Should Biden Commit to Being a One-Term President?
David Gergen lives in a fantasy world.
David Gergen says, “If Biden runs, he should commit to just one term.”
First, some of what gets slammed as High Broderism but could well be named after him as well:
[F]rom my small corner of the country, I sense that the public’s number one priority is different. People want to go beyond getting rid of Trump but are not yet ready for epic new battles over a hard-left agenda. Rather, they are most eager to get the country back on track, restore civility and sanity to our lives and bring a healing to our people.
As the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin noted in a recent visit to the Harvard Kennedy School, Teddy Roosevelt warned in an 1900 essay against the danger of losing our “fellow-feeling” for other Americans. Roosevelt argued that “a very large part of the rancor of political and social strife… arises either from sheer misunderstanding of one section, or one class, of another,” or from people being so cut off from each other that “neither appreciates the other’s passions, prejudices and indeed, point of view.” When we see our rivals as “other,” Goodwin argued, we can lose the bedrock of democracy.
Americans feel in their bones that we are dangerously divided — more so than at any time since the Civil War — and they would welcome efforts to pull us back from the brink.
If Biden seizes the moment, convincing the public that he is the best candidate to heal the country, he can turn some of his perceived weaknesses into strengths. Progressives complain that he is too much of a centrist, but if we are to close our divides, don’t we need a president who works from the center, not the fringes?
Progressives complain that he pays too much respect to Trump loyalists — like “decent guy” Mike Pence — but if we are to get significant legislation passed in the next term, don’t we need respect across the aisle? Critics also argue that he is too old and out of touch with the younger generation, but don’t we need a president who remembers how an older generation made politics work?
That’s my view of how American politics ought to work as well. But, rather obviously, that’s not how it actually works. As much as we’d like it to be otherwise, Washington doesn’t run like an Aaron Sorkin screenplay.
First off, we nominate our Presidential candidates through a primary system that is dominated by rabid partisans and ideologues. To the extent a critical mass of the Democratic nominating electorate wants something more centrist than Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, they almost certainly don’t want someone too awfully chummy with Mike Pence or Mitch McConnell. Someone who can work with them? Sure. Someone who likes them and thinks they’re good guys? Not so much.
Second, absent some evidence otherwise, there’s simply no reason to think today’s Republican Party is going to work with any Democratic President, even a relative moderate like Biden. While I don’t think he tried hard enough, long enough, Barack Obama made every effort to get Republican buy-in for signature programs like health-care reform. McConnell and company made it their mission to deny him a single Republican vote.
Third, while “restoring civility” is absolutely a worthwhile goal, a President needs a governing agenda. George H.W. Bush ran on creating ”a kinder, gentler nation” but had no “vision thing” with regard to domestic policy. He got essentially nothing done as a result. His predecessor, Ronald Reagan, enacted a major re-alignment of the American political system because he got elected on an agenda and was then able to work with Tip O’Neil and other Democrats by compromising and giving them some of what they wanted.
Eventually, Gergen gets to his titular point:
First, if and when he declares, Biden might break precedent by promising up front that he will serve for only a single term — “one and done,” as they say in college basketball. Unlike other politicians who always seem grasping for power, Biden would have a credible argument that he is truly putting country first.
But, the critics will respond, he will automatically become a lame duck, unable to get big things done. So? It is already clear that unless we break out of today’s paralyzed politics, the next president will be badly handcuffed.
And committing to one term would also diminish the importance of his age issue. With a single term, he would step down at 81. People might accept that. But trying to go on till 85? That seems beyond the pale.
Again, this would work very well in a movie or television series. I could very much see Jed Bartlett doing this in a 2020 version of “The West Wing.”
But on Earth One, this wouldn’t work. One-Term Biden wouldn’t be seen as a selfless patriot but as a placeholder. Rather than lining up to get his agenda—assuming he actually has one—passed and working to set themselves up for 2028, as they would a normal first-term President, everyone would begin jockeying immediately after Election Day for 2024.
The rest of the column is much the same: perfectly reasonable ideas about how an America that’s better than the one we live in should run itself. But, alas.
I like Joe Biden. I wish he’d run in 2016 and been the Democratic nominee. I’d have voted for him more enthusiastically than I did Hillary Clinton. If he’s the Democratic nominee in 2020, I’ll enthusiastically vote for him unless the Republicans shock me and nominate Larry Hogan or Jeb Bush or the like.*
As it is, though, I think he’s too old for the job, arguably the most stressful in the world. The man was born the year before my parents, both of whom are now dead. And it’s not like he’s had an easy life; the stresses he’s endured personally and professionally take a toll.
