At this juncture, no one else in the country is as likely to be president of the United States come January 2025 as Joe Biden.
Republicans telling themselves otherwise are engaged in self-delusion.
There was a palpable sense during the midterms that Republicans were playing with house money — in other words, that the political environment was so favorable that they could afford to make poor choices and still succeed. That was a mistake last year, and absent something terrible befalling Biden or the country over the next two years, is a mistake when thinking about 2024.
Biden is not a dead man walking; he’s an old man getting around stiffly. Biden is vulnerable, but certainly electable; diminished, but still capable of delivering a message; uninspiring, but unthreatening.
No one is going to mistake him for a world-beater. In the RealClearPolitics polling average, he leads Donald Trump by a whopping 0.8 percent. If his job approval has been ticking up, it’s still only at 44 percent. He walks as if he is only one step away from a bad fall, and an NBC poll earlier in the year found that just 28 percent of people think he has the mental and physical health necessary to be president.
That said, he’s in the office, and no one else is. Incumbency bestows important advantages. The sitting president is highly visible, is the only civilian in the country who gets saluted by Marines walking out his door every day, has established a certain threshold ability to do the job, and can wield awesome powers to help his cause and that of his party.
Since 1992, Trump is the only incumbent to have lost, failing to join Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama as re-elected incumbents.
Biden was never going to be the next LBJ or FDR as a cadre of historians had seemingly convinced him early in his presidency. But he punched above his weight legislatively during his first two years, getting more out of a tied Senate and slender House majority than looked realistically possible. He’s set up to have the advantage in this year’s momentous debt-limit fight, since it’s hard to see how congressional Democrats aren’t united and congressional Republicans divided.
Biden’s age is a liability for him, but comes with a significant benefit — he does not look or sound like a radical any more than the average elderly parent or grandparent. This has enabled him to govern from the left — he would have spent even more the first two years if he could have — without appearing threatening or wild-eyed. He hasn’t restored normality to Washington so much as familiarity as the old hand who has been there since 1973 and made his first attempt at national office in 1988.
Since the midterms and likely in anticipation of a reelection campaign, Biden, who usually does whatever his party wants him to do, has shown a small independent streak. It’s hardly Bill Clinton-level triangulation, but the president is apparently mindful of the need to make a few feints to the center and of how progressive squawking can help him look more moderate.
He said he wouldn’t veto congressional action blocking a D.C. crime bill, earning a rebuke from AOC among others. He’s considering bringing back family detention at the border, and pro-immigration groups are outraged. His approval of the Willow oil drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope “greenlights a carbon bomb,” according to the group Earthjustice.
Importantly, in 2024, nothing Biden does will be considered in isolation, but instead compared to his Republican opponent. As of now, Trump has the best odds of being, once again, that adversary. Trump would have some significant chance of beating Biden, simply by virtue of being the Republican nominee, and there’s always a chance that events could be Biden’s undoing.
But Trump would probably be weaker going into a rematch than the first time around. He lost to Biden in 2020 — before he denied the results of a national election, before a fevered band of his supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, before he indulged every 2020 conspiracy theory that came across his desk, before he said the Constitution should be suspended and before he made his primary campaign partly about rebuking traditional Republicans that the GOP suburbanites he’d need in a general election probably still feel warmly about.
There’s also a strong possibility that Trump gets indicted once, or even twice, in coming months. Such charges would be perceived as unfair by Republicans — perhaps rightly so — but they would add to the haze of chaos around Trump.
Ron DeSantis or another Republican contender presumably matches up better against Biden, based on the generational contrast and the absence of Trump’s baggage alone. Yet, if a non-Trump candidate wins the nomination, he or she will have Trump in the background, probably determined to gain revenge against him or her. Imagine, if after Biden defeated the rest of the Democratic field in 2020, they didn’t leave the race and collectively endorse him, but sulked and found ways to undermine him.
Then, there’s the state of the GOP generally. It has an impressive crop of governors. Otherwise, it hasn’t seemed to take on board the lessons of the last couple of years. First, there’s a real chance that it will re-nominate Trump, after everything. Second, various state parties are irresistibly drawn to politically toxic, proven losers. In Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano, who got wiped out in the gubernatorial race last year, is thinking about running for Senate next year and handily leads in early polling. Kari Lake, who threw away a winnable gubernatorial race that she still maintains she won, is looking to enter the GOP primary for Senate, and would be a prohibitive favorite.
There’s no fortune quite like being lucky in your enemies, and Biden could well get a big break in this respect yet again. However much Republicans may wish he were a pushover, he’s not, and they should be acting accordingly.