Politics / July 8, 2024

In a Democracy, No Leader Is Indispensable

As Joe Biden flirts with the Samson Option—threatening to bring his party to ruin in November—he needs to realize that the election isn’t just about him.

Jeet Heer
Does he know what time it is? President Joe Biden, who says only “God Almighty” can tell him to step down from the Democratic ticket, checks his watch.(Samuel Corum / Getty Images)

The distressing truth about Joe Biden isn’t just that he’s visibly aged as president, but also that, as he fends off calls to give up being the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, some of his worst personality traits have come to the fore.

Biden is a complicated man: The driving fuel of his ambition has long been an almost Nixonian spitefulness—a burning resentment at all the establishment bigwigs who he believes have always high-hatted him. But unlike Nixon, Biden’s restless desire to prove his doubters wrong was always leavened by gregariousness and personal empathy, with a charming pinch of self-deprecation.

The most attractive Joe Biden was a tried-and-true party man, the stalwart Democrat whose greatest loyalty is not to his personal advancement or any ideology but to the greater good of the coalition to which he belongs. This is the Biden whose success is due to a keen sensitivity to what the base of the party wants. If Biden has evolved over the decades on issues like abortion, criminal justice reform, trade, or LGBTQ+ rights, that was due to his sensitive gauging of the sentiments of the median Democratic party voter. Being a policy weather vane might be dismissed as opportunism, but it’s an important trait in successful small-d democratic politics.

In his successful campaign for president in 2020, Biden displayed a winning modesty that helped secure his role as a consensus candidate who could hold together an often rambunctious Democratic Party coalition. Speaking at a rally in March 2020, Biden addressed a crowd while three potential vice-presidential running mates stood behind him (then-Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Cory Booker, and Governor Gretchen Whitmer). Biden said,“Look, I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else. There’s an entire generation of leaders you saw stand behind me. They are the future of this country.” Two months later Biden at a fundraiser said, “I view myself as a transition candidate.”

Speaking of himself in these terms, Biden made a marked contrast to his rival Donald Trump, notorious for his narcissism and self-praise. During the 2016 Republican National Convention, Trump had decried national decline and boasted, “I alone can fix it.”

Yet in his make-or-break interview with George Stephanopoulos on Friday on ABC News, Biden discarded the becoming modesty of portraying himself as part of a larger political movement, a “bridge” or “transition figure.” Instead, he took on the messianic and megalomaniacal pride of a Trumpian political celebrity who believes everything is about himself.

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At one point, Biden said, “I’m running the world.” He acknowledged that this “sounds like hyperbole, but we are the essential nation of the world.” In other words, the United States is the essential nation (something that billions around the world might dispute) and Joe Biden is the essential man (something that no leader in a democracy should ever believe about themselves).

In an already notorious exchange, Biden was asked how he would respond if he loses the election to Donald Trump.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And if you stay in and Trump is elected and everything you’re warning about comes to pass, how will you feel in January?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I’ll feel as long as I gave it my all and I did the good as job as I know I can do, that’s what this is about. Look, George. Think of it this way. You’ve heard me say this before. I think the United States and the world is at an inflection point when the things that happen in the next several years are gonna determine what the next six, seven decades are gonna be like.

And who’s gonna be able to hold NATO together like me? Who’s gonna be able to be in a position where I’m able to keep the Pacific Basin in a position where we’re—we’re at least checkmating China now? Who’s gonna—who’s gonna do that? Who has that reach?

As my Nation colleague Joan Walsh has already noted, Biden seems to be under the illusion that he’ll deserve a participation trophy if he loses the election. But the election isn’t just about Joe Biden’s ego and the satisfaction he’ll get from proving his naysayers wrong. The election—as Biden on his better days knows—is about the future of American democracy as well as life-and-death issues like abortion rights and climate change action.

As political analyst Josh Cohen acutely noted, Biden seems to see politics “as a story [where] everything revolves around him personally, not the country or its people or even his party. It is a revenge tour, where the down-on-his-luck kid from Scranton, once mocked behind his back for his folksiness and hackery and desperate hair transplants and plagiarism and honest-to-God stupidity, proves everyone wrong over and over again.”

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Biden makes several mistakes when he says, “Who’s gonna be able to hold NATO together like me?” Biden seems to think he’s a foreign policy savant and respected as such. But polls consistently show that only a small part of the population (between 30 to 35 percent) approve of his foreign policy. Biden’s strongest issue is the domestic one of abortion, which he’s often reluctant to address forthrightly out of long-standing personal discomfort.

But even if we stipulate, for the sake of argument, that Biden’s foreign policy choices have been admirable, is he really the only one who can carry them out? Biden has fallen into the trap of seeing himself as indispensable. In truth, Biden has a vice president, Kamala Harris, whom he has twice selected to be his running mate. Under the Constitution, Harris has to take over if Biden is incapacitated or dies. Even barring those terrible eventualities, there is a strong argument to be made that the best way to defeat Trump (and thus preserve Biden’s legacy) is for Harris to be the nominee, if only because she doesn’t suffer from Biden’s worsening inarticulateness.

It’s notable that Biden nowhere mentioned Harris in the Stephanopoulos interview. Biden could easily have said, “For anyone worried about my health or age, I have a very capable vice president who can take over if anything happens.” Biden chose not to do that. He no longer sees himself as a “bridge” or “transition figure” to the future but rather as the irreplaceable leader who will oversee an inflection point that will shape the remainder of the 21st century.

Asked if he would heed the growing number calls to step down from elected Democrats, Biden pooh-poohed the idea, saying, “If the Lord Almighty came down and said, ‘Joe, get outta the race,’ I’d get outta the race. The Lord Almighty’s not comin’ down.”

Behind this folksy idiom lies pure unchecked ego: Biden is not willing to listen to what any mere mortal says.

Biden is no longer a party man. He’s framing the election in purely egotistical terms, throwing down the gauntlet to his critics in the party, daring them to come after him. This, too, is a Trumpian move. In the past, I’ve described this as the Samson Option, whereby Trump threatens to destroy the Republican Party if they don’t give him what he wants. Implicit in Biden’s self-centered interview was the danger that Biden, like Samson before him, would rather bring down the temple around him rather than submit. Samson was a biblical hero, but this type of destructive martyrdom is at odds with democracy, which is always a project of collective action, not ego satisfaction.

This morning Biden called in to Morning Joe on MSNBC. As in all his recent appearances, the president was halting and at times lost his train of thought, even though he seemed to be reading from a sheet of paper in front of him. At one point, Biden said, “I’m getting frustrated by the elites in the party, ‘Oh, they know so much more.’ Any of these guys that don’t think I should run, run against me. Announce for president, challenge me at the convention.”

In those words, you can hear Biden playing a dangerous game of chicken with elected officials in his own party: either they give up or he’ll crash right into them. This is the Samson Option—with a twist. The biblical Samson was a hero because he destroyed the foes of the ancient Israelites. But Biden is willing to bring down the temple of his own party, becoming not a heroic martyr but an epic villain of pure selfishness.

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Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and host of the weekly Nation podcast, The Time of Monsters. He also pens the monthly column “Morbid Symptoms.” The author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014), Heer has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The American Prospect, The GuardianThe New Republic, and The Boston Globe.

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