The 2020 field isn’t even fully formed, much less beginning to sort. I don’t have a strong sense of which younger Democrat I’d prefer at this juncture. But it’s a huge field and one would think one of the under-60s will emerge as a viable alternative.
*I’m not pledging my vote at this juncture to a non-Trump Republican. But a party that rejected Trump and instead nominated a relative moderate would again be worthy of my consideration.
There are varying definitions, but I can’t find one that says you become a lame duck immediately just because you’ve started your final term. Here’s a common one:
Your usage in this post is the sort of nonsense that helped people justify not voting on Garland. And yet, the people voted that Obama should serve the country from 2013-2017, *not* to do nothing for four years.
I’ve started to pay some attention to Pete Buttigieg. Normally I wouldn’t even think about a guy who’d only been a mayor, but evidently we no longer require relevant experience, learning, intelligence or character, and at least Buttigieg has the latter three.
@Michael Reynolds: I’ve only recently become aware of Buttigieg. He’s apparently brilliant. Casually mentioned that he taught himself to read Norwegian because an author whose novels he liked in translation had other books not yet in English.
Even aside from experience, it seems highly unlikely that an under-40 gay man from Indiana is getting elected President. But that’s probably more likely than his winning statewide office in Indiana, so . . . .
Better than one and done, how about, Joe get elected, take the oath and then resign and let your VP assume the office (hopefully not Beto). Won’t happen, but I’d love to watch the political uproar.
Oh, big deal. Why, just this weekend I taught myself to make video on my laptop appear on my TV (!) and I did it with no guidance beyond a series of increasingly sarcastic texts from my eldest kid.
I didn’t use the term; Gergen did. Both Gergen and I agree with you as to how things should work. The difference is that I think a pledged one-termer would be treated like a lame duck. And that the Garland precedent demonstrates what that would look like.
@Michael Reynolds: Buttigieg’s got nothing on you, then.
Says the guy who called Tim Cook “Tim Apple”.
No one’s ever run for lame duck president.
What’s he going to use as a campaign logo? A crutch?
The idea is just daffy.
But then he’d be running against a guy named Donald.
@Sleeping Dog:.., how about, Joe get elected, take the oath and then resign and let your VP assume the office…
Go back to sleep…
“No one’s ever run for lame duck president.”
Not recently. Several presidents in the 19th century did (I believe Polk was the first).
@Moosebreath: That’s correct, as did Buchanan. Hayes pledged to serve one term as part of the deal he made in the vote-counting controversy, but I don’t think he made the pledge while he was running. Franklin Pierce served a single term and actually lost renomination within his own party; I believe it’s the only time that’s ever happened.
Biden should commit to being a two term VP.
No term President.
This just goes to show the vacuity of the Gergen/Friedman/Broder worldview, which seems to consist of 50% desire to be seen as a “serious person” and 50% desire not to actually take a stand on anything or if trapped into taking a stand, immediately including some variation of “But here how the other guys are bad.”
This nonsensical advice boils down to Biden saying “I’m almost too old to be President but not quite. In 4 years though, I’m definitely in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.”
While I agree with you, James, “that [president]’s probably more likely [for Buttegieg] than his winning statewide office in Indiana, so . . . ,” I think some national exposure for future federal office is probably his play here, just to teach us to spell and pronounce his name.
@James Joyner: My apologies. That thought was festering as I read the post and I didn’t scroll back up to check who wrote it. In fact, even Gergen hedges it by saying “critics will say …”
You know, pedantry and accuracy is far more pleasant when I’m the one engaging in it 🙂
Someone needs to explain what this magical “hard-left agenda” is…
@Michael Reynolds: He also has charisma. I like Buttigieg a lot. I have no idea how his quietly-being-smarter-than-you personality will play for most Americans, but I love it. And he’s so earnest. He’s got Canadian levels of earnestness going on. We should check his birth certificate.
His interviews are great.
I do not expect him to win the nomination, and we know nothing about him that he hasn’t told us (is South Bend really a city, and was he really the mayor?), but he is so much more plausible than I thought he was.
WTF is wrong with Grandpa?
I think America might hate women more than gays at this point. Sexism runs deep, while while gays have made massive strides in almost no time.
And he appears to have such a nice, traditional marriage. The least threatening gay. The ideal gay. If he turns it to be a swinger, then he has no chance.
