After more than 50 years on ballots, President Joe Biden knows a thing or two about how to keep voters satisfied.
But when it comes to explaining why even his own party has had enough of him, he has embraced the teachings of a much younger political figure, the one who famously tapped him as an understudy. For eight years in the White House, President Barack Obama had a favorite—although often unfairly chosen—target when things weren’t going his way: the White House communications team.
Bad approval numbers heading into a midterm “shellacking”? A failure to communicate.
Obamacare’s lingering unpopularity? Sloganeering gone sideways.
The rise of ISIS? Even that was a messaging problem.
From his first campaign for Senate in 2004 through his exit from Washington in early 2017, Obama routinely pointed to the messenger as the errant player, not his policy team, not the underlying idea, not even the salesman himself. It was a communications failure. Full stop.
That posture, of course, absolved Obama of many of his administration’s sins while protecting his vaunted reputation as a master orator. After all, he was famously celebrated for his speechifying skills. Once, at a White House cocktail party, he scolded me directly, in front of my perplexed father, when I complimented his team for a job well done the day before in Oslo on his speech accepting a Nobel Peace Prize. That was 100% him, he told me, at a time when the White House was arguing that the Democrats’ failure to hold the governors’ offices in Virginia or New Jersey a few weeks prior was totally someone else’s rhetorical shortcoming.
Biden certainly taught Obama a thing or two over their eight years down the hall from each other, and Biden clearly picked up the shoot-the-messenger playbook with aplomb. The Biden team is boxed in at the border by judges, foiled by the Fed on interest rates, bedeviled by Vladimir Putin at the gas pumps, forced by the courts to restart oil leases, adrift on the supply-chain backups because of consumerism, undermined with voters by the Democratic Congress, and actively torpedoed on abortion by a politicized Supreme Court. For every disappointment or setback, this administration has found a way to offload responsibility to someone else. It can work, but only to a point. Eventually, the public picks up that there are problems that go beyond a billboard or tweet, and no TikTok summit can save the day. When things reach that problematic peak, it’s really, really tough to come back. Just ask George W. Bush after Hurricane Katrina, Jimmy Carter after the Embassy in Tehran fell, or Lyndon B. Johnson after Walter Cronkite essentially declared the Vietnam War unwinnable.
Biden, to be fair, isn’t yet at this nadir. But he’s also not far from it.
The polling released this week provides plenty of reasons for Biden to have a sober assessment of his current time in office, and what the years ahead of him can afford. A stunning two-thirds of Democrats want a new frontman in 2024—despite Biden’s consistent statements that he’ll run for re-election, according to The New York Times’ poll. Already the oldest person ever in the job, the 79-year-old Biden’s age is running even with his job performance as the top reason to dump him. Among Democrats under the age of 30, there is near-statistical unanimity that he needs to go; 94% of them say it’s time to turn the page. (Interestingly, age isn’t the reason why these younger voters have a problem with Biden; it’s his job performance and ideology.)
Democrats are already in a position of weakness. Polls show the midterms could be an Obamaesque “shellacking” or a George W. Bush “thumping.” History doesn’t give the party in the White House many reasons to celebrate midterm years, and Obama’s gummed-up agenda doesn’t make Democrats’ case much better. The post-Roe world could have given Democrats a unifying moment to rally the base, but by all accounts, the ruling ending five decades of precedent on abortion rights caught the White House by surprise.
For sure, Biden’s loyalists have reason to puff up their chest and declare victory. No one could have credibly predicted a septuagenarian who finished fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire would clinch the Democratic nomination faster than anyone since 2004. Or be the first candidate since 1992 to defeat an incumbent President. Or then build—and this is not hyperbole—the most diverse governing team in history. The confirmation of the first Black woman to the Supreme Court is also nothing to sneeze at, especially when strategists are looking at how to design their Souls to the Polls GOTV programs targeting Black churches.
Still, there is a sense of dread among Democrats about Biden. He seems to be missing moments. Those around him are making errors: Kamala Harris in the Chicago suburbs delivering a word salad of empathy; Dr. Jill Biden saying Latinos are as diverse as tacos; a Cabinet that seems eager to move up the chain even as the boss says he’s not leaving.
To be sure, the Beltway press corps and Twitter armchair army aren’t what Real America is reading. They’re watching Covid refuse to yield, inflation continuing to enjoy a strong toehold even as interest rates rise, a war in Eastern Europe messing with retirement funds. And, as a result, Biden’s approval numbers are tanking. Even among Democrats, he’s in the sluggish 70s, a figure that is a red flag for Democrats who had hoped the Dobbs decision would at least boost the party’s hopes.
The White House’s senior team has clearly had it. As both The Atlantic and The Washington Post observed, outgoing Biden communications director Kate Bedingfield’s choice to take aim at the party’s left signals that the inner circle still thinks things are going fine outside the bubble, and the only critics are party insiders fighting for turf. But those sorts of jabs aren’t going to animate suburban women. That errant spray of criticism for the progressive wing of the party may feel good, but it’s not going to fuel a triage that the Democrats need right now.
Obama never learned the lessons of blame dodging. Neither, it seems, has Biden’s team—even the communications team that the Oval Office itself partly blames for its poor standing. President Harry Truman, on his desk during some of the toughest days of the modern presidency, had a sign on his desk declaring that the buck stopped with him. It’s still on display at his presidential library in Independence, Mo. In his farewell address in 1953, Truman told the nation—the lone country to have used a nuclear weapon in war—that responsibility lies with the person sitting at the Resolute Desk. “The President—whoever he is—has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That’s his job,” Truman said.
That’s a far cry from saying the focus group got it wrong and that a faction of the party needs to fall in line.
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