Have you met anyone truly excited about Joe Biden running for re-election?
I mean downright Obama-circa-2008 energized — brimming with enthusiasm about what four more years of Biden would bring to our body politic, our economy, our national mood, our culture?
Let's be more realistic. Is there a single one among us who can muster even a quiet "Yay!"? And no, we're not counting the guy who sounds like he's performing elaborate mental dance moves to persuade himself — nor anyone who is paid to effuse.
According to a recent report in the New York Times, Biden's fundraising thus far doesn't exactly reveal a groundswell of grassroots excitement.
Instead, most Democrats seem to view what looks like an inevitable rematch between Biden and Donald Trump with a sense of impending doom. My personal metaphor comes from Lars von Trier's film "Melancholia," in which a rogue planet makes its way through space toward an inevitable collision with Earth. In that film, the looming disaster symbolized the all-encompassing nature of depression; here, the feel is more dispiritedness and terror, as if we're barreling toward either certain catastrophe or possibly-not-a-catastrophe. Or it's barreling toward us.
A Biden-Trump rematch would mean a choice between two candidates who, for very different reasons, don't seem 100% there or necessarily likely to be there — physically, mentally and/or outside prison walls — for the duration of another four-year term.
To take, momentarily, a slightly more optimistic view, here is the best case for Biden: His presidency has thus far meant a re-establishment of norms, a return to government function and the restoration of long-held international alliances. He has presided over a slow-churning economy that has turned roughly in his favor. He's been decent.
But really, wasn't the bar for all these things set abysmally low during the Trump administration (if we can even use that word given its relentless mismanagement)? We continue to have a deeply divided Congress and electorate, a good chunk of which is still maniacally in Trump's corner. American faith in institutions continues to erode, not helped by Biden's mutter about the Supreme Court's most recent term, "This is not a normal court." The 2020 protests led to few meaningfully changed policies favoring the poor or disempowered.
A Biden-Trump rematch feels like a concession, as if we couldn't do any better or have given up trying. It wasn't as if there was huge passion for Biden the first time around. The 2020 election should have been much more of a blowout victory for Democrats. Yet compared with his election in 2016, Trump in 2020 made inroads with nearly every major demographic group, including Blacks, Latinos and women, except for white men. The sentiment most Democrats seemed to muster in Biden's favor while he was running was that he was inoffensive. The animating sentiment once he scraped by into office was relief.
This time, we don't even have the luxury of relief. In the two other branches of government, Democrats have been shown the perils of holding people in positions of power for too long — Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the judiciary and Dianne Feinstein in the legislature. Democrats and the media seem to have become more vocal in pointing out the hazards of Biden's advancing age. In an April poll, of the 70% of Americans who said Biden shouldn't run again, 69% said it's because of his old age.
That old age is showing. Never an incantatory speaker or a sparkling wit, Biden seems to have altogether thrown in the oratorical towel. Several weeks ago, he appeared to actually wander off a set on MSNBC after figuratively wandering through 20 minutes of host Nicolle Wallace's gentle questions. In another recent interview, with Fareed Zakaria, when asked specific questions about U.S.-China policy, Biden waded into a muddle of vague bromides and personal anecdotes about his travels as vice president with China's leader, Xi Jinping. When asked point blank whether it's time for him to step aside, Biden said, almost tangentially, "I just want to finish the job."
But what if he can't? Kamala Harris, briefly a promising figure during the previous primary season, has proved lackluster at best in office. Like Biden, she seems at perpetual war with words, grasping to articulate whatever loose thought might be struggling to get out. The thought of her in the Oval Office is far from encouraging.
One clear sign of America's deepening hopelessness is the weird welcoming of loony-tune candidates like Robert Kennedy Jr., who has polled as high as a disturbing 20% among Democratic voters. Among never-Trumpian Republicans, there is an unseemly enthusiasm for bridge troll Chris Christie, despite his early capitulation to Trump, for the sole reason that among Republican primary candidates, he's the one who most vociferously denounces his former leader. And a Washington nonprofit, No Labels, is gearing up for a third-party run with a platform that threatens to leach support from a Democratic candidate who is saddled with a favorable rating of a limp 41%.
Trump, of course, remains the formidable threat underlying our malaise. Though he blundered into office in 2016 without a whit of experience or the faintest clue about the future, this time he and his team of madmen are far better equipped to inflict their agenda. As a recent editorial in the Economist put it, "a professional corps of America First populists are dedicating themselves to ensuring that Trump Two will be disciplined and focused on getting things done." The idea that Trump — and worse, a competent Trump — might win a second term makes our passive embrace of Biden even more nerve-racking. Will we look back and have only ourselves to blame?
It is hard to imagine Democrats, or most Americans, eager to relive any aspect of the annus horribilis that was 2020. Yet it's as if we're collectively paralyzed, less complacent than utterly bewildered, waiting for "something" to happen before 2024 — say, a health crisis or an arrest or a supernatural event.
While we wait, we lurch ever closer to something of a historical re-enactment, our actual history hanging perilously in the balance.