AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
Since announcing his re-election bid three weeks ago, Joe Biden has virtually disappeared.
Where is Joe Biden? The U.S. President has been increasingly invisible over the past month, aside from an international trip to Ireland. He has participated in talks with congressional leaders over the debt limit, and given a few brief public statements, but otherwise has been out of the media spotlight.
As a result, that spotlight has otherwise been dominated by Republicans, revealing a serious flaw in the Democratic Party, one which directly threatens its hopes for 2024: The party lacks any effective spokesman other than Biden, and any effort to fill the role is perceived as a direct threat to Vice President Harris. As a result, when Biden cannot speak, no one else can. The result is that increasingly no one speaks for the administration or the party.
The problems posed both by Biden’s age and Kamala Harris’s awkwardness and unpopularity have been documented extensively, but one of the less analyzed aspects is how they interact with each other. There is of course the issue of the succession. With Biden pushing age 80, there is a real prospect that Harris may be called upon to assume the presidency in an acting or even full capacity, and that prospect weighs on anyone contemplating a second Biden term. Politico featured a piece interviewing Democratic insiders on this precise issue this week. It noted how Republicans have already taken to attacking the prospect of a President Harris.
“I think that we can all be very clear and say with a matter of fact that if you vote for Joe Biden you really are counting on a President Harris, because the idea that he would make it until 86 years old is not something that I think is likely,” Nikki Haley told an audience last month.
It is no secret why Republicans are raising the prospect of a President Harris. The vice president is deeply unpopular, even among Democrats, and the evidence from the tasks Biden has assigned her suggests those doubts are shared even by her boss.
But there is a deeper and less examined dynamic caused by the president’s age and vice president’s unpopularity: both have created a climate of political paralysis throughout the Democrat Party.
Biden was never a charismatic orator. A creature of the Senate, he failed three times to connect with voters in Iowa or New Hampshire, where retail politics is king, and his ascension to the presidency is a testament to his mastery of insider politics. He secured the vice presidency because he was the opposite of the young, inexperienced Barack Obama, and he won South Carolina and the Democratic presidential primaries thanks to deals with Jim Clyburn.
Even compared to 2020, Biden seems to have slowed down. He struggles to answer questions, recently commenting with regard to the Turkish election that he “hopes whoever wins wins,” simultaneously expressing indifference to the result while impugning the legitimacy of whoever emerges. His efforts have been consumed with debt ceiling talks where he has veered between negotiations and asserting he can use the 14th Amendment to avoid the need for an agreement altogether.
While Biden is no help to the party, Harris is seen if anything as a greater liability, and is hardly in demand as a campaign surrogate, as her presence causes additional problems. Her very political weakness, which prevents her from being an asset, also makes her position insecure enough that any other effective surrogate becomes a threat to her ambitions.
In another world, various Democratic rising stars such as Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer or Colorado Governor Jared Polis would be fundraising and holding campaigns for local Democrats. It would be a show of loyalty to the party and its current leadership that would earn them credit in the future.
The problem is that with Harris’s status as the “future” of the party open to serious doubt, what would otherwise be a show of loyalty would instead come off as disloyal. Rather than aiding a Biden-Harris ticket, an effort by Whitmer or Polis to fundraise for other Democrats would be seen as auditioning to challenge Harris, either if Biden cannot run in 2024 after all, or in 2028. That, at least, was the reaction when Gavin Newsom tried to “nationalize” in 2022.
With Harris unable to be effective herself and threatened by any effective action on the part of anyone else, the result is a state of paralysis which has left the Biden campaign conducting little fundraising, little campaigning, and barely any hiring. As late as the end of April, the campaign had only three full-time staffers, and the campaign manager, Julia Chavez Rodriguez, has never run a campaign before. The result is a twilight zone where the campaign functionally does not exist.
Until January 2023, Democrats had an additional surrogate in the form of Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi was, like, Harris, far from a popular figure, but she differed from the vice president in that she could better be described as polarizing. While she was not well-liked by a large majority of voters, she was at least popular with Democrats and more importantly donors, unlike Harris who does not seem to be popular with anyone. In turn, Pelosi was respected by her opponents, and she was able to drive a message, whether it be through her high-profile visit to Taiwan, or the leading role she took in tormenting Donald Trump. While there were many Republican candidates who found her presence an asset to their campaigns, her departure seems, on net, to have badly hurt Democrats who lost an organizer and messenger.
Hakeem Jeffries, her successor, lacks any significant national profile. His status as a New York congressman limits his national appeal, and his African American background makes him a potential rival to the vice president’s control of that base. It may be for that reason that he has been entirely sidelined since Kevin McCarthy’s successful election as speaker. His absence from the debt-ceiling debate is striking.
As for the Cabinet, Pete Buttigieg seems to have failed to recover from the East Palestine train derailment in Ohio. He has also been a victim both of the better-than-expected midterm results, which raised the profile of state-level Democrats in Colorado, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, and the hostility of the vice president. The senior officials who have been high-profile, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, are in the first two cases presenting themselves as non-partisan technocrats, while the latter is not seen as a major political force.
The net result is “All Quiet on the Democrat Front.” Biden having announced for reelection, no other Democrat can make a move. Biden being unable to campaign or take the lead, and the vice president unwilling to do so or to allow anyone else to do so, the consequence is that no real campaign is taking place.
At the moment this is disguised by the GOP primary, but at this point in 1995, 2003, and 2011, the Clinton, Bush, and Obama campaigns had fully formed and were even beginning to launch plans to use the primaries as dry runs of their general election machine. By contrast, the Biden campaign does not even know what the Democrat primary order will be.
The Republican primary is and should be the top story. But the sheer nonexistence of the Biden reelection effort deserves more attention than it has received. Not least because the structural factors crippling its rollout are not going to automatically resolve themselves by next year.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.