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Joe Biden is the front-runner to be the Democratic presidential nominee in no small part because he has cannily presented himself as the safest choice in a crowded field. Biden has leaned heavily into his credentials as Barack Obama’s vice president and emphasized his reliability, trustworthiness, and track record. A Biden ad that ran in January carried this message: “This is no time to take a risk. We need our strongest candidate. So let’s nominate the Democrat Trump fears the most. Vote Biden. Beat Trump.”
This is partially an argument about electability, one that can be disputed. Polls consistently show Biden and Bernie Sanders as roughly even in their likelihood of defeating Trump.
But beyond the electability argument, there is a more substantive appeal: Biden represents a return to normality. After the unadulterated weirdness of the Trump era, he would restore the type of politics that existed pre-2016, or perhaps even pre-2000. He would try to work with Republicans, he’d run a competent government, and, unlike Sanders, he wouldn’t try to mobilize a political revolution.
The conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat made a better case for Biden than Biden himself has been able to. Douthat argued, “More than the other candidates, he offers the possibility of a calmer presidency, where politics fades a bit from the daily headlines, where the average American is less bombarded by social-media swarms and cable-news freakouts, where gridlock and polarization persist but their stakes feel modestly reduced.”
There is something seductive about this pitch for a president who would be a comfortable nonentity. It’s all the more attractive given the fact that the Trump presidency is currently in meltdown mode. Trump has completely mishandled the coronavirus crisis by prioritizing retaining stock market gains over addressing the emerging pandemic.
Not only is this policy immoral, it has also been ineffective: The stock market is now in meltdown mode. Fears of a recession popped up last fall, but were staved off. Now, thanks to the global pandemic, the world is faced with not just a possible recession but even a reprise of the 2008 meltdown.
The looming recession is all the more dangerous because many of the tools for fighting a downturn aren’t readily on hand. Interest rates are about as low as they can be and, as a result of Trump’s tax cuts, the deficit is high. The United States is facing an economic crisis without the usual monetary solutions being available, especially if the government is controlled by deficit-wary centrists.
This genuinely scary economic news might make Biden all the more attractive to some voters. Neera Tanden, head of the Center for American Progress, tweeted, “Maybe during the coronavirus, people want a competent, experienced President with executive experience who has handled complex issues well.”
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But the very size of the catastrophe Trump has created should make us wary of Joe Biden. During the last crisis, Biden belonged to the conservative wing of the Obama administration. Obama was bolder than Biden, but still not daring enough. The economic stimulus of 2009–10 was too small, and Obama switched too quickly to austerity after early signs of economic recovery. Both America and the Democratic Party would have been better off had Obama had a bolder economic vision. Biden as president would be more risk-averse than Obama.
Former secretary of labor Robert Reich tweeted, “Every time Dems get back the White House they have to clean up Republican messes. Next January, the mess could be huge—a botched response to a pandemic, an economy in free-fall, a government nearly destroyed by cronyism and corruption, international institutions in disarray.”
Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo has similar worries: “But it seems not implausible now that next January a Democratic President & possibly a Democratic Congress come into power just in time to inherit an ongoing pandemic and a wrecked economy and face the job of fixing everything Trump broke while GOPs stand on the sidelines, explain they were always anti Trump and kick up Tea Party 2.0 to exploit whatever hard decisions Dem have to make to clean up their mess.”
Both these scenarios are plausible, and they underscore why Biden would be a risky bet, not in electoral terms but in his ability to govern effectively. A President Biden would be elected on a nebulous mandate of nostalgia, promising to return to calm but actually confronting a world going rapidly to hell in a handbasket. Since candidate Biden went out of his way to absolve the Republican Party of any responsibility for Trump, he’ll face a GOP that will not be chastened but rather free of the burden of blame for Trump’s legacy.
Franklin Roosevelt gained breathing space by reminding voters that the Republicans and Herbert Hoover created the Great Depression. Barack Obama, by contrast, was too civil and tactful to keep bringing up George W. Bush’s culpability. There’s every reason to think that Biden would follow Obama’s footstep of exonerating the GOP, since Biden makes a fetish out of bipartisan cooperation.
Both the pandemic and economic downturn can be battled only by a president with a robust policy mandate. The pandemic itself will require major changes to health care—making the vaccine (when discovered) free, extending free health coverage to undocumented immigrants, mandating that employers give generous sick leave, and providing economic relief for hard-hit industries. These will need to be paralleled by equally robust economic policies.
Given already low interest rates, a stalling global economy, and the need for new infrastructure (both for its own sake and also to prepare for climate change), this is the ideal time for a president who isn’t afraid to argue for big structural changes and to go full Keynesian. But that’s exactly the president that Joe Biden would not be. He’s running to be a business-as-usual president. Given the real problems facing the world, that’s a dangerous risk.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story noted that Neera Tanden is a Joe Biden supporter. She’s asked us to point out that she has not, as of this time, endorsed a candidate.