The Biden Factor

Eli Zaretsky

During the US presidential debate last Thursday night something predicted and feared occurred: not that Biden performed poorly but that he was clearly out of his element. From the very first moment he seemed frightened, confused and out of place. He repeatedly garbled answers and slurred words. ‘Senior moments’ are certainly familiar to me, but that does not describe Biden’s trailing sentences, vacant stares and confusion. The immediate takeaway was that the Biden camp has been obfuscating the president’s decline. While this is a pattern in American politics – as with Franklin Roosevelt’s wheelchair or Jack Kennedy’s back problems – it is more serious when the problem is cognitive. Growing numbers of Democrats have called for Biden to step aside, but for the moment this does not seem likely. Meanwhile, it is worth pausing to ask how it came about that Biden is able to hold the party hostage, especially in the face of what it repeatedly defines as a quasi-fascist threat.

The immediate roots of the debacle lie in the process by which Biden secured his nomination in 2020. The party did everything it could to stop Bernie Sanders. Sanders won the popular vote in the first three primaries – Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada – although Pete Buttigieg ran him close in Iowa and New Hampshire. By contrast, there was little enthusiasm for Biden. Before the South Carolina primary on 29 February, Sanders had secured 45 delegates to Biden’s fifteen. Polling showed Sanders leading in most of the sixteen Super Tuesday states that lay ahead, though not in South Carolina.His greatest weakness was among older Black voters. Biden, with the endorsement of Representative James Clyburn, decisively won the South Carolina primary. Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar immediately dropped out of the race and endorsed Biden, who went on to be nominated.

To be sure, Biden went on to beat Trump and to have a relatively successful presidency, at least in his first two years. As Walter Benjamin reminds us, however, we should be wary of writing history from the perspective of the victors. In my view, something died in the Democratic Party with the subversion of the Sanders campaign. Sanders himself was muted, and hopes for substantial change, centred on young people, were staunched. An event like that is like a maelstrom; events flow in and other events flow out, but the real action takes place beneath the surface. As is common when a sitting president runs for re-election, Biden was essentially unchallenged in the primaries this year. The party is running a one-issue campaign yet again: Donald Trump.

This self-made disaster should be put in a larger context: the project of the Democratic Party is to keep the left out of power, even when this conflicts with the party’s self-interest. The roots of this project lie in the origins of America’s two-party system in the Jacksonian era. The purpose of a two-party system was, as Martin Van Buren said, to avoid ‘geographical divisions founded on local interests or, what is worse, prejudices between free and slaveholding states’. Since that time there has been only one period in which the United States might have developed a left-wing party: the 1930s and early 1940s. That was also the only period in American history that saw redistribution of wealth. Today’s Democratic Party was formed as a reaction against the New Deal. We saw the image of its spirit in the film Oppenheimer, when Harry Truman (played by Gary Oldman), confronted with an argument that questions the premises of the Cold War, says: ‘Get that cry-baby out of my office.’ Whether there is a way out of the current impasse remains unclear.


  • 3 July 2024 at 12:01pm
    Aron says:
    The obvious omission here is whether Sanders could have beaten Trump. Anyone who has observed the ghastly spectacle of the mainstream press contemplating Corbyn's Prime Ministership will be very cautious on this front.

    The Democrats are running an anti-Trump campaign because at every election since 2020 this has worked for them. They won the midterms; in 2023 "the party outperformed the partisan lean by an average of 10 percent".

    • 3 July 2024 at 1:00pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Aron
      I think Walter Benjamin's point is that if we only look at the question of winning, and especially who won, we miss a lot of the story. Yes, Sanders might not have gotten the nomination and if he did he might have lost. But if he lost we would be past the 2d Trump term, and Sanders would be in a good position to win in 2024. Right now the Dems have only a 35% chance of winning, even before the Biden debate. There is a larger question here of the place of the Left in a modern democratic society

    • 3 July 2024 at 1:02pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Aron
      On Corbyn: might he have won if he had opposed Brexit, and been pro-active on anti-Semitism, manufactured though that issue in good part was.

