Joe Biden’s recent performance in the State of the Union message delivered to the U.S. Congress is being hailed as the start of his campaign for reelection as President in 2024. Nevertheless, the best thing that Biden could do right now would be to announce that he will not be a candidate, thus inaugurating an open contest for the Democratic nomination.
According to a new poll, 63% of U.S. Democrats think that Biden should not run again, and the reason cited by virtually all of them is his advanced age (80) or characteristics related to age (halting speech, for example). These seem to me the least important reasons for Biden to decline to run again. In fact, the cavalier ageism of many people who would not dream of opposing someone’s candidacy on the basis of race or gender is contemptible. Three factors seem far more important: the advantages of an open fight for the nomination, Biden’s deficit of charisma, and, most important, his uncritical commitment to a bellicose, imperialist foreign policy.
An open contest for the Democratic nomination
An announcement by Joe Biden that he will not run again for President would inaugurate an open campaign for the Democratic Party nomination. A series of wide-open primary contests would dominate the news cycle and give U.S. public time to get to know a range of politicians on the left-of-center side. Whatever one thinks of Donald Trump, the campaign that produced his nomination in 2016 fascinated the public, revitalized the Republican Party, spotlighted a new generation of leaders, and gave the party’s rank-and-file the chance to debate influential policy issues in public. A Democratic nomination battle would do at least as much for the Dems, who badly need to debate the issues that a Biden campaign will sweep under the rug.
Conversely, failing to unleash this sort of competition will force the Democrats to campaign as the party of the Establishment, with the most significant question presented to the electorate being “How do you feel about Joe Biden?” This seems to me a serious error. Most Americans, whether they lean right or left, are anti-Establishment. If Trump runs again, they may again prefer Biden to the Orange Menace – but not if an unstable economic situation worsens, war clouds continue to darken, or political errors multiply. Moreover, if someone other than Trump is the Republican candidate, he or she will campaign as the candidate of fresh ideas as opposed to old-style bureaucratic politics, and the Biden-led Dems will be in serious trouble.
A deficit of charisma
There is a good deal of misunderstanding about charisma, which does not mean the ability to give a rousing speech or to evoke admiration. It denotes a special type of personal authority that induces people to say, “He (She) says exactly what I am thinking and feeling,” and “She (He) really cares about me.”
Many Democrats have difficulty understanding that the Republican base does not consist simply of idiots and bigots, but rather of mostly decent people, many feeling hard pressed and insecure, who believe that right-wing figures like Donald Trump care about them, and who have been effectively abandoned by the Wall Street Democrats. Both parties appeal to many of the same working class and middle class Americans. But in a society fairly equally divided between the “Red” and “Blue” tribes, charismatic leaders can carry the day.
Joe Biden is a decent man who has been a competent but unremarkable President, at least if one doesn’t object to his conflation of patriotism with U.S. global hegemony. But he remains an old-style bureaucrat with little appeal to most voters. It’s time to permit other potential leaders to mount center stage, to interrogate the voters and be interrogated by them, and to formulate new principles of leadership for the people of a divided, problem-ridden nation. If this process does not produce a charismatic, genuinely progressive candidate, many voters may turn to a third party, but at least they will be making an informed choice.
The costs and risks of imperialism
The most disturbing feature of another Biden term in office, in my view, is the President’s apparent inability to think outside the assumptions and methods of what used to be called “neo-con” imperialism. The pursuit of U.S. global supremacy through military threats and actions is a policy embraced by nationalist politicians of both parties, the Pentagon, and American oligarchs controlling a broad swath of industries ranging from arms producers and IT giants to the major banks and credit institutions. Joe Biden is a charter member of this club, and while his non-candidacy would not disband it, it would at least open the door to discussion of the nation’s current slide toward uncontrolled Great Power conflict.
This is not a new problem. Ever since Lyndon Johnson combined domestic reformism with imperialist war-making in Southeast Asia, blatant empire-building presented as the principled defense of global order has been a hallmark of U.S. presidential leadership. How to combat this policy is too large a question to discuss in depth here, but a wide-open primary campaign would permit contestants for the Democratic nomination, as well as public groups generally, to debate the rising costs and dangers of what some now call “the new Cold War.”
These dangers include not only the growing possibility of a U.S. hot war with China in the Pacific, but the starvation of domestic programs by a military budget headed toward the $1 trillion mark. If public expenditures for social welfare and infrastructure programs do not increase substantially, the danger of violent civil conflicts fueled by poverty and inequality will grow apace. But (as Lyndon Johnson, among others, discovered), you cannot simultaneously make major increases in the production of guns and butter.
It pays to read again about the social chaos that overtook Rome well before the Goths put an end to the Western Empire. Imperial overreach is an old, old story. Empires that cannot stop being empires soon stop being successful states. For this and other reasons noted, Joe Biden could do himself, the nation, and the world a big favor by deciding not to run again for President of the United States.
A version of this can also be found online at Transcend Media Services.