How Biden wins in 2024

President Biden walks with Vice President Harris at the White House on Nov. 13. MUST CREDIT: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post

If this year’s election is a referendum on President Biden’s performance in office, he will lose it. Most Americans think he is too old for the job. They don’t approve of the job he’s doing. And the numbers are too lopsided for him to get right-side-up in the 37 weeks he has until general-election voting begins.

He hasn’t delivered on his central campaign message in 2020: that he would bring a return to calm after Donald Trump’s term. Instead, we have witnessed two wars and the highest inflation in decades.

Yet Biden still has a narrow path to victory.

His first piece of good fortune is that we no longer live in the era of the presidential referendum. For a long time, elections with an incumbent president were up-or-down votes on how well he had done in office. In 1980 and 1992, voters punished sitting presidents. In 1984 and 1996, they rewarded them. The winning and losing margins were large because a high percentage of voters picked first one party and then another based on their shifting assessments of conditions in their neighborhoods and in the country.

Now, Americans have sorted themselves into large and solid blocs. There are a lot fewer true swing voters. Landslides require extraordinary circumstances. In this era, incumbents don’t have to get the key voters to like them, just to dislike the other guy more. That’s how sitting presidents campaigned in 2004 and 2012, making the case against their opponents as much as for themselves, and winning reelection.

Biden’s second bit of good luck is the identity of the likely other guy. Biden doesn’t need to persuade most Americans to see Trump’s flaws, just to remind them of those flaws and consider them decisive.

The logic of running a campaign that mostly centers on attacking Trump is sufficiently obvious that Biden and his team have given many signs they will do it. Democrats are, however, still debating whether they should offer a gleaming second-term agenda. That might be useful in structuring a second term for Biden. It’s not going to win him one.

More helpful to Biden would be two deals. First, he ought to give ground to Republicans on asylum reform and border control; it would unlock aid to Israel and Ukraine. It would also address a Democratic weak point. If it doesn’t make the border more orderly, he can say that he gave Republican policies a chance and they didn’t work. Second, he has to keep his support for Israel from dampening Democratic turnout – which means he has a strong interest in seeing the Israel-Hamas war end before the fall.

Biden’s campaign also has to decide how much emphasis to place on the many possible attacks it can make against Trump. It will surely spend a lot of time and money blasting the former president for having brought about the end of Roe v. Wade, in keeping with the conventional wisdom that abortion is a powerful issue for Democratic candidates.

A lot of Democrats want to make Trump’s threat to democracy a central theme, as well. The 2022 elections, in which a lot of voters seem to have recoiled from candidates who embraced Trump’s lies about having won in 2020, make them think this tactic will work.

But those voters surely do not need a lot of Democratic speeches or ads to move them into Biden’s column. The electorate in 2024 will be larger and less-skewed toward voters with college degrees, who have tended to respond the most to this theme. And by attempting to knock Trump off the ballot in Colorado and Maine, some Democrats have muddled the contrast between the parties. For all these reasons, Democrats might find it more useful to hit Trump over such issues as health care: He has promised to end Obamacare but has given no indication of having thought about how its beneficiaries would stay insured without it.

Democrats have also been debating whether to keep touting “Bidenomics,” which has so far done nothing for Biden’s poll numbers. If public perceptions of the economy improve – and there is still time for that to happen – it’s probably not going to be because the White House has found the right message. Talking about economic policies might, however, offer a favorable contrast to Trump if he chooses to spend the campaign dwelling on his desire for retribution against his enemies.

Strategy can take Biden only so far. Democrats should be wishing him good luck this new year. He’s going to need a lot of it.

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Ramesh Ponnuru. PHOTO: Twitter @RameshPonnuru

Ramesh Ponnuru is the editor of National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.



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