In all but abandoning populist economic rhetoric, the Democratic Party is going the wrong way toward November’s elections. Biden’s stepping down from the reelection campaign could give Democrats an opportunity to change course.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris greet press at the White House for July 4. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

A week into an unprecedented election-year crisis surrounding the Democratic candidate’s fitness for office, it’s still not clear what exactly is going to happen with Joe Biden. The president’s defiant tone to Democrats has contrasted with the reportedly less assured stance he took while speaking to a key ally, while momentum for his ouster is building among Democrats and center-left mainstream media in the face of terrible polling following a debate performance that horrified the country and world.

Fears of what might happen if the party replaces its standard-bearer at this late hour — or, more specifically, if it hands the keys to Vice President Kamala Harris — are swirling. They shouldn’t. The reality is that replacing Biden as the Democratic nominee, if not the acting president, would be a significant upside for Democrats, providing a chance for a genuine reset that few parties get in the middle of a failing election campaign and letting them pivot away from the disastrous direction Biden has taken them over the past year and a half.

It’s somehow already been forgotten that, over the past eight years, Democrats have had two real-world tests of what does and doesn’t work to win presidential elections, and elections against Donald Trump specifically. The first came in 2016, when they ran on nothing but how scary the other guy was and did little to win over progressive voters besides telling them they had no choice. That proved a failure. The second time, in 2020, when they made common cause with progressives to jointly produce and run on a fairly ambitious populist agenda, proved a success.

There were, of course, countless factors at play in both results, including Trump’s unpopularity and the outrage and exhaustion his chaotic presidency had produced. But as many commentators pointed out then and since, Biden’s un-Clinton-like effort to win over progressives and unite the party was central to a win that saw him quiet progressive skeptics, energize progressive and young voters, motivate grassroots groups to do crucial door-knocking, and build a broad voter coalition — saving his campaign from his own ill-advised choice to cancel in-person canvassing, and from Trump’s desperate money cannon and safety-net expansion that delivered the embattled former president a surprisingly strong showing.

Yet even though this happened only four years ago — and even though it was their own winning strategy — Biden and his camp have inexplicably decided to rerun the failed 2016 strategy that first put Trump in the White House.

Biden still has no policy platform, barely mentions what he will do in his second term in public appearances or on his website, and has seemingly given up on the popular policies he failed to pass in his first term, like free community college or lowering the age at which people can get Medicare. In the face of the public’s complaints of economic hardship and rising disapproval of his presidency, the president and his inner circle have refused to take voter concerns seriously, dismissing the public as simply mistaken and opting instead to insist the economy is working for them and restate his accomplishments.

The Biden administration and his campaign were going in the wrong direction long before his horrendous debate performance.

This is all reportedly a deliberate choice by Biden and his advisers, who are convinced that simply hammering away at the danger of Trump and his threat to democracy will be all they have to do to win in November — even though this approach has seen Biden consistently trail Trump in the polls, despite the former president’s criminal conviction and his and his allies’ increasingly unhinged plans for a repressive second term. Even with the campaign in crisis, the Biden team’s only plan for turning his numbers around is reportedly to hope good economic news, like a Federal Reserve rate cut, simply drops out of the sky in the fall.

Worse, where Biden has opted to publicly perform an activist presidency, it’s been to try and win over the Right, with the 2016-like assumption that left-leaning voters will have no choice but to turn out in high numbers no matter what.

His two major policy achievements this year, which the public has watched the president try to move heaven and earth to get over the line, have been a Trump-like evisceration of asylum rights and $100 billion for foreign wars, having long ago abandoned his vow of a “foreign policy for the middle class.” Neither has helped him at all with Republican voters, and, in the case of the deeply unpopular war on Gaza, it has torn his party apart, likely cost him the state of Michigan, and lost him the support of a broad swath of otherwise reliably Democratic voters in an election that he is already losing.

Taking Biden off the ticket, if not from the presidency, would let the party and his replacement reverse course on all this.

They could do as Biden had done in 2020 and release a bold platform, whose individual policy ideas could be reiterated in speeches, interviews, and press releases, the same way Trump in last week’s debate continually brought every question back to his pet issue of immigration.

Ideally, the emphasis would be on how these programs would alleviate the cost-of-living crisis Americans are suffering. Democrats’ job has already largely been done for them: they could simply run on the popular ideas Biden abandoned after 2021, like a $15 (or higher) minimum wage, universal pre-K, childcare subsidies, or even the public health insurance option he stopped talking about as soon as he won. This bread-and-butter focus is exactly what helped Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s successor win by a landslide in the recent Mexican elections, in stark contrast to the Biden camp’s tone-deaf talk on protecting democracy.

They could also promise to revive some of the popular pandemic-era policies that the president allowed to lapse, like expanded Medicaid, which 24 million Americans and counting have now been thrown off of. It would also be smart to unveil a major, highly publicized housing program with something bold — maybe the kind of national rent cap Bernie Sanders proposed in 2020 — since skyrocketing housing costs are becoming more and more central to voters’ frustration at inflation, and are an especially big concern for the young voters Biden is currently bleeding. Should Biden resign the presidency entirely, as some are calling for, his successor could even use executive orders to make some progress toward this and demonstrate her commitment to enacting such a platform.

Maybe most urgently, they could promise or actually carry out a drastic change of course on Gaza. The Biden camp’s early prediction that the war and Biden’s unconditional backing of it would turn his presidency around turned out to be catastrophically wrong. Besides turning the president into a hated figure among some of the public and physically preventing him from campaigning at college campuses, the conflict threatens to erupt into a calamitous regional war at any moment, one that could drag in the United States. Biden’s successor now has the chance to both cleanse the party’s 2024 campaign of this disgrace and avoid another Middle Eastern quagmire — though whether they can successfully do so if Biden remains in office, facilitating Netanyahu’s recklessness, is an open question.

The Biden administration and his campaign were going in the wrong direction long before his horrendous debate performance, and it would be a mistake for Democrats to think all they have to do now to win is swap out the person at the top. The good news for the party is it has a proven model for victory against Trump, and now has an ideal opportunity to put it into practice and enough time to do it. But doing the right or politically smart thing has rarely been the Democratic establishment’s forte.

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