When I listened to the podcast where Preet Bharara interviewed him, my reaction was “Well, that guy has good values and is clearly way smarter than me, we should make him President.” But my reaction may not be the norm.
@Gustopher: Plus, if he’s elected, we get the fun of watching Jerry Falwell’s head go full exorcist as he contemplates the prospect of a “First Husband”.
“For today’s Final Jeopardy, the category is “SNL Presidential Satire.” The answer is: “Zero.”
“What is How many sitting presidents has SNL not made fun of?”
“Right, but you didn’t need to say “What is” as there was a “how” in the response.”
@Gustopher: I think you are underestimating the level of homophobia in the American public. It’s true that social acceptance of homosexuality has skyrocketed in the past decade or so, but negative attitudes still linger, and they are not exclusive to Republicans. A lot has to do with age: the younger you are, the likelier you are to be accepting of gay people. But that’s a problem because older people vote more. If Buttigieg somehow gets onto the 2020 ticket, I think he could win–but I don’t believe his sexual orientation would be a non-issue. Republicans would certainly do what they could to play on the homophobic fears of voters, and they wouldn’t even need to be explicit about it. There are all sorts of dogwhistles and stereotypes they could subtly or not-so-subtly play on without outright mentioning his orientation. It’s not just about marriage. I’m betting they’d invoke the old notion that gay men are insufficiently manly. It would also be a rallying point for religiously conservative voters, similar to the way Bush used the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2004. Have you been paying attention to how some conservative sites have used Booker’s being a vegan to suggest he’s going to ban meat? Similarly, they’ll say Buttigieg is anti-religion, anti-religious freedom. That’s always their rationalization: to be gay means you want to ban Christianity.
And to add onto everything he’s got that very unfortunate name where the sophomoric jokes practically write themselves.
Of course, many people doubted a black man with the middle name “Hussein” could win the presidency. And JFK managed to overcome a great deal of anti-Catholic sh!t on his way to the White House. But both men also excited members of their own group to come out to vote for them, which provided something of a counterbalance to the prejudice they faced. It’s unclear whether a gay candidate would have that kind of effect on gay voters.
I know we’re still stewing over Hillary’s loss to a misogynistic pig. But it’s hard to draw generalizations from individual elections. If Hillary had been the nominee in 2008, she very likely would have won. It’s possible to imagine an alternate history where she serves two terms and then Obama becomes the nominee in 2016…and loses. And then we’d be talking about how much more racist the public is than sexist. The fact is that various prejudices exist in America, and they do have an effect on elections–but they aren’t absolutes that determine the results all by themselves. A black man, a gay person, a woman could all win under the right circumstances, but whenever they lose many of us treat it like it was some kind of foregone conclusion, when it was really just one factor among several. Sexism hurt Hillary’s campaign, but it doesn’t prove that America is too sexist to elect a woman. And because we have the benefit of hindsight, we’re bound to notice the role of sexism much more than if there had never been a woman nominee. An openly gay nominee, for now, is just an abstraction. The moment it happens, I think it would very quickly unleash some of the country’s demons.
Oh God, I just realized we are entering the “What we need is a moderate third party” political season. This is just the hors d’ouevre.*
Re: Buttigieg, a few random thoughts on his campaign. (Full disclosure: while I’m sure he couldn’t pick me out of a line up, I’ve worked with Mayor Pete on a few issues and I’m fully aware of the ‘hometown hero’ effect. I try to compensate for that.):
While it’s true that he’s not likely to win the nomination, I would say that’s true about every person running right now, the only difference is the degree to which they are unlikely to win.
What Pete has going for him is:
-He’s a progressive, unabashedly so, but speaks about progressive values instead of wonky policies. This approach is what enabled him to win a commanding bipartisan victory in his mayoral run. While winning a mayor’s race truly isn’t as difficult as winning POTUS, that he did so in blood red Indiana in a fairly conservative city, with 80% of the vote, shouldn’t be overlooked. Countless articles have been written about whether Democrats should try to invigorate the base, or try for the swing voters. Pete’s campaign is predicated on the idea that you can do both.
-He appears to have the best social media skills of the declared candidates so far. Five years ago, even I would’ve scoffed that this would be important, but I think we all agree that it certainly is important now.
-When the dude speaks, he comes off as Presidential. That is, his youth isn’t going to be the weakness some predict.
-I’ve said it before, but he has that Obama “je ne sais quoi.” Both Obama and Axelrod recognized this early on, and while Axelrod is so far neutral in this race, he’s been spending an awful lot of time in South Bend.
