Biden’s strength is consensus, but America is increasingly divided. Can he win again?

The reasons why United States President Joe Biden has decided to run for a second term are obvious. Presidential power is hard to give up, and time goes by very quickly amid the unfathomable demands placed on the office.

If past patterns are still in place, Biden can also expect to win in 2024. Most presidents are re-elected — since 1901, very few have failed to win second terms.

What’s more interesting is the reason why Biden — despite concerns about his age — continues to be the Democratic Party’s standard bearer. What does this say about the evolving state of American national politics?

The anti-Trump

Biden is arguably a provisional figure, and the prospect of his continuing tenure in office demonstrates that the U.S. has not yet moved on from the chaos generated by Donald Trump’s 2016 election.

In 2020, Biden was considered an adequate anti-Trump figure. Despite running a relatively lacklustre campaign, Biden’s unobtrusive nature allowed him to emerge as the consensus candidate of a divided Democratic party that was nonetheless united in its intent on removing Trump.

Biden’s presidency has therefore been meant to serve two roles — first, to project a state of normalcy in contrast to the unpredictability of the Trump years and, second, to maintain access to power while the party coalesces internally.

This, of course, didn’t mean that Biden had no ideas. He arrived at the Oval Office with an experienced team that quickly overturned several Trump-era initiatives and, through his $2.2 trillion infrastructure plan, implemented an ambitious agenda.

However, it’s clear that Biden’s personal approach to politics — people-centric, morally decent, pragmatic and consensus-driven — is now a part of the past given the extreme political polarization and distrust in democratic institutions that’s taken hold in post-Trump America.

The normalcy and state of national unity that Biden has pursued seem no longer attainable.

Since the Democrats’ underwhelming performance in the 2022 mid-term elections, his intention to return the United States to normalcy has stalled. Concerns about the economy have caused the president’s approval ratings to dip.

U.S. President Joe Biden salutes as he boards Air Force One at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Del., on May 15, 2023.
(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Biden’s strength now his weakness

Biden’s approach to the presidency is also fundamentally disjointed from the current political environment.

His instinct is to operate according to what American political scientist Stephen Skowronek calls the “politics of articulation.” This is defined as a focus on negotiated, moderate and incremental adjustments to a prevailing public policy framework that is able to command near-unanimous support across party lines.

For Biden, this approach remains unchanged.

Throughout his Senate career, for example, Biden as a Democrat was able to find common ground with both southern segregationists and Republicans because they were in agreement on the bigger picture: the social welfare state and, from the 1990s onward, global neoliberalism.

Read more:
What exactly is neoliberalism?

Most federal politicians generally agreed on the need for a powerful federal government on social policy, the deregulation of international trade and a powerful military presence throughout the world.

But no longer. Instead, the Republican and Democratic parties are embracing distinct and mutually exclusive visions with no possibility for common ground.

The country has increasingly split into two distinctive and geographically confined camps. As a result, the sort of personal, non-partisan Senate politics that Biden excelled at is no longer attainable as a model for federal policymaking.

For the immediate future, no president can hope to achieve national unity and it seems almost impossible that any American leader could earn approval ratings higher than 60 per cent.

Instead, it seems like Biden is now having to rely on the flawed alternative technique of Skowronek’s “politics of disjunction.” This approach involves presidents operating according to an older style of governing despite the fact that there is a breakdown of state and social relations as ideologies change dramatically.

A balding man speaks into the ear of another man with a full head of wavy salt-and-pepper hair.
In this 1987 photo, Biden, then the Senate judiciary chairman, speaks with Sen. Edward Kennedy on Capitol Hill.
(AP Photo/John Duricka, File)

No one really wins

There is now an escalating conflict in the U.S. that only one side can truly win, even if that means by forcing the other side to bend to the will of the victor.

But can the traditional institutional structures of the American republic survive this tumultuous period?

Biden’s political approach isn’t going to fulfil the aspirations of either Democrats or Republicans, which could pave the way to the manipulation of both judicial and electoral institutions.

So is Biden likely to win a second term given these new realities?

The answer here lies in another important aspect of the current American political scene. While bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill had been declining for some time, Trump was a destructive force who fuelled its near total annihilation. He is a political disruptor who is able to attack what he’s against but struggles to offer positive and enduring replacements.

When he lost the election in 2020, he left behind a deconstructed machine — an unorganized array of parts that need to be reassembled into something new. But there’s yet to emerge an electable alternative who will earn widespread public and elite support.

Biden makes this clear in his own campaign announcement, effectively framing his appeal around the argument that there are no alternatives. His campaign has painted the entire Republican party as extremists and framed the coming election as nothing less than a “battle for the soul of America.”

A blond man in a blue suit and red tie grimaces as he gestures in front of a podium.
Former president Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event in April 2023 in Manchester, N.H.
(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Common disdain

Within the Democratic Party, Biden has been effective as a coalition-builder of the party’s factions, suggesting a common disdain for Trump may be enough to keep the party united with him at the helm. He also benefits from the fact that he has no clear successor.

But Biden may also stay in power because the Republicans have yet to work out their ongoing relationship with Trump.

The former president’s conduct not only allows Biden to stay on as a candidate, it also keeps the Republican party in a holding pattern in terms of the necessary task of developing a more positive, forward-looking and institutionalized approach to policymaking.

A presidential race that once again pits Biden against Trump not only represents a repeat of 2020, but it will fail to move the dial in any significant way for the American public. Instead, to best move forward beyond this tumultuous era, both parties may need to find new leadership and new ideas.

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