Posted by on September 19, 2023 8:39 am
Categories: News The Hill

For Joe Biden, being underestimated is déjà vu all over again

The headlines read that J Biden’s campaign is hopeless: “Trouble Is Brewing in Joe Biden’s Presidential Campaign,” “Why Joe Biden’s Campaign Is Struggling,” “Joe Biden is the Least Formidable Front-Runner Ever,” and “Will Hunter Biden Jeopardize His Father’s Campaign?” 

Each of these doom-and-gloom headlines was published four years ago.  

Today’s media narrative is eerily familiar: “CNN Poll: Biden Faces Negative Job Ratings and Concerns about His Age as he gears up for 2024,”  “Young Black Voters Aren’t Excited about Biden” and “President Biden Should Not Run Again in 2024.” 

For the Biden campaign, it’s déjà vu all over again. 

In many respects, the themes in those 2019 press clippings are familiar ones today. Back then, one analyst wrote, “There’s the basic fact of his oldness and the concerns, explicit or implicit, about his ability to stay agile and alive for four more years,” adding, “He can’t seem to raise any money.” Or this familiar canard, “Biden can seem stuck in the past.” Or this one, “When others are preaching the virtues of a fight, Biden is urging civility.” Then came a particularly snide put-down from Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Committee, who said, “There will always be a gap between Joe Biden and the future.”  

Today, Biden’s vulnerabilities have turned into a siren song. Last week’s CNN poll contained only bad news for the president. His approval rating stands at an anemic 39 percent; 58 percent believe his policies have made the economy worse, 67 percent of Democrats want another candidate to run and nearly three-quarters are concerned about Biden’s “current level of physical and mental competence.” 

But in fact, Joe Biden is in a stronger position today than most people think. Inflation has cooled to a more modest 3 percent. Unemployment has remained below four percent for the first time since 1969. Biden has signed into law the American Rescue Plan, the Chips and Science Act, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Inflation Reduction Act and the first meaningful gun reform legislation in 28 years, to name but a few accomplishments. This is the most substantial legislative record since Lyndon B. Johnson, and the full effects of these laws will be felt over the next decade. 

In foreign affairs, Biden has strengthened NATO, secured international support for Ukraine, faces a weakened Russia and China (with Vladimir Putin reportedly hoping for a second Trump term), and is looking to the future with plans to solidify a Saudi Arabian-Israeli alliance and build a transcontinental railroad across Africa that will fortify supply chains and transport critical materials to the West. Biden has just concluded a G-20 summit that is committed to establishing a trade corridor linking India, the Middle East and Europe. 

Joe Biden’s conception of the presidency is you keep your head down, do the job and don’t worry about 15-minute news cycles and cable news bloviators. That ethos has seeped into the Biden campaign. This, of course, is the exact opposite of Donald Trump, who obsessed over cable news, expressed his outrages on Twitter and notoriously failed to read intelligence briefs or look ahead to the future. Trump’s approach proved disastrous when confronted with the biggest crisis of his presidency: the COVID-19 pandemic

Democrats are notorious “bedwetters”, meaning they continuously worry about losing. James Carville, the renowned Bill Clinton strategist, has joked that his wife has purchased rubber sheets for him.  

But the fact is that even beleaguered presidents are hard to beat. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were unpopular during their first terms but were easily reelected. Donald Trump was unpopular but came within 43,000 votes of winning reelection. Before Trump, only three elected presidents were ejected from the White House after one term: Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. (Gerald Ford lost in 1976 but was never elected to the presidency.) Donald Trump became the fourth. 

Political analysts often remain mired in the past. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 defeat came as a kind of political electroshock therapy. But 2024 is not 2016. This year, Democrats have overperformed in special elections by 7.4 percent. And next year’s electorate will include an expanding group of millennials and Gen Zers who remain extraordinarily hostile to the Republican Party. Suburban and college-educated voters, who turned on Trump in 2020, remain disenchanted with the Republican Party and are unlikely to replicate their prior support.  

Moreover, the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade has energized voters who are strongly inclined to support Democrats. As Simon Rosenberg has pointed out, in 2022 the “red wave” became a red trickle, with Democrats gaining ground in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. This year, Democratic judge Janet Protasiewicz won a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court by 11 points, largely on the issue of abortion. Abortion referenda will be on the ballot in key states in 2024, something that will surely encourage Democrats to vote.  

From the beginning, Joe Biden has been a consistently undervalued political commodity. Bucking the Nixon landslide in 1972, Biden defeated a popular Republican senator, J. Caleb Boggs, who hadn’t lost an election in 26 years. As a little-known, first-term council member from New Castle, Del., Biden was seen as a sacrificial lamb who wasn’t even old enough to take the oath of office. (Biden turned 30 after the election.) For five decades, Joe Biden has been, in George W. Bush’s aphorism, “misunderestimated.” 

Media narratives are hard to rewrite. Just as in 2019, the headlines about Biden’s campaign are being replayed on cable news and social media. But one fact is clear: Never underestimate Joe Biden. When will the pollsters and the pundits ever learn?

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America. His latest book, co-authored with Matthew Kerbel, is titled “American Political Parties: Why They Formed, How They Function, and Where They’re Headed.”

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