Biden thinks he doesn’t need to deliver for American workers to beat Donald Trump, wagering that concern for democratic institutions will do the work for him. He’s sleepwalking into a catastrophe.

US president Joe Biden participates in a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House on June 17, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images)

In 2015, Joe Biden was considering running for president. According to Biden himself, the man who convinced him not to do it was Mike Donilon, one of a tiny circle of advisers who have been with Biden for decades. The president listens to him. And, according to a new report in Axios, Mike Donilon isn’t worried about his boss’s reelection. A “common Donilon refrain” is that “Joe Biden is a great president, and great presidents get re-elected.”

Whether Joe Biden is actually a great president, of course, is a matter of opinion. And Donilon’s opinion doesn’t seem to be widely shared. Most Democrats told pollsters they didn’t even want Biden to run this year, and most polls show Trump beating him in crucial swing states.

According to the New York Times, Biden’s three-person “brain trust” is made up of Donilon, Delaware politician Ted Kaufman, and Biden’s former chief of staff Ron Klain. And the strategy the three of them have crafted for Biden is to emphasize Trump’s badness — the exact same strategy, in other words, that Democrats have been pursuing nonstop since Trump came down the escalator to announce his first run for president in 2015.

You might advise Biden to shore up his electoral prospects by listening to the Democratic Party’s base about Palestine and delivering concrete improvements for working-class people. Some of those improvements could be delivered immediately by executive order. And he could at least campaign on enacting more ambitious reforms like his long-dormant proposal for a “public option” in a second term.

But that’s not what Biden’s team thinks. The president and his brain trust think they need to be doing the same thing they’ve been doing for years: focusing all their energy on reminding voters of the January 6 “stop the steal” riot and Trump’s loathsome personal character.

Democrats haven’t stopped talking about January 6 in the three and a half years since the riot, and we’re entering the tenth straight year of Democratic attacks on Trump’s character. None of it has worked yet — Trump narrowly lost in 2020, he’s looking competitive in 2024, and Biden’s poll numbers continue to be wretched.

But, the theory seems to go, it will work this time if Democrats keep doing exactly the same thing but do it harder.

“Great Presidents Get Re-Elected”

The traditional winning move for presidents seeking reelection is reminding voters of how much better off they are than they were four years ago. But that isn’t really available to Biden.

As Matt Breunig pointed out last year, “The recovery from the COVID recession has increased employment and compressed the wage schedule,” both of which are good things. But “the rollback of the COVID welfare state has seen free school meals eliminated, cash benefits for the poorest kids eliminated, ten million people kicked off Medicaid, and the return of our completely dysfunctional unemployment benefit system,” which is not so good. There was an increase in household wealth, but this was mostly due to the inflation of home and car value, and owning a more expensive home and a more expensive car isn’t much use to anyone who can sell neither of those things because they need a house to sleep in and a car to get around. Oh, and real wages have gone down since Biden took office.

Biden supporters argue that it’s unfair to blame the president for these developments, many of which were partly or even wholly out of his hands. “It’s not the president’s fault” is true, to a point — although only to a point. In some cases, the rules of the Senate, unfriendly state governments, and larger macroeconomic trends would have severely limited what could be accomplished even by a president with far better instincts than Biden. In other cases, he’s quite clearly at fault. No one forced him, for example, to invoke the antiquated and hideously anti–working class Railway Labor Act to stop a rail strike at the end of his second year in office.

Moreover, whatever you make of all this, if your theory of the case is that Biden is a president whose “greatness” will lead to him sailing to reelection, how much of this dismal picture is Biden’s fault is somewhat beside the point. “It’s not the president’s fault things are so dismal” is not the stuff of which presidential “greatness” is made.

And that’s not to even speak of foreign policy — the area over which the president has more control. About 70 percent of Americans, for example, support peace negotiations to end the US-supported war in Ukraine, and the way the war has dragged on has allowed Trump to (misleadingly) posture as an antiwar candidate. Whether or not he’d ultimately be able to deliver, nothing’s stopping Biden from at least trying to use his considerable leverage to bring the war to a close. If he wanted to, Biden could give a speech tomorrow publicly inviting Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky to sit down for such talks at Camp David. No one’s forcing him to take a more hawkish position.

And, far more egregiously, no one forced Biden to go all-in on providing money, diplomatic cover, and two-thousand-pound bombs for Israel’s genocidal war in Gaza — a decision that’s infuriated Democratic voters in states like Michigan that Biden might need to win this November.

