Then there’s the unusual aftermath of the Trump presidency, which reverberates throughout our politics. The Jan. 6 investigation is ongoing, and the F.B.I. raided Mar-a-Lago to reclaim classified documents that Trump is alleged to have taken with him inappropriately. (Trump, for his part, recently told Sean Hannity that the president can declassify documents “even by thinking about it,” which, sigh.)
Trump also bears responsibility for some of the lackluster candidates causing Republicans such problems. Trump pushed J.D. Vance in Ohio and Herschel Walker in Georgia and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania — all of whom are underperforming in their respective matchups. In a speech to the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Mitch McConnell admitted Republicans might not flip the Senate and observed, acidly, “Candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome.”
Trump’s efforts to stay in the news, however, are matched by Biden’s efforts to stay out of it. Biden gives startlingly few interviews and news conferences. He doesn’t go for attention-grabbing stunts or high-engagement tweets. I am not always certain if this is strategy or necessity: It’s not obvious to me that the Biden team trusts him to turn one-on-one conversations and news conferences to his advantage. But perhaps the difference is academic: A good strategy is sometimes born of an unwanted reality.
Biden simply doesn’t take up much room in the political discourse. He is a far less central, compelling, and controversial figure than Trump or Obama or Bush were before him. He’s gotten a surprising amount done in recent months, but then he fades back into the background. Again, that’s a choice: Biden could easily command more attention by simply trying to command more attention. When he picks a fight, as he did in his speech on Trump, the MAGA movement and democracy in Philadelphia last month, the battle joins. He just doesn’t do it very often.
Which isn’t to say Biden doesn’t do anything. He governs. Just this week, Biden pardoned all federal convictions for simple marijuana possession. Before that, he canceled hundreds of billions dollars in student debt (though legal and administrative questions continue to swirl around that plan). He signed the Inflation Reduction Act. But then he moves on. He’s not looking to take his policy ideas and turn them into culture wars.
Biden didn’t win the Democratic nomination in 2020 because he was the most thrilling candidate or because he had legions of die-hard supporters. The case most often made for Biden was that other people would find him acceptable. And that proved true. Biden was able to assemble an unusually broad coalition of people who feared Trump and considered Biden to be, eh, fine. That strategy demanded restraint. A lot of politicians would have vied with Trump to make the election about them. Biden hung back and let Trump make the election about him.
I suspect that’s part of why Biden’s approval rating is, and has been, soft. Biden’s appeal to Democrats has been transactional more than inspirational. You don’t need to love, or even really to like, Biden to support him. You need to believe in him as a vehicle for stopping something worse. That’s still true today.