Editorial / February 19, 2024

How Biden Can Win

The key play is to make the race about Trump’s utter contempt for the core values of the American experiment.

John Nichols for The Nation
US President Joe Biden boards Air Force One before departing from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on February 16, 2024.
US President Joe Biden boards Air Force One before departing from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on February 16, 2024. (Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images)

At the risk of deflating Joe Biden’s ego, let’s be honest: The priority in 2024 is not his reelection. It is Donald Trump’s defeat. To forge a coalition that can beat Trump and the Trump-aligned congressional Republicans, Biden must present his bid for a second term as the essential vehicle for derailing a self-proclaimed dictator-in-waiting who is uniquely unfit to occupy the Oval Office. But Biden must first assuage concerns about his own fitness, concerns that spiked after special counsel Robert Hur, a GOP appointee of Biden’s Justice Department, rejected charging the president with the illegal possession of classified documents but then salted his February 8 report with brutal barbs about Biden’s age and mental acuity.

Hur’s words, however gratuitous, tapped into a serious issue with voters, 62 percent of whom told NBC in early February that they had major concerns about Biden’s “not having the necessary mental and physical health to be president for a second term.” Biden responded by saying, “I know what the hell I’m doing.” The 81-year-old can’t just say it, however. He must show it—with a campaign that takes him out of the White House and into the battleground states immediately. He has to refocus the narrative from one that dwells on his age to one that recognizes Trump’s unfitness—not just as a 77-year-old who his GOP rival Nikki Haley says is “declining,” but as a 91-times-indicted reprobate who tried to nullify the results of the 2020 election and now speculates about governing as a dictator.

The voters are ripe for this argument. The NBC survey found that 61 percent of voters have major concerns about Trump’s “alleged wrongdoing, including multiple felony charges related to attempts to overturn the 2020 election.” And a lot of them are Republicans or Republican-leaning independents. Thirty-eight percent of the voters in New Hampshire’s Republican primary—many of whom were independents—told exit pollsters they’d be “dissatisfied” with Trump as the GOP nominee, and 42 percent said they’d consider the former president “unfit” for office if he were convicted.

The prospect that Biden could expand his reelection coalition based on a democracy and rule-of-law appeal offers the president an avenue to make the race about more than himself. Yes, of course he should talk about a robust economy. But the key play for the Democrats is to highlight the overwhelming evidence that Trump, with his criminal charges and “I am your retribution” rhetoric, is entirely at odds with core values of the American experiment.

A majority of Americans are looking for that message. Democrats, who kicked off their nominating process by handing Biden landslide wins in the New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada primaries, ranked “preserving democracy” as their top issue in a February NPR/Marist poll. So did independents. Only Republicans ranked another issue (immigration) first. Even then, Republicans ranked “preserving democracy” as a greater concern than abortion, crime, or healthcare. In New Hampshire, roughly half of Republican primary voters expressed concern that Trump is too extreme to win a general election. Biden doesn’t have to move right or abandon his values. Like Lyndon Johnson in his 1964 race against Barry Goldwater, he can tell those Republicans: “You’re right, he is too extreme.”

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Biden is actually quite good at talking about democracy and the rule of law. His addresses on these issues boosted Democratic prospects in the 2022 midterm elections. He can do so again in 2024, and he can link the democracy argument to appeals to his base—making it clear that only when democracy is fully realized will abortion rights be guaranteed, and labor rights and voting rights be extended.

Biden could make it easier on himself and his supporters by acknowledging that he miscalculated horribly when he decided to give cover to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s catastrophic assault on Gaza. But he’s unlikely to do so; nor, unfortunately, is he likely to make any of the other policy changes that might actually increase his approval ratings. He can, however, ramp up his talk about saving American democracy from Trump. And if he drives the message home convincingly enough, and consistently enough, the results from the primaries—and from the polls that actually matter—suggest that he has a clear path to victory.

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John Nichols

John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He has written, cowritten, or edited over a dozen books on topics ranging from histories of American socialism and the Democratic Party to analyses of US and global media systems. His latest, cowritten with Senator Bernie Sanders, is the New York Times bestseller It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.

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