I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the American people will have no choice but to re-elect Donald Trump in 2024.
You see, President Biden is down in the polls. Lots of things are going wrong in the world. And the Democrats are infighting. Also, President Biden is old. We know he is old because the Republicans informed the media in the summer of ’23 that they were going to launch a media blitz about how old he was, and then they did launch that blitz, and the Democrats were somehow unprepared for it and didn’t do anything, even though (again) they knew it was coming.
So you see, there is no hope, because even though Biden would be far preferable to Trump, the pundits who prefer Biden to Trump are also angry that they must choose between Biden and Trump—an irritation that Biden is Biden and not someone else. A fair slice of the American political class seems stunned at the indignity of having to vote for someone they don’t like very much, and they seem intent on making the 2024 election an exercise in existential dread and self-pity because Biden is a Weak Candidate.
Almost no one is talking about why Joe Biden deserves a second term. It’s possible the idea of asking this question will never catch on, but it’s a question worth asking. Because by almost any standard, Joe Biden is the most successful president of the last twenty years.
Admittedly, this is not a high bar to clear. President George W. Bush responded to the 9/11 attacks by launching an unrelated war in Iraq, a war about half of America didn’t want. The war cost thousands of lives, drove up debt, and produced the terrorist state of ISIS. Bush’s laissez-faire approach to governance permitted deep fraud in the banking and housing industries that collapsed the economy in 2008 and oversaw the near-destruction of the city of New Orleans in 2005. Barack Obama, for some reason, mimicked Bush’s laid-back approach. He signed a health-care plan in 2010 and then took the rest of the presidency off. The risk-averse 44th president primarily stood back from addressing challenges—like ISIS, climate change, the rise of China, the outsourcing of American jobs.
Trump promised to do what Obama did not—and he also promised that the real threat to America was any Americans who did not like Trump (by definition criminals and traitors). From this, January 6—and the thousands of other threats and tweets about conspiracies and violence that Trump gave America but never acted on because someone mollified him before he could take the final steps.
How does Biden stack up?
By most metrics: good. The economy grew at nearly 4% last quarter. One or two percent is considered average. When Trump bragged in 2016 the U.S. would hit four percent growth under his leadership, it was considered crazy. Oh, look: Biden actually did the job. Unemployment is down to about four percent as well, and, moreover, American workers are standing up to big business and winning. Two very different unions—the United Auto Workers and the Writers Guild—launched big strikes for big changes in 2023 and won. Inflation remains a problem, but the inflation came from the huge cash dump the Trump administration made in 2020 to keep the economy afloat in COVID. Any time you put more money into a system with the same amount of goods, prices go up. Biden has actually fought back the inflation caused by COVID—without the predicted recession. Economically, it’s a heroic achievement.
Biden is also the first president to openly address climate change. Much of this came in the 2022 budget deal—you remember, the deal everyone said he couldn’t close because he was old and Democrats were infighting? He actually closed that deal, and it contained the most substantive climate action in America history. It funds clean energy, provides financial help to rural communities, and is independently projected to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions by forty percent. More importantly, Biden was willing to make all of this a centerpiece of the Build Back Better Act. He will not kick the can down the road. As climate-hawk Senator Brian Schatz said, it is finally a piece of legislation equal to the moment.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Biden has held the line against creeping autocracy. He has confronted Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the Russian government’s efforts to destroy democracy at home and abroad. He has been firm in his defense of democratic Taiwan against Communist China. So too in the Middle East: Hamas, an autocratic government that does not hold elections, invaded Israel and massacred over a thousand Israelis. This attack provided no real geopolitical advantage, and it achieved no military objective. The militants of an autocratic state simply wanted to kill Jews. The war that ensued has pushed Biden into the unpleasant position of supporting an Israeli unity government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu (also not great on the autocracy scale)—but this support again represents U.S. defense of democratic regimes (however inconsistent) against autocracies. It is not a popular position. But it is, in the end, the right decision. Autocracies who invade democracies cannot simply walk away.
Biden’s major flaw may not be his age but rather his goofy old-fashioned desire to govern. Biden makes the hard calls and has actually shown a lot of leadership. Workers are striking blows against big business. The economy is well. Biden has not blinked in his defense of democracy across the globe.
Decisions like these don’t have the inspired red-meat enthusiasm of Trump’s tweets. They lack the elegance of Obama’s vague pronouncements about how bad times will blow over or the comforted assurance of Bush’s Texas drawl. Biden is not exciting. But he is wise. And that wisdom has made his record better than the work of his predecessors.
Yet pundits and the public still seem unsure. The Republicans are happily leaning into this vague uncertainty, repeating and sometime misleading people about how crummy things are in the hopes that folks will give up on Biden.
The problem is not Biden. The problem is a publicity machine surrounding him. Democrats, over the last twenty years, have become very used to saying what they did not do. But this time their standard-bearer has actually done a lot, amassing the strongest presidential record since Reagan.
The Democrats will never convince the pundits, but they might yet convince the American people. Democrats may want a leader with both Obama’s charisma and Trump’s ability to please the base. What they have, however, is a flinty old warrior who stands up for what is right. In the next twelve months, that’s what the Democrats must sell, because that is the case for Biden.
Adam Jortner is the Goodwin-Philpott Professor of History at Auburn University. He is the author of The Gods of Prophetstown and the Audible original series American Monsters.