By Robert Reich
My friends, I’m going to press the pause button on today’s news — including the House January 6 hearings — and try to answer a big question that hangs over American politics right now like a sword of Damocles: Does Joe Biden have a snowball’s chance of being re-elected in 2024?
With his current approval rate in the cellar, most pundits assume no (at age 81, he’d also be the oldest person ever elected president, slightly exceeding the typical American’s lifespan). The conventional thinking goes that if he gets the Democratic nomination for 2024 (a big if), Biden will be demolished by Trump (or a Trump surrogate like Florida governor Ron DeSantis) — putting America at the mercy of an even crazier authoritarian than Trump version 1.0.
That’s way too simplistic. Biden’s approval rating is now at around 40 per cent. Ronald Reagan was polling at about the same at this point in his presidency when he was grappling with inflation and the inevitable buyer’s remorse that voters feel a year and a half into a presidency. Two and a half years later, Reagan won 49 states in his re-election bid against Walter Mondale. (Reagan was then 73, just short of the typical American’s lifespan at the time.)
As for Trump, his popularity has plummeted since the 2020 election – a casualty not just of most Americans’ outrage at his big lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him and his role in the January 6th insurrection, but also of the poor showing (and terrifying characteristics) of many of his endorsees in recent Republican primaries The televised hearings by Congress’s select committee investigating the January 6 insurrection are unlikely to improve Trump’s standing with most voters.
Besides, much can happen between now and the next presidential election to alter the odds – not the least, the composition of Congress after the midterm elections, the outcome of the war in Ukraine, and the economy.
It’s true that many Democratic voters are unhappy with Biden — especially many of the young voters who surged into the 2020 election. They had expected Biden to pass more ambitious legislation on a range of issues — slowing climate change, subsidizing childcare and eldercare, lowering the prices of prescription drugs, expanding healthcare, and raising taxes on the rich to pay for all this.
In some ways, Biden has had the worst of both worlds: The 2020 elections that gave Democrats control over both houses of Congress raised expectations that Biden’s proposals would be enacted, but senate Republicans torpedoed almost all of them (apart from benefits to tide people over during the second COVID wave and a deal on infrastructure). Biden also has had to cope with two Democratic senators – West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Krysten Sinema — who vote like Republicans. Even if Manchin and Sinema were willing to support Biden’s proposals, they won’t join other senate Democrats in eliminating the filibuster. That means, under current Senate rules, at least 10 Republicans would have to agree with all fifty Democrats to limit debate and move to a vote – a nearly insurmountable obstacle.
An even more basic problem for Biden is that the Democratic Party he knew when he was elected to the Senate fifty years ago from blue-collar Delaware is not the Democratic Party that elected him in 2020. It’s now largely composed of young adults, college-educated voters, and people of color. In the intervening years, many working-class white voters who were once loyal Democrats joined the Republican Party. As their wages stagnated and their jobs grew insecure, the Republican Party channeled their economic frustrations into animus toward immigrants, global trade, Black people and Latinos, LGBTQ people, and “coastal elites” who want to control guns and permit abortions.
These so-called “culture wars” have served to distract such voters from the brute fact that the Republican Party has zero ideas to reverse the economic trends that left the working class behind. The culture wars have also distracted attention from the near-record shares of national income and wealth that have shifted to the top. As well as from the Republican’s role in pushing even more to the top through tax cuts and subsidies, attacks on labor unions, and refusals to support social benefits that have become standard in most other advanced nations (such as paid sick and family leave, universal healthcare, and generous unemployment insurance).
During his 36 years in the Senate, followed by eight as Obama’s vice president, I’m sure Biden became aware of the loss of these working-class voters. And he must have known of the Democrat’s failure to regain their loyalty.
The Obama administration expanded public health insurance, to be sure. But Democratic administrations also embraced global trade and financial deregulation, took a hands-off approach to corporate mergers and growing industrial concentration, bailed out Wall Street, and gave corporations free rein to bash labor unions (reducing the unionized portion of the private-sector workforce during the last half century from a third to 6 percent).
It was a huge error – politically, economically, and, one might even say, morally.
What accounted for this error? I saw it up close: the Democratic Party’s growing dependence on campaign money from big corporations, Wall Street, and wealthy Americans – whose “donations” (bribes) to both parties soared.
Clinton styled himself a “new Democrat” who would govern from above the old political divides — “triangulate,” in the parlance of his pollster, Dick Morris. In practice, Clinton auctioned off the White House’s Lincoln Bedroom to the highest bidders, made Wall Street’s Robert Rubin his chief economic adviser, advocated and signed the North American Free Trade Act, opened the US to Chinese exports, and cleared the way for Wall Street to gamble.
Obama brought into his administration even more Wall Street alumni and made Larry Summers his chief economic advisor. Obama promptly bailed out the Street when its gambling threatened the entire economy but asked nothing of the banks in return. Millions of Americans lost their homes, jobs, and savings, yet not a single top Wall Street official went to jail.
Small wonder that by 2016, two political outsiders gave dramatic expression to the populist bitterness that had been growing – Bernie Sanders on the left and Donald Trump on the right. At the time, they even spoke the same language – complaining of a “rigged system” and a corrupt political establishment, and promising fundamental change.
Joe Biden saw all this unfold. He came to publicly regret his vote to ease banking rules. He never celebrated the virtue of free markets. He has been far closer to organized labor and more comfortable with non-college working-class voters than either Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. “I am a union man, period,” he has repeatedly said. He’s no free trader, either. Biden proposed relocating supply chains for pharmaceuticals, semiconductors, and medical supplies in the United States, and imposing tax penalties on companies that relocate jobs abroad and credits for those that bring them home. He has kept in place most of the trade restrictions that Trump placed on China.
During the 2020 presidential campaign Biden was billed as a “centrist” seeking bipartisan solutions. But he had big, non-centrist ambitions. Seeking to be a “transformative” president, he openly sought a New Deal-style presidency. Once in office, he proposed the largest social agenda in recent American history. That Biden failed to get most of this agenda passed in his first term was due less to his own inadequacies than to the Democrat’s razor-thin congressional majorities, the aforementioned Manchin and Sinema, and the Party’s own compromised position vis-à-vis the power structure of America.
But Biden’s and the Democrat’s deepest challenge was, and continues to be, voter’s distrust of the system.
All political and economic systems depend fundamentally on people’s trust that its processes are free from bias and its outcomes are fair.
Trump’s big lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him has contributed to the distrust but is not responsible for it. Only about a third of Americans believe him.
The real source of distrust is the same force that ushered Trump into the White House in 2016: four decades of near stagnant wages, widening inequality, a shrinking middle class, ever more concentrated wealth at the top, and growing corruption in the form of campaign cash from the wealthy and corporations.
If Democrats retain control of Congress in the upcoming midterm elections (possible but unlikely, given the usual pattern in which the party in control loses it) Biden could still become a transformative president in the last two years of his first term if he focuses like a laser on reversing these trends.
Even if Democrats do not hold onto Congress, Biden could be a moral voice for why the system must be transformed. It’s his best hope for being reelected in 2024.