Are we looking at Big Joe Biden? It doesn’t feel that way, when you watch the president on television. As Andrew Sullivan wrote after last year’s first presidential debate: “The age issue — however unfair — remains….In the primary debates, he managed at times to look vigorous, even sharp, to the relief of many of us. Last Tuesday, he looked … well, the word that comes to mind is simply frail. His voice was relatively quiet, higher-pitched than usual and often hushed, his whispery white hair and pale color accentuating the sense of a beloved great-uncle who gets confused at times, but whose heart is nonetheless in the right place.”
That was a fair description then. It’s a fair description now. And yet….Big Joe looms.
There are three parts to a plausible case for a politically pluripotent President Biden; (1) jabs in their arms, (2) checks in their hands, and (3) approaching herd immunity.
This past Tuesday, CNN reported:
President Biden affirmed that Covid-19 vaccines will be widely available to the general public by the end of July during the first town hall of his presidency.
“By the end of July we’ll have over 600 million doses, enough to vaccinate every single American,” Biden told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
Biden noted that there were only 50 million doses available when he assumed office. Biden said that he implemented the Defense Production Act to “get the manufacturing piece of it to get more equipment.”
Yesterday, The New York Times reported that President Biden’s “economic rescue” plan enjoyed strong support from voters across the country and across party lines, reporting confirmed by private GOP polling. Also yesterday, News Items highlighted two articles (here and here) that forecast a return to “normal life” in the United States by summer (at the latest).
Put all three together and. potentially, you’ve got an upcoming summer of the Roaring Twenties, 2021. Come fall, the kids will be back in school, college football will return, cities will bustle, restaurants will be filled, and America will be back at work. And (at least) two-thirds of the electorate will say: “We did it. We hung in there. We’re back and good to go.”
That’s a “favorable political environment” by any measure. And if Biden leverages it by being modest and giving credit to everyone but himself, his approval rating, already quite high, will rise higher still. “Year One” will go down in the record books as a decisive victory for Team Biden. “Year Two” (the mid-term election year) will be a challenge — it always is — but it may prove to be a bigger challenge for Republicans.
And you know why.
Like him or not, there’s no wishing or willing Donald Trump away. The fantasy that the former president was an “aberration,” that working class populism and evangelical activism can be re-fused with Wall Street financiers and George Will conservatives, that the Republican Party will “return to its roots,” is just that, a fantasy. Like it or not, Trump is the modern Republican Party. He is its Commander and his supporters are its foot soldiers. He’s the Big Guy. The others are all littler guys.
The Big Guy is holed up at Mar-a-Lago, “the Pinnacle of Palm Beach,” and he’s pissed. He’s pissed about a lot of things. He’s pissed at Crazy Nancy Pelosi and Sleepy Joe and Cryin’ Chuck Schumer. He’s pissed at the Supreme Court and various state courts around the country. He’s pissed at Bill Barr and those treacherous bastards of the Deep State. He’s pissed about the working press (although he sort of misses reading Maggie Haberman on the front page of The New York Times every day. He liked being on the front page of The New York Times everyday). He’s pissed at CNN and MSNBC, although he appreciates that they keep covering him obsessively. But that’s not what he’s really pissed about.
What he’s really pissed about is being abandoned by former “allies”; Mitch McConnell (especially), other GOP Senators, various GOP “losers” in the House of Representatives, Rupert Murdoch, Wall Street, Big Business, The Wall Street Journal Editorial Page, Fox News. Traitors all.
They were energetically obsequious when times were good, sycophants in expensive suits, tugging at his sleeves, seeking his favor. But when it mattered, they scurried. And as they did, they let it be known that they never liked him, that they only dealt with him because they had to, that he was “deranged” and that his defeat was richly deserved.
The former president is seething about their betrayal. And when he’s seething, he believes he must be heard. And so it is that next weekend, Mr. Trump will attend the annual CPAC conference (once described by the late GOP operative Lee Atwater as “the bar scene from Star Wars”) in Orlando, Florida and give the first “address” of his “post-presidency.”
Trump’s political aides, such as they are, have put out word that the focus of the former president’s remarks will be immigration policy generally and the awfulness of President Biden’s approach specifically. That’s smart politics and plays to “the base,” as well as “mainstream” Republicans, right of center voters generally, segments of black and Hispanic voters, and border state independents in California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. More to the point, it reminds people who voted for Trump why they voted for Trump.
To make matters better (for Trump), Biden’s immigration “plan” is a mess and is polling badly, most ominously (for Biden) in focus groups in “battleground states.” With most everything else moving in Biden’s direction, reminding voters of one thing they really don’t like about him is not a bad place to start one’s political “resurrection.”
Of course, there won’t be any “focus” to his remarks. Immigration policy will be “addressed” but will soon give way to Grievances’ Greatest Hits. Once Trump starts playing those songs, the crowd will take a magic carpet ride through what Trump sometimes describes as the four greatest years in American history. And it will be so much fun that by the time it’s over, maybe 100 minutes or so later, immigration policy will be long forgotten.
What will get reported, aside from the highlights, will be the contrast between Trump’s reception at CPAC and the reception for all the others. His will be rapturous, theirs will be dutiful. And so the post-game commentary will dwell on his “continued hold” on “the base.”
The Biden White House is of two minds about the former president. Mind #1 is “don’t take the bait,” nothing good comes with engagement. Mind #2 is: he’s the gift that keeps on giving, engage away.
There’s no way to ignore him altogether. Trump rates, on television, so he will always get covered and he never fails to generate some news. That being the case, Mind #1 would say, respond by not responding and keep the press focused on Republican Party “divisions.” The message being: yes he’s a problem, but he’s not our problem, he’s their problem.
Mind #2 would argue that Trump really is the never-ending gift; not least because he keeps the various constituencies of the Democratic Party coalition inside the tent. Hatred and fear of Trump binds them together in common cause.
As important, Trump provides a yardstick for performance. The narrative of that goes something like this:
The Trump Administration “mishandled” the Covid-19 crisis, the Biden Administration will vaccinate everyone willing to be vaccinated by the end of July and maybe sooner. The Trump Administration and the GOP couldn’t get the second stimulus checks into people’s hands, the Biden Administration will, soon. The year of Covid-19 under Trump was a seemingly endless stream of bad news. The summer of 2021 may soon be an extended celebration of the return to “normal life.”
None of this, of course, is entirely fair. But politics, to paraphrase President Kennedy, isn’t fair.
For the moment, Team Biden is content to let The Big Guy’s discontents play out as a “Republican disharmony” story, one the “mainstream media” is happy to oblige and amplify. In the meantime, the administration is pressing ahead with jabs, checks and the promise of a great summer.
One year ago today, then-candidate Joe Biden had just lost the Nevada caucuses to Sen. Bernie Sanders by a better than 2-to-1 margin. His defeat in Nevada followed a 5th place showing in the New Hampshire primary and a 4th place showing in the Iowa caucuses. Many people, myself included, couldn’t imagine how he could possibly rise from the ashes and go on to win both his party’s nomination and the general election. But rise he did. He’s now on the cusp of rising further still.