    • 6 July 2024 at 3:49pm
      freshborn says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      In polling, Sanders got the best results of Democratic primary candidates against Trump, including Clinton and Biden. I believe Sanders, like Corbyn, would have been a more popular candidate. Also like Corbyn, he would likely have faced more of a struggle from the media and political establishment who stoke fear over the far right but accept it in a heartbeat over any progressive policies. We're seeing the same thing with Melenchon.

      Those who respond pessimistically to all of this and regret that these figures are "unelectable" are numerous and have been co-opted by the establishment. They are obsessed with power and winning elections, at the expense of a civil discourse about the policies of our governments and the concept of voting on principle.

      Fearmongering and gruel-serving may "work" for the Democrats in one presidential election out of three, but it doesn't work for America, which is mostly comprised of citizens rather than pundits and political staffers.

    • 9 July 2024 at 9:46pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Aron
      yes, I agree-- the US decided Biden was "electable" and now look at what happened, he is going to get completely trounced.

  • 3 July 2024 at 12:05pm
    Ted Eames says:
    The Democrats have relied on a double gamble. The first was that Trump's court cases would either eliminate him or fatally weaken him. The second was that Biden's cognitive abilities would somehow hold up for another 4 years.
    Both were disastrous bets from the start.
    Trump's second term will make his first seem benign. Thank you, Democrats.

    • 3 July 2024 at 1:06pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Ted Eames
      Yes, I agree. The court cases are part of my point. The Democrats have based everything on anti-Trumpism. The cases have hurt the Democrats who do seem to have politicized the justice system and they have hugely helped Trump, whose numbers have gone up each time. It looks like Gulliver (Trump) and the Lilliputians (Democratic prosecutors) right now.

  • 3 July 2024 at 3:23pm
    Roy Lee says:
    If Bernie lost how many more lives would have been lost to the pandemic? I wish Bernie was in office instead of Biden but the primaries are about who can win, not who you want to win. That is the reason we chose Biden. We're clearly past that now and if the President can make up the tragic debate performance he has a much better chance than a replacement. As for whether he will complete a full term, who knows and frankly who cares. Hopefully voters will realize that defeating Trump once and for all is the only thing to worry about.

    • 3 July 2024 at 3:30pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Roy Lee
      It's not the only thing to worry about. First, it is not clear that Sanders would have lost. He would take working class votes away from Trump, but would lost moderate suburban voters. US politics is very complex. No one can be sure of what would have happened. Of course, if Sanders lost the centrists would blame the left but they do that anyway.
      Second, we need to worry about the party's identity. Right now it is empty because it has suppressed its left. you have the same problem here with Starmer. Winning is important but it is not the only consideration.

    • 3 July 2024 at 3:50pm
      prwhalley says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      For what it's worth, back in the first Trump term one of my work-mates, like me, the first in his family to go to college and get a 'professional' job, told me that his father and all his buddies, all union carpenters, had supported Bernie, but once he lost to Clinton, switched their vote to Trump. I was astounded, but now I clearly see why they would do that.

    • 3 July 2024 at 5:41pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ prwhalley
      Totally. Unbelievably, the Republicans get the working class vote and the Democrats get the educated elites. This is not restricted to the US. Trump got his hey word to describe the system-- rigged-- from Sanders.

    • 3 July 2024 at 7:43pm
      Laurene Miller says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      Couldn't this just be that progressives--who tend to be educated middle and upper-middle class--aren't very good at winning over working class voters? This includes Sanders. I live in a purple New England state where the old hippies and Ivy League grads adore Sanders but the guys at the autoshop or who drive the snowplows despise the idea of investing the government with any more authority than it already has. I do thing that Sanders is not as alienating to those voters as people obsessed with identity politics and speech policing, but they are just never, ever going to vote for a socialist.

