Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Of Course Biden Is Running for Re-Election

The Washington Post ran a story on Tuesday about Joe Biden's decision to house his political operation within the Democratic National Committee instead of creating a parallel organization as Barack Obama had done. Obama never had much affection for the DNC, which was not exactly a center of support for him when he ran against Hillary Clinton in 2008. But Obama's neglect of the party's institutional strength while president in favor of the personal vehicles Organizing for America and Organizing for Action ultimately neither provided major electoral payoffs nor won him appreciation among Democratic politicians and committee members. A party regular through and through, Biden has decided that his interests are best served by remaining integrated with the traditional Democratic organizational apparatus heading into the 2022 midterms, rather than siphoning staff members and donor money into a separate political structure.

The Post report mentions, almost as an aside, that while Biden will wait until after the midterms to build a formal re-election campaign and publicly declare his candidacy, his advisors are "working under the assumption that he will once again top the Democratic ticket in 2024." This might be shocking news to some; I have encountered multiple politically aware people since Biden first entered the 2020 race who presume that he would only seek to serve a single term. But it shouldn't be a surprise at all.

The idea of the self-declared single-term president has had a romantic appeal to editorial-page writers (and few others) since well before Biden became the oldest person in history elected to the job. Like many other ideas with romantic appeal, it is disconnected from political reality. Declaring oneself a lame duck from the early days of an administration is not an effective strategy for a president to build or maintain influence, both inside and outside the party. The perception that you might be there awhile is a much better way to attract talented subordinates, pursue ambitious goals, and pressure members of Congress for support, and the inability to seek re-election is one reason why modern presidents' second terms tend to be less focused and successful than their first.

The main point made by the Post article—that Biden is at heart a loyal party man—also applies to the re-election question. Unless an unforeseen governing disaster occurs, Democratic leaders will perceive that they are far better off with Biden running again, and presumably benefiting from the electoral advantage that incumbents normally hold, than with the risk of a damaging internal fight over the 2024 nomination. Even if Kamala Harris were able to quickly consolidate support within the party as Biden's heir apparent, she would still stand in the general election as both a less tested national figure and as a liberal woman of color seeking the presidency in a highly polarized era.

Leading Democrats who have their president's ear are thus very likely to encourage his intention to seek a second term—and to be terrified that a premature Biden retirement would only further increase the chances of a Trump comeback in 2024. Even if Biden were to have doubts about his ability to serve a full eight years, a successful re-election and subsequent mid-term handoff to Harris, setting her up as an incumbent in her own right before she had to face the voters, would be a much more desirable solution according to prevailing Democratic calculations. And Biden has already shown that he's the kind of president who cares a lot about what other people in his party think.

Yes, health considerations or other events may alter these plans. It's certainly possible that Joe Biden will not still be running for a second term when we get to 2024. But right now? Of course he's running. He's already started.

Thursday, February 04, 2021

Biden's Early Moves Reflect the Declining Strength of the Center-Right

The predominant media storyline of the new Biden presidency so far is that it is surprisingly liberal and surprisingly partisan. A Washington community that has long viewed Biden as an instinctive ideological moderate who prides himself on his ability to work with members of the opposite party, and that interpreted his nomination as a decisive defeat for the purist left, has been forced to recalibrate its perceptions in the face of his early governing choices. Progressive observers have found much to cheer so far in Biden's policy and personnel decisions, with some even indulging the hope that his presidency might represent a historical turning point in American politics. Meanwhile, conservative critics have already begun to complain that the new chief executive is failing to live up to his own calls for political unity.

The "moderate" label was always a poor fit for Biden, used mostly as a facile shorthand to denote that his politics differed from those of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. As I observed after his selection of Kamala Harris last August, Biden's actual career-long persona is "regular Democrat," with issue positions and priorities that have evolved over the decades in parallel with the mainstream of his party. The appointment of progressives to multiple administration positions—especially at the sub-cabinet and agency levels—and the ambition of Biden's major proposals in a range of policy areas can be viewed as a simple reflection of a recent leftward shift within the Democratic Party as a whole.

But there's another change that's important here. Biden and his team aren't just being pulled by internal partisan dynamics toward a strengthening left wing. They are also much less motivated than previous Democratic administrations to court the approval of the ideological center-right.

Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama appointed Republicans to their administrations and pursued bipartisan policy solutions in part to build reputations among political elites as mature statesmen capable of rising above mere partisan loyalties. Their primary audience for these decisions was an "official Washington" composed of media thought leaders, think tank staffers, executives and lobbyists, and other political actors who had become accustomed to view Republican rule of the executive branch as the natural order of things (Republicans held the presidency for all but 4 years between 1968 and 1992, and all but 12 between 1968 and 2008) and to venerate right-of-center figures like Colin Powell and Alan Greenspan as the ideal personifications of public service. Much of this official Washington applauded Clinton's and Obama's "responsibility" and "toughness" when they departed from traditional liberal doctrine to pursue deficit reduction at home or military intervention abroad, and sympathetically portrayed non-Democrats within their administrations like David Gergen, Bill Cohen, and Robert Gates as the adults in the room keeping a necessary check on liberal naïveté.

Expectations that the Biden presidency would follow a similar path had caused a certain anticipatory disaffection on the left. But Democratic veterans of the Clinton and early Obama eras see a very different Republican Party when they look across the aisle today. The last decade of American politics, marked by the Tea Party movement and ascendancy of Donald Trump, has convinced even "establishment" Democrats that making concessions outside their party doesn't provide them much benefit—for either producing major policy achievements or realizing significant political advantages. And official Washington has discarded the once-prevalent assumption that the Republican Party is a valuable source of expertise and experience upon which Democratic presidents should productively draw. After the last four years, which party has a better claim to be the adults in the room?

If Biden had defeated Trump by a landslide margin in November, it might have paradoxically tempted him to govern in a more cautious style as a way to keep a wave of new defectors from the GOP inside his coalitional tent. But the last two elections have demonstrated that the anti-Trump Republicans who populate high-status editorial pages and Beltway professional circles are not representative of a numerically populous mass constituency; their approval might make a positive impression within a limited peer group, but it simply doesn't sway many voters. As long as the Republican Party remains devoted to Trump's style of politics if not Trump himself, Democrats may calculate that moderates and conservatives who find Trumpism intolerable will have little choice but to root for Biden's success even if his record is more liberal than they'd like.

The new opportunities for influence granted to the American left by the decaying position of the center-right may turn out to be one of the most unexpected political legacies of the Trump years. Center-right elites used to see themselves as the natural leaders of a "center-right nation." But today they are increasingly abandoned by both partisan sides, facing the realization that they speak mostly for themselves.