Biden’s fateful looming decision
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Leave aside next Tuesday’s midterm elections for a moment (Rana and I will be Swamp Noting every weekday next week, so you’ll get your fill). I want to focus on something that pretty much everyone I see — American or foreigner, politics addict or indifferent — raises in conversation: will Joe Biden run again? This is invariably followed by: is Kamala Harris up to it? You may as well get used to the “will he, won’t he” Biden question because it will become Washington’s most pressing after the midterm elections are over — regardless of the result. The answer to the first is I don’t know. The president himself is firm in his conviction that only he is capable of beating Donald Trump. He is technically right about his record. Biden beat Trump in 2020 and Hillary Clinton lost to Trump in 2016.
Moreover, it is hard to have imagined Elizabeth Warren, say, or Pete Buttigieg, beating Trump in 2020. We largely have James Clyburn, the South Carolina Democrat, to thank for the outcome. It was his endorsement that turned the Democratic primary from a Biden funeral march into a victory procession with remarkable celerity. A tip for future Democratic hopefuls: you cannot win your party’s nomination without strong African American support. Also, black voters tend to be less experimental than white progressives: they have more riding on the outcome. African-American voters only swung behind Barack Obama in 2008 after Iowa’s overwhelmingly white electorate had endorsed him in their caucuses.
None of this means Biden would necessarily beat Trump again. Because the universe is unfair, Biden seems older than Trump, even though he barely is (there is a four-year age gap) and Biden’s diet and exercise regimen is considerably healthier than Trump’s (an almost non-existently low bar but nonetheless).
A despairing Democratic official told me last summer that Biden’s bicycle accident in Delaware dominated the party’s voter focus group sessions for several consecutive weeks. If you are one of the few people who missed it, here is the clip. That trivial mishap left me unconcerned about the president’s executive capacities, but I am not the median voter. Though Biden beat Trump by more than 7mn in the popular vote in 2020, his electoral college victory boiled down to margins of a few thousand here and a few thousand there in states such as Arizona and Georgia, both of which usually vote Republican. Each state is also likely to have Trumpian election officials in place next time, which means Biden is not necessarily the Trump firewall he believes himself to be. Le deluge may come because of Biden or après him. We do not know. But his recent 40 per cent Gallup approval rating is hardly confidence boosting.
Which brings us to the follow up question. I wish Kamala Harris were a more talented political operator than she is. Though media speculation about her future has died down in recent months, I see little sign of a steep improvement in her retail skills. For painful examples of her tenuous relationship with semantics, read George Will’s merciless column in the Washington Post. You have to conclude that Harris’s odds of beating Trump, or any other Republican, would be far lower than Biden’s. So who would that leave us with? Buttigieg is a very sharp communicator and has so far acquitted himself well as one of Biden’s cabinet secretaries. Is middle America ready to vote for a gay married man? I hope so but I am not confident. There is more Democratic talent in the Senate (Amy Klobuchar) and in the states (Gavin Newsom) than is sometimes credited. Moreover, a lot can happen in two years. But Democrats don’t have anything like that amount of time to play with. No serious presidential contender can afford to wait beyond next spring before getting under way. Historically, most candidates enter the fray some time between Thanksgiving and March. Few, if any, would risk leaving their starting blocks if the sitting president were prevaricating. Which means Biden has to make his decision very soon. What should it be Rana?
PS Join Edward Luce, Rana Foroohar, James Politi, and veteran commentator Norm Ornstein on November 10 for a subscriber-exclusive webinar staged with the Swamp Notes newsletter to discuss the US midterm results. Register free today here and submit your questions in advance for our panel.
My column this week looks at next week’s mother of all midterm elections. “Roughly half the Republicans running for federal or statewide office believe the presidency was stolen from Donald Trump in 2020,” I write. “That means America’s system itself is on the ballot next Tuesday.” For some sorely-needed light relief, Swampians might enjoy my FT Weekend review of the New Yorker satire writer Andy Borowitz’s new book — Profiles in Ignorance. Borowitz’s Swiftian pen had me laughing like a hyena.
My colleague John Thornhill has a refreshingly optimistic take on the state of US-China relations — decoupling will be much harder than we suppose, chiefly because of consumers. The two countries may be condemned to “mutually assured co-operation”, John argues. Likewise, my colleague Sarah O’Connor has an original piece on how we will remember the departing era of cheap money. Goodbye cheap mortgages, endless payment plans and subsidised home delivery. Hello something very different.
Finally, do watch Ken Burns’s latest documentary series on America and the Holocaust. The three-part series is beautifully made, as you would expect. It also punctures some long-held myths about US attitudes to immigration and includes some sharp, though implicit, lessons for our times.
Rana Foroohar responds
Ed, you have laid out the stakes here superbly. And I’m happy because as complicated as this scenario is, I have a strong conviction about my answer — Biden should run, but with a different vice-president. If the election were held today, there’s no question in my mind that he’s the only person who could beat Trump. But he needs a vice-president that people would actually want to see in office, if, as my Bostonian husband puts it, “he should go to his reward”.
Like many Democrats, my heart sinks a bit to think of a Harris presidency; my quibble is less over semantics than ideology. To me, she represents the old line corporatist wing of the Democratic party which we just don’t need more of (and which won’t beat Trump or MAGA politics in general). I’d love to see Elizabeth Warren in office, and I certainly wouldn’t mind Amy Klobuchar, but my pick for veep would be Mayor Pete. While it would be nice to see a woman president eventually, people can’t seem to get over Warren’s self-presentation, which is a bit frantic, and Klobuchar (Midwestern, practical, down on big corporations) channels some of what I think Biden already offers (though not as well; she can come across as a little mean sometimes, while he always seems at ease with himself).
On that note, I have to say, I’m starting to think gender matters a lot more in politics than I used to think it did. It’s not that voters aren’t ready for a female president in theory, but it’s very hard for women at the very top to find the self-presentation style that makes people feel they are being authentically themselves, and yet also seamlessly occupying a seat thus far held only by a man. You can be totally yourself and get nearly to the summit (plenty of originals in Congress) but whether it’s the presidency, or to a lesser extent a CEO role, I think it’s still a juggling act for women to be fully who they are and meet public expectations about what leadership looks like. I hope that will change, but in the meantime, I’d say Pete’s the safest bet. I also think he’s a very smart man, and ticks a lot of boxes that need ticking — he’s a vet, he’s good at both policy and messaging, he exemplifies diversity, he gets shit done, etc, etc.
Just one more thing I gotta share — your note about Trump’s eating habits made me remember a funny story a former colleague at another publication told me about a dinner at the White House with The Donald. Apple pie was dessert. He had the staff give everyone one scoop of ice cream on the side; he took two.