    • 3 July 2024 at 8:21pm
      Peter L says: @ Roy Lee
      Part of the problem is the "we" of this "we chose Biden." The Democratic Party closed ranks against Sanders and made Biden the figurehead, a bet on the combination of the old and new face of an increasingly morbid neoliberalism (and, on the new, we should not forget Obama's role in this closing of ranks). Even after their primary defeat, the momentum and coalitions that were behind Sanders helped initially push Biden towards policies liberal commentators happily associated with a new "New Deal," at times greenish (further proof, perhaps, that the 30s and 40s were still charged with a little of that "time of the now," as Benjamin would have put it). But that has long since been left behind in theory and practice for a tracking right on fossil fuels, immigration, and the virtually unwavering support for Israel's siege of Gaza.
      The initial commenter also assumes the enduring strength of the Democrats and an anti-Trump messaging, rather than some fortuitous bumps that helped put them over the top in recent elections (Trump's handling of the pandemic, if that hasn't disappeared into the mist of forgetting, or the end of Roe v. Wade). But more than just Biden's historically dismal approval rating, or the post-debate cracks in the façade of liberal and centrist confidence, or the betrayal felt by more left-leaning youth, the Democratic Party must contend with the not negligible leaking away of black and latino support (despite the quibbles about differing polls). Along with those union carpenters, and large sectors of the working class more generally. The percentage of youth who are not just disappointed with Biden, but supportive of Trump, has also grown more than the confident Democratic "we" would suggest. The other lesson would be Macron, who repeatedly ran on the unique threat posed by Marie Le Pen and the RN, while he continued to track right and attack the left. They thought that move would work well until it didn't.

    • 3 July 2024 at 9:53pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Laurene Miller
      Sanders was actually very successful with working class voters both in 2016 and 2020. no doubt, the idea of socialism has been poisoned but there are ways around that. The kind of crises we face require bold thinking-- as Trump has demonstrated! What we are really seeing is the collapse of the Democratic Party. in the US so sticking to the old cliches doesn't work either.

    • 3 July 2024 at 9:56pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Peter L
      I agree Peter. The only thing that is going to work is an alliance of the Left with the liberals, as in France. Trump is succeeding because he stole so much of the Left's thunder. There are other reasons as well to be sure. but we cant underestimate the depth of the crisis.

  • 3 July 2024 at 9:01pm
    radiator valve says:
    This sort of scaremongering is doing Putin's work which is to get Donald Trump back into the White House again. Yes, Biden didn't make a great show in the debate. But that was ONE debate. Have you watched his other speeches over the last few years? Coherent, intelligent and emphasising the importance of democratic principles. I would have liked a Bernie presidency too just as I would have liked a Corbyn for prime minister but you have to be pragmatic about these things. The opinions of the majority of the populations of the USA and the UK have shifted more to the right over the last forty years and will not vote for what they see as the far left (which it obviously isn't) But try convincing them of that in the present media ecosphere. Biden has reached out to those on the left of the party such as bringing Bernie in to legislate against the huge profits made by pharma companies on insulin. If you want those sort of policies to be put into effect, then you're going to have to hold your nose and vote for Biden. If you want women's right to choose to be codified in legislation, then ditto. If you want the corrupt Supreme Court to be dealt with, ditto again. What's at stake here is much bigger than Biden's so-called cognitive decline. And, after all, surely that is what a vice-president is for, to take over if the leader is incapable of being able to lead? Or have you got a problem with Kamala Harris as well? If Trump wins a second term, due to this sort of sniping from the Democratic side, as is what happened with Hilary in 2016, then you can say goodbye to any future opportunities for free and fair elections. And you'd be unleashing chaos on the rest of the world as well with who knows what consequences.

    • 3 July 2024 at 10:00pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ radiator valve
      who is doing the scaremongering? The centrist Democrats in the US took over the party and marginalized the Left, which was where all the energy and new ideas were. They did it by saying there was only one reason-- Trump, which was like Putin or Saddam Hussein or Hitler-- someone to scare the masses with. There is no substitute for integrity in th e long run and -- contra Keynes-- the long run is what counts.

    • 9 July 2024 at 3:38am
      Richard Burt says: @ radiator valve
      blah, blah, blah. No one is listening to you. If you aren't a paid operative, you sure write like one

  • 3 July 2024 at 10:29pm
    CambridgeUSA says:
    I can't believe what I am reading. Bernie Sanders is 82 and although I admire him, he sounds old and crotchety and sometimes even nasty. Biden could be the walking dead; a zombie, and I would vote for him again, not just because he is the only hope we have, but because, other than his support for Netanyahu, I agree with his policies and I think he has done a good job. AND - should he resign after beating Trump, I have no reason to think Kamalah would do a worse job than Trump. Go Biden.