-Regarding homophobia: It’s true that this will be an issue, but the people for whom this will be a huge issue are conservative evangelical voters who are not going to be swayed to vote for any Dem, period. Many identity groups are a bit swayable–witness the more socially conservative voters who backed Bernie because they didn’t want to die due to lack of healthcare coverage. But, in my experience, the least swayable are evangelical voters. Write them off. Among younger (under 45ish) voters in Trump country, his military experience is going to help neutralize latent homophobia.
*It took me 36 years, but I finally spelled that on the first try.
And I think you are underestimating the misogyny of the American public, and how ingrained the gender roles are. Strong women are b-tches and c-nts and emasculating, while strong men are just strong. Old women are fat and ugly, while old men are distinguished.
For a gay man to win, he has to define himself as manly and just not weird. For a woman to win, she has to define herself as something else entirely.
Clinton got the majority of the vote when so many people just couldn’t imagine Donald Trump as president. Four years later, he hasn’t killed us all, so he seems less threatening. I’m not sure Clinton would even win a rematch.
Luckily we won’t be running Clinton again. But Harris or Warren is going to face a lot of those same problems.
If Biden is too old to run for a second term, then he is too old to run for a first term.
I love Joe Biden. I think he would make a good president. But he is really old, and that second term isn’t that likely.
He would need to do something dramatic to overcome that — I think naming a VP before Iowa, and explicitly running as a team might do that. Biden might not be there in 2024, but the rest of the team will. One of the up and coming stars who doesn’t have quite enough experience, perhaps, but they are pursuing the big prize themselves. Biden/Beto would be a good pair, as they are both a little bit centrist.
Maybe if Beto doesn’t do well in Iowa and New Hampshire, but Biden does.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. It’s early and there is much more to learn about the candidates, but my dream ticket is Harris/Buttigieg 2020!
If, as many have speculated, Trump’s election was a societal backlash response to the election of Obama, it seems only fitting that the backlash response to Trump be a ticket with a female POC from California and an extremely smart gay military vet from Indiana.
Not to be picking at nits, J, but how do you hold these two competing ideas simultaneously in your head?
I tried to fit two thoughts in one sentence. I think Obama gave up on seeking compromise solutions too early. On ObamaCare, in particular, though, he bent over backward and got nothing for his troubles. Presumably, he figured that would continue. He may have been right but should have made more public efforts to reach across the aisle.
Okay, I agree with that. If for nothing else, to put the lie to Republican shenanigans. Kinda OT, I’m done with Chuck Todd, with his blaming Obama for the past and current country divide. What a putz.
I’m just wondering…should he have given up before or after Mitch McConnell said he wanted to make him a one term president…
I’ve been waiting for this BS to start appearing. This is part and parcel of the perpetual idea that Democratic administrations have no legitimacy. There will be a million columns from people like Gergen calling on Dems to name a Repub as VP, to commit to not implementing Dem policy priorities, to not pursue criminal charges against Repub criminals, and so on. The supposed liberal media can’t get enough of the idea that Democrats should face a million constraints that don’t apply to Republicans.
@Scott F.: if Harris/Buttigieg 2020 wins the white house, Jerry Fallwell jr.’s gonna need two pool boys.
@dennis: I was wondering the same thing.
@DA: in the late 90s/early 2000’s I completely abandoned the cable news shows and the Sunday network political shows, in favor of the blogosphere, where I could read smart people like Kevin Drum, Josh Marshall, Ed Kilgore, Paul Krugman, Josh barro, Anne Marie Cox, etc, and just skip all that idiotic Beltway nonsense.
“He may have been right but should have made more public efforts to reach across the aisle.”
Grand Bargain on the budget? Cap and trade? Gang of Eight bill on immigration reform? Merrick Garland? Any of these sound familiar?
@Teve: I sometimes say the only writers you can trust on politics are lefty bloggers. They don’t make enough money to lie.
I’m still wondering what that “hard-left agenda” is…
@Kylopod: indeed. On Quora recently, someone asked why white evangelicals support the thrice-married adulterer Trump and opposed the faithfully married to one woman Obama.
Of the white evangelicals who responded, their typical refrain* was that Trump supports their values, and they were very clear that being anti-LGBT was as important to them as being anti-abortion.
* Also very common was the response, “Obama is really a Muslim!” (!)
@dennis: ” Chuck Todd… What a putz.”
I’ll watch his show if Katy Tur is subbing for him, and that’s about it…
@Neil J Hudelson: Very much enjoyed this post. I am satisfied that among those who have thrown their hat in the ring, there are several good choices.
