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Matthew Yglesias commentary: Biden 2024? America needs to know now

Summary: The best way for Biden to secure his legacy would be to focus on popularity with the cold calculation of Bill Clinton and crush the opposition with the ruthlessness of LBJ. Of course, if Biden truly doesn’t want to run again, then acting like a lame duck is probably unavoidable. But either way, the best thing for the country, and for Biden, would be for the president to clarify his plans and act decisively on them — sooner rather than later.

U.S. President Joe Biden departs after a virtual meeting with infant formula manufacturers from the South Court Auditorium at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, June 1, 2022.
U.S. President Joe Biden departs after a virtual meeting with infant formula manufacturers from the South Court Auditorium at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, June 1, 2022.
Yuri Gripas/TNS
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If Joe Biden wants to run for re-election, he should say so clearly and soon — and then start acting like it. Alternatively, if the president is not sure he wants to run again, he should take that as a strong sign that he shouldn’t — and then make that announcement soon, too.

The point, you may have noticed, is that whatever he does, he needs to do it soon.

Yes, it’s abnormally early for an incumbent president to be making an official announcement. But for all modern incumbents, a re-election campaign has been a foregone conclusion. For Biden, it isn’t. And for many Democrats in Washington, the presumption now — partly because of his age and party because of his policies — is that he’s not running.

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Many Democrats see his tenure thus far as reflecting tendencies they usually see in a lame-duck president. He’s prioritized ambitious foreign policy goals — rallying the world against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine and fighting a trade war with China — over domestic issues such as inflation. He’s compromised his diversity goals to hand out senior jobs to old friends such as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, and Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough, while simultaneously outsourcing most of the staff work to the left wing of the party. (The Office of Presidential Personnel, for example, is run by a former chief of staff to Representative Pramila Jayapal.)

None of this means that he won’t run for re-election. But it does mean that many who prefer a moderate “Bidenist” Democratic Party to a more progressive one believe that he won’t — and are currently casting around for alternatives to Vice President Kamala Harris.

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It continues to be the case, however, that the best standard-bearer for the Bidenist faction of the party is none other than Joe Biden himself. That means he has to become more like Primary Candidate Joe Biden — the one who prioritized popularity and electability over legacy items for the history books — and less like President Joe Biden, who in March 2021 convened a roundtable meeting with historians to discuss his potential legacy and his “think-big, go-big mentality.”

This is the kind of thing presidents normally do in the March after they get re-elected. That’s when they turn the page on practical politics in favor of efforts to define themselves in the eyes of history.

It rarely works out. George W. Bush capped his re-election with a doomed push to privatize Social Security, prompting a huge public backlash, and a grandiose Second Inaugural Address that vowed the “untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of the world.”

First-term Bush, like most first-term presidents, was more pragmatic and focused on giving the people what they wanted. Even at the height of his post-9/11 public approval, his administration focused on “compassionate conservative” agenda items such as including prescription drug coverage in Medicare and expanding eligibility for SNAP benefits. The hard-right pivot after re-election was supposed to leave a more lasting legacy, but it flopped politically. And that political failure helped discredit Bush-style politics in Republican circles.

Barack Obama, similarly, was laser-focused on public opinion during his first term. He advanced progressive social and cultural causes, but consistently “lead from the rear,” ending the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in late 2010, when doing so was overwhelmingly popular, and only endorsing marriage equality after advocates pushed its approval rating up above 50%. Not until his second term did he start throwing caution to the wind, taking big political risks for the sake of diplomatic breakthroughs with Cuba and Iran.

The problem here was similar to that which Republicans had faced eight years earlier: While Obama didn’t need to stand for re-election again, other Democrats did. Fighting with the Israel lobby and Cuban emigrés was politically costly. Donald Trump’s election in 2016 largely undid those legacy items, and even Biden’s presence in the White House can’t put the diplomatic Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Now the Biden administration is being similarly reckless with its politics — hostile to fossil fuel extraction amid high energy costs, picking aggressive fights over transgender issues that could be easily ducked, and more focused on the benefits of student loan relief than on its impact on inflation.

In retrospect, the historians’ advice to Biden to go big was borderline absurd. There’s a reason congressional Democrats ran consistently weaker than his presidential campaign — a margin of the public was voting for Biden despite the progressive agenda, not because of it.

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Biden’s core promise was a return to normalcy and the expurgation of Trump from the political system. He’s actually delivered on more of this promise than most people realize, yet his historical legacy may still suffer. It could be something like: “Really high inflation discredited Democrats, allowing authoritarian elements in the Republican Party to regain control of the government.”

The best way for Biden to secure his legacy would be to focus on popularity with the cold calculation of Bill Clinton and crush the opposition with the ruthlessness of LBJ. Of course if Biden truly doesn’t want to run again, then acting like a lame duck is probably unavoidable. But either way, the best thing for the country, and for Biden, would be for the president to clarify his plans and act decisively on them — sooner rather than later.

Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

©2022 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com/opinion. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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