Joe Biden, Superstar.
For years, Democrats looked at Biden and then turned away. Now they regard him as the savior of the party and perhaps even the country.
He suspended his 1988 presidential campaign four months before the Iowa caucuses. He won less than 1% in the Iowa caucuses in 2008 and withdrew shortly thereafter. He didn’t win a single delegate in last year’s New Hampshire primary.
Bill Clinton crowned himself the “Comeback Kid” after coming in second in the New Hampshire primary nearly three decades ago. That’s nothing compared to the comeback of Biden, who finished fifth in the 2020 Granite State contest, 16 percentage points behind Pete Buttigieg, who eventually settled for being the secretary of transportation. Biden roared back to win in South Carolina, to sweep the party’s convention and to win the White House.
Four other Democrats have won the presidency since 1952 – five if you count Lyndon Johnson, who ascended after the assassination of John F. Kennedy – but none has remotely matched Biden’s early approval ratings among party members.
Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, two Southerners whose White House victories breathed life and hope into the notion that the Democrats could compete for the White House and reclaim their historic base in the South, recorded their highest first-quarter approval ratings in the high 70s. Kennedy, who gave Democrats hope they might have found a new generation of leadership, checked in at a high of 86%, an impressive performance and about the same as Dwight D. Eisenhower and Donald J. Trump. Barack Obama, the great hope of Democrats in the first decade of the new century, recorded a high of 89%, and that was in a period when he had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Biden is by far the record-breaker at 96%, according to the Gallup Poll.
The figure has since slipped to 94%, an insignificant change. But what is significant is that Republican support for Biden as president not once has moved beyond 12%.
No more vivid example of the bipolar nature of American politics – not even the rates of COVID-19 vaccination or mask-wearing – exists.
Biden technically is the chief executive of all the people; he repeatedly vowed he would be the president of those who did not vote for him as well as of those who did, and he surely believes that is his role. In past years, responsible Americans of all political persuasions recoiled when they heard someone say that the person in the White House was not his or her president.
But the Trump and Biden examples suggest that that sentiment is as antiquarian as the 1967 Corvette Stingray with a four-speed manual transmission that Biden treasures. Polls show that Trump was the president solely of Republican America, Biden of Democratic America.
That is a dangerous development for a country where, only a half-century ago, the most reviled Republican of his time, Richard M. Nixon, had an approval rating among Democrats in the high 40s in his first year in office. At the end of his first quarter in the White House, George W. Bush, regarded by some Democrats as an illegitimate president because he prevailed in a disputed overtime election, still had an approval rating among Democrats of 33%. (His support among Democrats dropped quickly, though, settling into single digits by the first autumn of his second term. That performance alone qualifies as proof of the remarks of Herbert Hoover, who experienced a precipitous loss of popularity himself, that “this office is a compound hell.”)
The national zeitgeist being what it is, it is unlikely that, barring the sort of rally-round-the-flag crisis that customarily boosts presidential approval, Biden’s ratings among Republicans will zoom into even the low 20s.
So let’s put that aside for a moment and consider what might be a parallel question of consequence:
How long will that Democratic support continue?
Biden has proposed $6 trillion in spending and massive tax increases, either designed to transform the nature of American society or having the unintended consequence of doing so. (Increasingly, there is evidence that the former is the case.)
Is that what the majority of Democrats want? Is that what the swing voters who tipped the election against Trump expected?
What both groups principally wanted was to assure that Trump wasn’t reelected. Some also voted for Biden because he was a soothing figure, or because he had enormous experience in contrast with the perceived ineptitude of the Trump team, or because he was perceived as being a moderate.
Biden’s effort to appease the progressive wing of his party – his apparent belief that he must – has the danger of alienating the very people who tipped the election away from Trump.
But that very effort also may reflect a fundamental change in the views of Democrats, a conviction that this is not a time for governmental retrenchment, but a time to address vital questions – about race, wealth distribution, the environment, the way America views the family, education and even infrastructure – that for decades have been overlooked, or papered over.
Biden never was a visionary, or at least hadn’t been.
His 1988 campaign resembled nothing so much as a circus, with three rings of disputatious advisers, an issues staff hopelessly juggling various notions of why the Delawarean wanted to be president, a candidate who veered off message as if he were a manic unicyclist. The whole effort ended up being a high-wire act destined to tumble to the ground, which of course it did. His next campaign was little better. Only as the remainder man in 2020 – the guy who was not Elizabeth Warren nor Bernie Sanders, much as he later would be the fellow who was not Trump – did he prevail at last.
But once at the height of American politics, he apparently looked across the horizon, did not like what he saw and found a vision after all: to heal a land with vast inequalities and enormous unkept historical promises – to embrace those promises, and the promise of the country.
To do so, he had better hope that no Senate Democrat perishes. Because if one does, he will find himself with Herbert Hoover, in compound hell.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.