“Mike’s Theory”

The Axios story quotes Donilon saying that current polls “aren’t fully reflecting” voters’ concerns about January 6 and the state of American democracy. But, if not from polls, how is Donilon detecting the level of importance of this issue for average voters? Does he have a crystal ball in his office? Is he employing a staff of psychics to assess the things in voters’ minds that aren’t being conveyed to pollsters?

Speaking to the New Yorker earlier this year, Donilon insisted that just as 2004 was a “9/11 election,” 2024 would be a “January 6th election.” But voters’ concerns about terrorism weren’t a well-guarded secret inaccessible to pollsters in 2004.

The problem with all-January-6-and-Trump’s-poor-character-all-the-time is that it’s been three years since January 6, and Trump’s outrageous character has dominated the national conversation for the last nine years. The idea that there’s a large pool of voters who haven’t already factored these things into their calculations is implausible.

If anything, exaggerated claims about the degree of the threat he poses to democracy might be counterproductive, increasing voters’ cynicism. The View’s Joy Behar has publicly worried that her show will be taken off the air if Trump is returned to office, and Rachel Maddow has gone so far as to insinuate that she’ll be thrown in a concentration camp. But it may be hard for swing voters not to remember that Trump was president for four years already. If he wanted to ban the View or imprison Rachel Maddow, wouldn’t he have already tried it?

None of this is to deny that Trump’s contempt for republican institutions has often been alarming and disturbing. It’s a fact that he schemed to steal the 2020 election, and that he’s never backed down from the lie that he “really” won. But whether and to what extent Trump is objectively a threat to democracy is simply a different question from whether this is a winning message.

One problem is that it’s a bit too obvious that when Democrats say “democracy” they seem to mostly mean “Democrats being allowed to win elections.” Surely democracy should be about citizens being able to use the political process to get the things they want — like the redirection of resources from unpopular wars abroad to making working-class people’s lives better at home.

How They Do Things Next Door

Right now, it looks like Biden is heading into a nail-biter this fall. This contrasts dramatically to the presidential election that just played out in Mexico. Claudia Sheinbaum, the political heir of outgoing president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) as leader of the Morena party, won an overwhelming majority of the vote — more than any American president has won in a very long time.

How did AMLO and Sheinbaum do it? It probably helps that their foreign policy stances have been far better aligned with the feelings of their constituents than Biden’s have been (Mexico, for example, has supported South Africa’s case against Israel at the International Court of Justice). But the main story here is about Morena’s ability to deliver the goods economically. Juan David Rojas explains:

Morena’s crowning achievement is the empowerment of the Mexican working class. The monthly minimum wage rose to 7,468 pesos ($440), from 2,650 pesos in December 2018. The governing coalition has also bolstered the ability of workers to form independent unions and outlawed labor outsourcing. As a result, real wages rose by around 35 percent across all labor categories between 2019 and 2023. As one voter who traveled all the way from the border state of Tamaulipas to see Sheinbaum’s campaign close in Mexico City told me, AMLO “was the first president in my lifetime who ever gave a damn about the people.”

Biden isn’t in any position to deliver the American equivalent of these dramatic gains, especially not with only a few months left in his term and without control of Congress. But he could at least make a stab or two in that direction. For starters, a surprising amount can be done by executive order. In 2019, Jacobin editor Meagan Day pointed out that “federal law already requires the US Postal Service to have a brick-and-mortar post office in every zip code, and 60 percent of them are in zip codes with only one or no bank branches.” Any president who chose to, she pointed out, could put predatory payday lenders out of business and signal a robustly populist willingness to take on vested interests by simply issuing an executive order requiring post offices to offer public banking.

Meanwhile, when it comes to reforms that could only be achieved with a congressional majority, Biden could at least campaign on promises about what he would do if such a majority were forthcoming in his second term. This wouldn’t even need to involve going beyond the ideas he’s adopted (if only rhetorically) in the past. When he was working to quash Bernie Sanders’s left-populist insurgency in 2020, he said that while abolishing the private health insurance industry in favor of a single system of “Medicare for All” would be a bridge too far, he did at least want a “public option” to compete with the private insurers. Then he dropped the idea cold after the election. Why not resurrect it? Pretty much every poll since the dawn of time has shown that at least going that far would be popular, and it would force Trump to defend the United States’ ugly health insurance status quo.

Alternatively, Biden could just stay the course. He could spend the next few months talking about January 6 and Trump’s character all day every day, and see how that goes for him. At least if he loses, he’ll have the comfort of a chorus of liberal pundits reassuring him that it wasn’t his fault.

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