We just had a good week for anyone enthused about relitigating the 2020 election. First there was new evidence, reported in a new book about the Biden family from Politico writer Ben Schreckinger and in an Insider story on an abortive Libya-related influence operation, suggesting the famous Hunter Biden emails were real and indicating how much his influence peddling depended on proximity to his father. The Twitter and Facebook decisions to censor The New York Post’s election season version of the Hunter Biden story looked partisan and illiberal at the time; now they look worse.
Then along with that spur to conservative frustration there was a new revelation for Trump-fearers: the exposure of the entirely insane memo that conservative legal scholar John Eastman wrote explaining how Mike Pence could supposedly invalidate Joe Biden’s election. This was presumably the basis for Donald Trump’s futile demand that Pence do exactly that, and it is understandably grist for the “coup next time” fears that already attend Trump’s likely return to presidential politics.
But sometimes looking backward can obscure where we are right now. And that is a place where few Democrats expected to be when Biden took office with his party in control of government, vaccinations ramping up and hopes of an economic boomlet growing. It is not just that the president’s approval rating is dropping toward Trump-like levels (and falling sharply among the minority voters who surprised liberals with their Republican shift in 2020). Trump’s own approval may be rising, a recent Harvard CAPS/Harris Poll suggests, to a point where Americans think at least as favorably of the ex-president as of the current one.
Along with any worries about Trump stealing the next presidential election, then, Democrats should recognize the possibility that he might simply win it.
What has gone wrong for Biden is a combination of bad luck, bad choices and inherent weakness. The bad luck is mostly about COVID-19 itself, whose delta-variant surge no president could have easily controlled. That may be the most important drag on Biden’s approval rating — which started to decline in earnest around the time the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention restored a mask recommendation. This, in turn, points to the most optimistic take on Biden’s situation: that his political fortunes are simply tied to the coronavirus and will recover rapidly when — by spring, God willing — death rates finally drop away.
The more pessimistic take, though, recognizes all the places where Biden’s own efforts have gone astray. He has done popular things incompetently: The retreat from Afghanistan was overdue and had the public’s support, but our manifest unpreparedness for the Taliban’s sweep into power meant that Biden ceded any political benefit he might have gained from pushing the withdrawal through.
He has also let liberal confidence lead him somewhat astray on key issues: His big initial economic stimulus has turned out to be a little more inflationary and a little less stimulative than many of its champions expected, raising “stagflation” specters that were definitely not in the Democratic game plan, and his beleaguered border policy has demonstrated that just promising to be more humane than Trump is inadequate to the constant challenge of migration waves.
And while he has passed one key test of governing acumen — getting Republican votes for his infrastructure bill — he has failed several others, letting his administration’s COVID-19 messaging dissolve into dissonance and watching his own party’s internal negotiations get snarled by Squad-versus-Sinemanchin disputes.
In general, Biden seems to do best on issues that require either spine or simple glad-handing — holding firm against the generals who wanted to stay indefinitely in Kabul, keeping Republicans at the table for an infrastructure deal — but worse the more that success depends on a mastery of strategy or minute detail, or a careful negotiation between hostile factions.
Which should not be surprising since Biden’s inherent weakness is that he is an old man, suffering from some manifest deficits relative to his vice presidential self, in a job that devours younger politicians.
That makes a change of luck seem like the best hope for recovering his presidency, because it requires the least of him: COVID-19 diminishes or vanishes; inflation is contained or temporary once economic normalcy returns; the immigration wave ebbs for cyclical reasons; Democrats get their act together legislatively or do not, but it is a political wash either way.
Whereas what should worry Democrats most are scenarios that require a lot from this president: adaptability, finesse, a skillful use of the bully pulpit. Biden can definitely float back up; I am less sure that he can claw his way back, as Bill Clinton did after his early presidency stumbles.
Here it would be really helpful if Biden had a vice president who balanced his weaknesses and reaffirmed his strengths — who seemed more energetically engaged with policy and congressional politicking while also extending his normalcy-and-moderation brand should she be required to inherit it.
I will leave it to the reader to decide whether that describes the Kamala Harris vice presidency to date — or whether Harris offers more reasons for Democrats looking toward 2024 to fear not just chaos but defeat.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.