    • 4 July 2024 at 12:18am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ CambridgeUSA
      I am not advocating Sanders now; this was four years ago. But the larger issue is the identity of the Democratic Party. Right now, Trump claims to be speaking for the "little man" and "little woman" and the Democrats are not really answering that.

  • 4 July 2024 at 12:08am
    John Fredrich says:
    Continuing along that thread in history, Truman's Point Four incased his "scare the hell out of 'em", (cf. the voters, about the Soviets), and lock in permanent generous percentages in military spending as the central feature of US foreign policy. This is part of the creed of the Democratic Party oligarchy that Joe Biden fronts for. His deplorable conduct in arming the Israeli genocide in Gaza is not an anomaly but rather an central feature of the American imperial and colonial project.

    • 4 July 2024 at 5:32pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ John Fredrich
      I completely agree. the US Ukraine policy is equally deplorable, though I doubt LRB readers will agree. Maybe I am wrong.

  • 4 July 2024 at 5:07am
    hry says:
    I've been thinking about Walter Benjamin a lot of late. Catastrophe not as a rupture, but as continuity, things going on as they are—in this conception, both Trump and Biden are the candidates of catastrophe. (How could anyone look at Gaza and not think that Benjamin had it right? What was "saved" by Biden's 2020 victory?) Benjamin seems a good antidote to the chorus of liberals who believe that we live perennially on the precipice of catastrophe, always about to fall into The Bad Place. In actuality, we're already in it.

    • 4 July 2024 at 5:33pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ hry
      Yes, I am writing a book onBenjamin. Great figure.

    • 6 July 2024 at 12:28pm
      Lindsay Nash says: @ hry
      Spot on!

    • 6 July 2024 at 4:15pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Lindsay Nash

  • 4 July 2024 at 8:00pm
    stephen eisenman says:
    "the project of the Democratic Party is to keep the left out of power" -- absolutely correct but rarely said. And yet Biden passed a series of spending bills that rivaled in size those of the New Deal. Why have they not generated more support? It's fine to blame the Democratic Party -- they deserve lots of blame and more. But maybe the voters need blame too?

    • 4 July 2024 at 10:33pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ stephen eisenman
      one thing history shows is that it is not only the size or even the nature of a reform that counts the most. It is the place that the reform occupies in public consciousness. The New Deal reforms were relatively weak-- for example, social security in its original form, but they reframed public understanding about capitalism and the nature of the state. The Democrats under Biden did not do that in part because they had marginalized their left, and everyone knew that, including the Left. People like Sanders made their peace with it, in part because they regarded Trump as such a threat, but look at Sanders himself to see the cost.

  • 8 July 2024 at 2:49pm
    (1) According to my quite fallible memory, Buttigieg and Klobuchar actually dropped out of the South Carolina primary the weekend before the vote, though both were viable candidates at the time; their departure was thought to be highly favorable for Biden; and it was reported only some time later that Obama had, without any public announcement, contacted both of them that weekend before they dropped out. What viable candidate drops out of an election the weekend before it takes place? A brief search of the internet shows only that each of them “formally” dropped out after the primary had taken place. Afterwards Buttigieg, whose highest office had been the mayoralty of a small city, was appointed to an important cabinet position for which he had no special credentials.

    Living in California, I clearly remember the orchestrated smear campaign that former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein of California conducted against Senator Sanders immediately before the California primary.

    (2) The US does not have two parties. It has one far right wing (now fascist) party and one center-right party, constituting a single party representing the plutocracy, in particular the corporations and military-industrial-university complex. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, working people have not left the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party has left them. Neither party is a party in the sense of what a real political party would be in a real democracy—for example the nineteenth century Progressive Party—representing large numbers of people and functioning from the ground up. The Republican and Democratic “Parties” are actually niche corporations, whose business model is collecting money from the wealthy and corporations, together with instructions written by their lawyers and lobbyists about what legislation the parties are to pass (not infrequently introduced and passed verbatim); maintaining a network of think tanks and intellectuals who write the party propaganda; and recruiting and training candidates who are willing to spout that propaganda while actually voting for the legislation given to the parties by the rich and powerful. A recent, well-publicized academic study showed that if you’re in the upper 1%, you almost always get the legislation you want from Congress; if you’re in the the lower 70%, you never get the legislation you want. Almost all federal legislation has been passed on a bipartisan basis. What is the magic that makes all this happen? Competition between the two parties is a charade masking the reality that they are in the business of distributing wealth and power to the wealthy and powerful (including themselves), while brushing enough crumbs off the table to keep the people from revolting. This charade also serves the essential function of playing divide-and-conquer with the public. That is how “democracy” in America works under the “two party system.”

