I want to use today’s newsletter — on Presidents’ Day — to explain how President Biden thinks about the country and what distinguishes him from many other leading Democrats. To do so, I spent time at the White House last week talking with senior officials and emerged with a clearer sense of why Biden and his inner circle believe that he should run for re-election.
You may not agree with them. He is already 80 years old. But even if you think his age should be disqualifying for 2024, Biden’s analysis of American politics is worth considering. He believes that he understands public opinion in ways that many of his fellow Democrats do not, and there is reason to think he is correct.
Let’s start in the same place that Biden often does when talking about this subject: with the campaign that launched his career.
Biden was first elected to the Senate in a very bad year for the Democratic presidential nominee. It was 1972, and that nominee was George McGovern. Richard Nixon, the incumbent, portrayed McGovern as an effete liberal who was focused on the three A’s — amnesty (for draft dodgers), abortion and acid. Despite McGovern’s own humble background and World War II heroism, he played into the caricature, allowing Hollywood stars and college activists to become symbols of his campaign.
Biden, a 29-year-old long-shot Senate candidate in Delaware, took a different approach. On economic issues, he ran as a populist. He complained about “millionaires who don’t pay any taxes at all” and “billion-dollar corporations who want a ride on the public’s back.”
On other issues, Biden signaled that he was more moderate. He called for an end to the Vietnam War while also opposing amnesty for draft dodgers. He said the police should focus less on marijuana busts while also opposing legalization. He distanced himself from McGovern’s student volunteers. “I’m not as liberal as most people think,” Biden told a Delaware newspaper.
On Election Day, McGovern lost every state except Massachusetts and received less than 40 percent of the vote in Delaware. Biden won a shocking upset that launched his long Senate career.
Today, when Biden reminisces about the McGovern campaign, he uses the phrase “limousine liberals,” which was coined in 1969. “They forgot about the neighborhood I grew up in,” he has said. The key lesson was that the rest of America looked more like Biden’s old neighborhood in Scranton, Pa., than like Hollywood or the Ivy League.
Biden has never forgotten that. Every president since Nixon had hung a portrait of George Washington above the fireplace in the Oval Office, but not Biden. That spot has instead gone to Franklin D. Roosevelt. When Biden looks up from his desk, he sees the portrait. He tells people that F.D.R. is the president who never forgot about the working class.
“We didn’t pay nearly as much attention to working-class folks as we used to,” Biden said recently, talking about 1972. “And the same thing is happening today.”
‘Sick and tired’
Regular readers of The Morning may recognize this theme. The Democratic Party, especially its left flank, has gone upscale in the 21st century, increasingly reflecting the social liberalism of well-off professionals. Most Americans without a four-year college degree now vote Republican, even though they lean left on economic issues.
When explaining the shift, liberals sometimes argue that it stems from working-class bigotry. And racism certainly influences American politics. But the shift is not simply about race (nor is it smart politics to describe millions of voters as bigots).
After all, the Democratic Party’s upscale liberalism has alienated voters of color, too. Latinos have become more Republican in the past few years; one recent analysis of the Latino vote found that liberals’ stridency on Covid precautions and their lack of concern about border security have harmed Democrats. Many Black voters, for their part, hold more moderate views on crime, immigration and gender issues than liberal professionals do.
Biden’s own rise to presidency highlighted this dynamic. He ran as Joe from Scranton — and Black voters in South Carolina rescued his campaign. Affluent moderates often preferred Michael Bloomberg or Pete Buttigieg, while affluent progressives liked Elizabeth Warren.
As president, Biden has stuck to this approach. He is more socially liberal than he was in 1972 but downplays the issues on which many swing voters are moderate. In his State of the Union address, he didn’t say much about abortion, a recognition that the country is more conflicted about the issue than liberals often imagine. On immigration, he has taken steps to reduce the surge of undocumented migrants (albeit slowly, as Republicans note). On Covid, he infuriated some on the left by saying what seems obvious to many Americans: The virus is still a threat, but the pandemic is over.
On economic issues, by contrast, Biden is the most progressive president in decades. “Damn it,” he has said, “I’m sick and tired of ordinary people being fleeced.”
He talks proudly about his crackdown on corporate concentration. He says that the pharmaceutical industry has “ripped off” the country, and he has capped some drug costs. He says that the solution to Social Security financing involves raising taxes on the rich. He waves away neoliberal criticism of his “Buy America” trade policies. He has enacted a huge infrastructure program and plans to travel the country this year telling voters about the bridges, roads and factories that are part of it.
The Democrats’ dilemma
Biden, to be clear, has not solved the Democratic Party’s working-class problem. He too lost voters without a bachelor’s degree in 2020, although he won a few more percentage points of their vote than Hillary Clinton had in 2016. He has also not solved the country’s inequality problem. It’s too soon to know if his policies will make a meaningful difference.
But Biden has demonstrated something important. He occupies the true middle ground in American politics, well to the left of most elected Republicans on economics and somewhat to the right of most elected Democrats on social issues. Polls on specific issues point to the same conclusion. That’s the biggest reason that he is the person who currently gets to decide how to decorate the Oval Office.
All of which underscores a dilemma facing the Democratic Party. In 2024, it either must nominate a man who would be 86 when his second term ended or choose among a group of prominent alternatives who tend to bear some political resemblance to George McGovern.
For more: Three words sum up Biden’s 2024 message — competent beats crazy.
Go back in time: “Delaware Elects Youngest U.S. Senator,” The Times reported in 1972.
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