Joe Biden’s Democrats in 2023

Back in 2019, my theory was that Joe Biden would win the Democratic nomination, and ultimately the Presidency, basically because he was unlike anything else running in the Democratic field, and that was going to be good with the general electorate. While all the other candidates came out for pet slogans and causes of the activist and leftist wings of the party (Green New Deal, Defund the Police, reparations, “bold” change), Biden simply did not. He didn’t do things like defend Castro’s Cuba. Joe Biden said he was “not the guy” for voters who wanted that, and bet that more voters would back him. It worked. He won the nomination. He then won the Presidential Election, despite his party’s mixed results at other levels (particularly the House, but also to a lesser extent the Senate). Basically, my bet at the time was that the public would embrace a somewhat “normy” liberal at the ballot box, and valued competency more than it valued ideological purity, or frankly even personal charisma (Biden’s approval has mostly been below that of recent Democratic Presidents, both running and in office). I figured he would get elected, go do the job lower key than his predecessors of recent time, and move the Democratic Party as a result.

When I was first thinking about writing this, I was going to say that Joe Biden hadn’t quite done what I expected. As I got to actually considering his performance, he absolutely has though, and the party has benefitted handsomely as a result. I’ll preface this by saying that Biden has been more progressive than probably every Democrat in office since LBJ, but that’s not a super high bar. With that said, Joe Biden also probably just finished the two best performing years of any Democratic President, again since Johnson. His most “progressive” acts include executive action to attempt to wipe away billions in student load debt, which while controversial to some, is really just trying to fix the harmful impacts of a straight up predatory system. He passed the largest infrastructure bill since Eisenhower, one that will create millions of jobs and improve life in this country for generations. His eventual “Build Back Better” legislation may not have been as large as the original, but it took the most substantial action against climate change in our history. He put a highly qualified judge on the Supreme Court, and she happens to have shattered a wall in front of Black women in law through our entire history. He passed a huge stimulus early in his term and got millions of vaccines into arms (and yes, this was a good thing). He did a ton of things in his first two years, and I’m not even getting into all of them here. He did some “traditional” stuff too, like strengthen NATO and confront an expansionist Russian dictator, but that’s for another time. Basically, Joe Biden did go to Washington and govern as the “competent,” boring guy I thought he’d be. He got stuff done. He got elected that way, he governed that way. As expected.

The Democratic Party benefitted from Biden’s pathway, even if it never really made sense that they did. Biden’s personal approval has not been overly high for an early Presidency. His approval wasn’t super high through most of the primaries, and considering who he was succeeding, he didn’t enter office very high. Let’s be honest, Joe Biden doesn’t appeal to the base instincts of the masses. He does not have the charm or charisma of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, or the bravado of George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. Unlike Donald Trump, his appeal is not a double down on his base, Biden is not leading a cult like following. He’s probably most like George H.W. Bush of the modern times, who by the way, lost his re-election. His appeal was literally that he did the #2 job in the Administration pretty competently for eight years, and now he’s just asking to get the promotion. It is not traditionally how we pick Presidents in America. We normally want big personalities like JFK, Teddy Roosevelt, or Reagan. In Biden, we didn’t go that way. This isn’t to say he’s the “class nerd,” but “Uncle Joe” isn’t Clinton or Obama, and well, that worked out pretty well for 2022 Democrats. The GOP picked up just nine House seats, their worst performance against a first term Democratic President in a midterm since before cell phones, color TV’s, or America Online existed. Worse yet for the GOP, they lost a Senate seat. The net effect of course is that Biden will continue appointing judges at a record pace for the next two years, and the House GOP’s “suicide caucus” won’t be able to pass any of their priorities- probably not even through the House. They will send a neutered Kevin McCarthy up to try and capture the Speaker’s gavel tomorrow in the House, and people are openly wondering if he will be able to do anything even if he wins. Joe Biden may not be beloved with the public, but his lower key Presidency has helped the Democrats run circles around a GOP that is completely broken right now.

I guess the only part I am fretting over is whether Biden has changed the Democratic Party as it’s leader, and that question is less obvious to me. To be fair, first off he didn’t promise to. Second off, if you look at the staff world around him, many more of the lead figures in his White House are people who came to him from other major Democratic politicians of the last generation, at least if you’re comparing it to the Obama or Clinton White Houses. Finally, sometimes you can’t really stop a party from being what it is, especially if there’s only maybe 5-6% of the electorate out there to be moved. Biden was never going to cut into Trump’s base and “bring them home” or something, in fact it’s phenomenal that he brought the tiny sliver of “swing” vote his way, considering how they feel about his party as a whole. I think it’s totally fair to say that Biden didn’t attempt to stop some of the trends within the party, or that he didn’t try to change it’s Washington message or culture, but then it’s also totally fair to say he never felt the need to, or probably the ability. He signed up to run the government right, not change an entire movement.

And so here we are. Biden is the center of the Democratic Party, and frankly if Democrats want to win in 2024, they need to follow his lead. Deliver. Run a competent government. Do good things. It might not be absolutely everything we wanted back in 2019, but maybe it’ll end up being everything we need.

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