🔒 The Economist – Lexington: Joe Biden is only fooling himself

From The Economist, published under licence. The original article can be found on www.economist.com

© 2024 The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved.

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The Economist – Lexington

A president who prides himself on the common touch is insulting everyone’s common sense ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Despair as you may about American politics, polls suggest a stubborn cause for hope: Americans still do not appreciate being treated like fools. Regardless of what alternative facts their politicians insist upon, most voters do not ignore their common sense or life experience or the evidence of their eyes and ears.

This helps explain why former president Donald Trump has never had majority support, and why President Joe Biden’s pitiable debate performance on June 27th did not much affect public opinion of his ability to do the hardest and most important job in the world. Yes, 72% of registered voters told CBS afterwards that they thought he lacked “the mental and cognitive health to serve as president”—but, in answer to the same question just three weeks earlier, fully 65% said the same thing. Such doubt was not new: back in 2022, barely a quarter of Democrats told pollsters they wanted to see Mr Biden renominated; those who were opposed cited his age as their biggest concern. Until the debate, Mr Biden and his aides were fooling only themselves, their truest believers, and those partisans for whom it was convenient to believe.

That is why consternation at Mr Biden’s performance varied inversely with distance from places like Washington and the Hamptons. The debate mattered because it shook the confidence of Democratic officeholders, donors and operatives that the fiction of his acuity and stamina could be sustained until the election. He was already trailing Mr Trump; how could the president hope to win over any more voters, if he could not even articulate a case for abortion rights?

If Mr Biden and his aides believed, as they said, that he just had “a bad night”, they would have immediately arranged for a serious broadcast journalist to grill him. Instead, they tried for days to brazen things out with the same old tactics: deploying teleprompters to guide the president through even informal remarks, and accusing dissenters of “bed-wetting” and helping Mr Trump. Such condescension was too much even for stalwarts, who knew that every vulnerable Democratic candidate would be in an impossible bind: either affirm that Mr Biden was fit for office or openly break with their president. As the first on-the-record call for Mr Biden to step aside was heard from a Democratic congressman, it was reported that Mr Biden would sit for an interview, with ABC on July 5th. A passable performance may reassure donors, but anything less than the old Joe Biden—the buoyant, garrulous fellow of yesteryear—will have small chance of changing voters’ views of biological reality. People know what it means to grow old.

Mr Biden is 81. While holding fewer press conferences than his predecessors and even using shorter stairs to reach Air Force One, he has been assuring voters he can serve until he is 86. Astonished to realise that this claim is implausible to most Americans, Democratic insiders are now wondering who could have imagined it would be swallowed. In press reports some are anonymously knifing members of Mr Biden’s inner circle or blaming the president himself. They should look in the mirror. Since 2016 Democrats have scorned Republicans for falling in line behind Mr Trump instead of voicing their concerns that he is not up to the job. Maybe such Democrats will now feel, if not some shame, at least some empathy for their Republican counterparts. It is hard to be brave.

In fact, Republicans might be able to hold their heads slightly higher: some at least called Mr Trump unfit before humiliating themselves by lauding him, and a few opposed him in the primaries—granting Mr Trump a more democratically tested claim on his party’s nomination than Mr Biden has. Julián Castro, who ran for the Democratic nomination in 2020, told NBC News that smothering competition led Democrats into a trap. “Anybody that stepped forward as a potential contender, the idea of having debates, campaign consultants that might think about supporting somebody—all of them were shut down,” he said. “At each juncture the opportunity for an off-ramp was cut off.”

It’s perverse: the very ambitions of rising Democratic officeholders kept them from challenging Mr Biden. They found it wiser to wait until 2028 rather than risk accusations of disloyalty. Similar calculations might prevail if Mr Biden steps aside, because to compete would mean challenging Vice-President Kamala Harris, however unpopular she is. “Are you going to shove aside your vice-president and beat Trump in six weeks?” says one Democratic operative close to the White House. “If you fail, you’re dead.”

As though to rub the Democrats’ noses in their folly, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, four days after the debate, chose to immunise former presidents against prosecution for crimes in office that can be construed as “official acts”. Shortly before that, Mr Trump reposted a meme on social media calling for Liz Cheney, a Republican who crossed him, to be tried for treason before a military tribunal.

Biden, their time

Mr Biden should be wise enough to encourage impatience and ambition in younger Democrats. He is justly proud of his own. “You know what he said?” a young woman named Neilia Hunter confided in 1964 to a friend about her dazzling new boyfriend. “He told me he’s going to be a senator by the time he’s 30. And then he’s going to be president.” Mr Biden was right, despite the obstacles and agonies life had in store. He won his first Senate race at 29. Before he was sworn in, he lost Neilia and their baby daughter, Amy, in a car crash. He survived two brain aneurysms, lost one son to cancer and struggled with another’s addiction. He lost two presidential races. And then, when it mattered most, he won. He has good reason to believe in his capacity to confound his sceptics and beat the odds. But now he is facing an opponent no one has ever defeated, in a contest that is rigged against us all.

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