Clive Crook

Biden Can’t See Why America Is in Trouble

President Joe Biden is right that American democracy is under threat. Unfortunately, he seems not to know why, or what to do about it.

The president’s prime-time speech on Thursday was a typical Biden performance — rambling repetition, theatrical intensity, all soul-baring emphasis and next to no content. At least it was brief. And, to be fair, Biden did modify his recent line of attack on his opponents, declining to call them “semi-fascists” and graciously noting that not all Republicans (“not even the majority of Republicans”) are in fact enemies of democracy. The threat, he said, resides with MAGA Republicans, presumably a smaller group, but not one he defined. If it means those who say they’d prefer Donald Trump to Biden in 2024, that’s almost half the country.

Most of the country, Democrats and Republicans alike, agree with Biden that the American project is going off the rails. The problem is that nobody in politics — not Biden, not Trump, not their allies or supporters, not even their visible challengers — cares as much about restoring consensual democratic government as they do about crushing the other side.

It’s telling that the Democrats’ best electoral asset is not Biden but Trump, just as the Republicans’ best asset is not Trump but Biden. All the energy in US politics right now derives not from competing purpose and ambition, but from a loathing of the other side. As a result, the checks and balances meant to elicit compromise despite faction are under assault. The current trajectory is not politics as usual. And it really does lead to disaster.

Trump’s vanity is such that he sees no dilemma. All is in service to his ego. If not for his interventions, Republicans would currently control the Senate. He backs weak candidates in the midterms to gratify his self-importance. He’d happily consign his party to defeat, and the country to political breakdown, if he were convinced it would stir the rage of his enemies and the adulation of his believers.

In 2020 Biden offered a remedy, and despite his weaknesses seemed capable of providing it: Scranton Joe was well-placed to bring blue-collar defectors and other swing voters back to the Democrats, a task that would start with understanding their grievances and respecting their values.

Instead, he made the White House a wholly owned subsidiary of the disdainful progressive left. It’s unclear whether he believes in the positions he’s promoted and acquiesced in, whether he’s been captured by activist advisers, or simply doesn’t know what’s going on. But he certainly hasn’t pulled the Democrats back to the moderate center.

Study Thursday’s speech for any sign of understanding why Trump still polls almost even with Biden. You’ll find none. The president droned on about the soul of the nation and the threat to democracy — while telling his audience that the economy is strong, the long-overdue work of building social justice has begun, and the norms of good government are safe in his hands. Odd that democracy is dying when everything is so great.

Perhaps Biden has indeed noticed that much of the country is struggling with inflation and anxious about crime; sees its children’s prospects set back thanks in part to intransigent bureaucracies and truculent public-sector unions; disagrees with his party’s obsession with identity politics; questions the integrity of the country’s arcane election machinery and the independence of the Department of Justice and the FBI; and worries his administration is dividing the nation and attacking norms (most recently, with $500 billion or more of student-debt relief by executive order). If he is aware of any of this, you’d never guess it from what he said.

Of course the president was right to denounce political violence without exception and deplore efforts to set aside lawful elections. But does Biden expect anybody to believe that if Trump somehow prevails in 2024, political violence and accusations of election malfeasance (baseless or otherwise) will not follow — with Democrats once more leading the Resistance?

One can hope that Trump’s pathologies will eventually bring him down. But his popularity may well be less a cause of what ails the country than a proof of deep and widespread disaffection. If Democrats persist in refusing to see this frustration and make no effort to address it, then Biden wasn’t exaggerating the danger: The outlook for this country is truly dire.