It’s hard to wrap my head around the possibility that evangelicals would rather vote for a crass philanderer over a respectful homosexual, all other things being equal. (But of course all other things are not equal.)
Having been in that community for 16 years, I can tell you that the religious mind can justify a multitude of sins once it’s able to link it with “God’s purpose.” Of course, now, we know better …
Completely Off Topic, I’m begining to suspect there is no way at all to remove Dennison from office except by defeating him in 2020. If the Democrats don’t win then, well be stuck with him until January 2025.
All my recent reading on Watergate lead me to believe Republicans at the time supported Nixon, because they thought the president hadn’t done the things he stood accused of doing.
Today many, if not most, Republicans also believe El Cheeto didn’t do what he’s accused of doing, but also they seem to think it doesn’t matter if Dennison actually did it. Be it illegal campaign money, colluding with the Russians, knowingly taking help from Russia, or even a quid-pro-quo with Russia, seems fine by them.
So, please, don’t blow this election. I don’t think the world can take four more years of this blithering idiot.
@An Interested Party: Whatever you say youŕe in favor of. Duh!
Healthcare for everyone.
Billionaires not paying lower taxes than a manager at Wendy’s.
Treating women and gay people like people.
Not celebrating slavery.
Employees making above-starvation wages.
Not making most of the planet a toxic oven.
You know, tyrannical Stalin shit. 😀
@just nutha: I’m just curious, how the fuck did
@Neil J Hudelson:
This is what all of the candidates on the left should strive to get better at. Nobody really cares about policy … well except the media, and that’s a whole other rant worthy subject.
I think this is pretty much what Nancy Pelosi was saying with her “impeachment is off the table” comment. Democrats should proceed with the investigations and as much information that results from those investigations as possible should be made public. But ultimately, no matter how compelling the evidence, Donald Trump is significantly more likely to be removed from office by the American voters than by the GOP Senate.
September/October 2015 was probably Joe Biden’s best window to get in the race if he was ever going to be President. With the recent (at the time) death of his son, it’s completely understandable why he couldn’t pull the trigger then. But despite his front runner status at the moment, it just feels like he’s doing this 4 years too late.
That being said, if he does end up as the Democratic nominee, I have virtually no doubt that he will be an effective candidate when it comes to running against and defeating Donald Trump in the general election …. and questions about 2024 will be answered in a couple of years. Declaring ahead of time that he would be a one term President would not be smart move. However, he could drop hints without being explicit about it. Say by choosing someone like Stacy Abrams (who he’s apparently been meeting with) as his VP.
@Todd: yesterday’s Pod Save America had a discussion about how early on Hillary and John Edwards had a really substantive policy showing on healthcare and Obama got caught flat-footed, then for the next 6 months Obama overcorrected and went into policy that was too detailed, before finally finding a sweet spot right before the primaries. The takeaway was that voters want to know that you have detailed policy, but they don’t want to hear about it much, they want the inspirational stuff.
@Teve:The chromebook I´m using at the school did that. Don´t know why.
Indeed…just like with the ACA, many individual parts of it polled great with a lot of people, but the whole was just some evil socialist plot…every item you listed is pretty popular with a lot of people…a shame we have one of the major political parties fighting tooth and nail against all of them…
Apparently that’s looking like it’s going to be a hard thing for them to do…
@Teve: I don’t think it’s voters that want to know that a candidate has a detailed policy proposal; it’s the political media that insist on it, then voters assume it much be important.
The absurdity is that journalists insist candidates provide these detailed policy proposals, then do analysis and stories about how much it would cost and what the impacts, both positive and negative would be if the legislation was enacted. But the reality is in 99.9% of cases there is less than zero chance of these policies (as proposed) being enacted over the coming 4-8 years.
We all say we want “honest” politicians. Well here’s the real honest answer to almost all forms of “what would you do about _____?” questions:
1) Well if I was King, here’s what I’d ideally like to see happen …
2) Here’s what there is maybe 5-10% chance we can get passed in our current system of government, if all the cards fall just right …
3) Here’s what is most likely to happen … no legislation is passed, but it remains a good electoral “contrast” issue.
Voters generally won’t elect anybody who actually admits that answers 2 and 3 are the honest ones. So we pretend that these detailed policy proposals will somehow magically become law, then get horribly disappointed when we discover that we’ve elected a President instead of an all powerful king.
p.s. it is important for politicians to be able to articulate a clearly defined aspirational vision about what their ideal world would look like … but the details are really not necessary.