    (3) Biden is a mediocrity whose statesmanship and “reliability” were manufactured on the fly by a Democratic Party establishment desperate to block Sanders from getting the nomination.

    Obama was reported to have said in 2020, “You should never underestimate Joe’s ability to f*k things up.” Now we have been learning that Biden, his family, his advisors, many if not most Congressional Democrats, many journalists, many European officials, and others have known for between a year and two and one-half years that Biden was no longer fit to be president, let alone run for re-election. They all concealed this from the people, who were nevertheless not fooled and told pollsters he was too old. The behavior of the powerful among these people, above all Biden, was immoral and unpatriotic. The current crisis is his responsibility. His re-election campaign has demonstrated that Obama’s observation about him was a gross understatement.

    Sanders is not radical at all; he would fit perfectly well into a European left-of-center, or probably even right-of-center, party. But that’s too radical for the US plutocracy, which is drunk on its sense of its own omnipotence and its contempt for the people, which have been engendered by its ever astronomically-increasing wealth and power. Biden’s vaunted legislation was real enough, but was merely temporary and was not, in contrast to FDR’s, intended to produce structural change. The important structural changes during the Biden years have been that the Republican Party and the Supreme Court have turned themselves into unambiguously fascist organizations.

    (4) One would have thought that being able to restrain itself from committing genocide was a baseline requirement for any nation to consider itself civilized. If a nation cannot do that, how is it any better than Nazi Germany? Yet one constantly sees the genocide (more accurately the Vernichtungskrieg, genocide being only one of its components) that is being conducted in Palestine by Israel, the US, and Germany discussed as if it were just another policy issue. Apparently the Holocaust was similarly just a forgettable incident from the forties.

    Then again, the US national security state has spent the last three-quarters of a century slaughtering and exploiting people of color around the world by the thousands, hundreds of thousands, and millions. Our current descent into fascism is a product of the so-called “boomerang effect.” As is often observed, you can’t have both an empire and a democracy. Or, you could say, you get out of life what you put into it. Karma.

    • 8 July 2024 at 6:03pm
      Thank you! Well said!

    • 9 July 2024 at 9:49pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ ALEXANDER CHIMES
      well said, thank you for this. Interesting about Buttigieg and Klobuchar. I remember them dropping out right after the primary.

    • 13 July 2024 at 1:46pm
      Haldor says: @ ALEXANDER CHIMES
      This is the most succinct and insightful summary of the reality of US politics I've read in a while. Thanks.

  • 9 July 2024 at 1:10pm
    Richard Burt says:
    What about '92 and '96? Clinton. Clinton-ism. Triangulation. Kinda like strangulation.... Welfare reform Reagan could never have gotten through. Signing the unconstitutional Communications Decency Act into law. "Don't say gay." Or what about “Barack Hoover Obama," the lead story in Harper’s in July 2009? Or Obama reviving the 1917 Espionage Act? Or the Russiagate hoax? Or their turning against the First Amendment in favor of government censorship? The Democrat Party died a long, long time ago.

    • 9 July 2024 at 9:50pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Richard Burt
      It actually starts with Carter and, in another sense, with Truman.

    • 9 July 2024 at 11:40pm
      Richard Burt says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      True. Ousting Henry Wallace was the end.

  • 12 July 2024 at 1:14pm
    Keith says:
    I think we owe it to decency to try just once putting all our eggs into one big far left anti-capitalist basket and see if the polls are to believed or if in fact there are a ton of people out there who see no point in any of this because there has never been a politician worth coming out for. I can't believe Sanders name hasn't even been mentioned once this second time around. crochety? sure. but principled. I know you are not advocating for him now altho I don't really see why not! I'd kill to read the comments at least on a Why not Bernie? piece if you are so inclined!

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