Joe Biden Needs An Enemy
Is it possible for the president to change the narrative and bring back democracy?
Only a year ago, President Obama was led by a man who craved the approval of Fox News host Tucker Carlson and considered imposing martial law. Having a president who doesn’t threaten neighbouring countries or corporations using Twitter would be great after Donald Trump. Unfortunately, this is not the case. If you look at national polling numbers you’ll see that Americans disapprove of Joe Biden’s job performance: Five ThirtyEight found 51.7% of Americans disapprove of his performance. Quinnipiac University recently polled students and found that 50 per cent disapproved of the way Biden dealt with the Ebola pandemic, and 59 per cent disapproved of the way he handled the economy.
Sincere consultants may say that he should work on his fundamentals to boost his popularity. The economic environment is improving though, so the basics are solid. There are both jobs and cash available to Americans. We’re just emerging from a pandemic, so inflation is a global phenomenon. Biden’s true problem may be narrative in nature, based on the disconnect between facts and polls. It means he doesn’t have an adversary, a punching bag to soak up the anger of the American people (rational or otherwise).
James Carville is of this opinion. At the moment, there are no good storytellers in the White House. Every good story needs a villain, he emailed. Jefrey Pollock told me that every campaign needs a villain, and every good campaign needs a villain. Polilock suggests that the president and his administration understand the enemy piece, noting that they are targeting the greedy oil and gas companies seeking to increase their prices for profit-only reasons. Biden may be on to something. He needs to shed the nice guy persona if he wants to win reelection.
While one of the most popular presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt, faced a number of crises during his tenure as president, but he had a foil who was always there to support him. At first, the wealthy did so. At the 1936 Democratic National Convention, Roosevelt told delegates that economic disparity rendered some of the political equality we once had meaningless. There was a small group of people who controlled nearly all of the property, the money, and labor of others. In too many cases, life has become unfree; liberty has become a myth; and men can no longer pursue happiness. After his election, Roosevelt won 523 electoral votes, the third-largest margin since 1820 and several years into the Great Depression.
His first inaugural address pitted his supporters against the government itself. Reagan said, “Government cannot solve our problems; government creates them.”. By using this ingenious phrase, Reagan avoided taking responsibility for almost anything. If his administration messed up, he would simply nod along and act as if to say that he warned you. Among the social programs he cut were welfare for working mothers and funding for federal mental-health programs.
Of course, Americans understand that presidents need enemies in order to win support. Presidents, in fact, sometimes are thought to create enemies out of thin air. Clinton ordered military strikes on Sudan and Afghanistan three days after apologizing for Monica Lewinsky’s affair. The American ambassador was responding to the bombings at the embassy in Kenya and Tanzania, but some observers were suspicious. Former Defense Secretary William Cohen was even asked if he’d notice a striking similarity to the movie Wag the Dog, in which a Hollywood producer manufactures a war in Albania in an effort to distract voters from a scandal surrounding the president.
In order to unite voters, Biden should look for a common enemy. Like Lyndon B. Johnson, he could combat poverty. As a defender of the United States, he could combat division. According to my Boston College professor Heather Cox Richardson, Biden would easily declare ‘war’ on the authoritarians who threaten our democracy, much like Abraham Lincoln did when he gathered northerners to oppose slavery. He could spend more time raising awareness of the dangers posed by the Republicans, who are gaining power at the state level and turning against democracy in large numbers.
The former editor of the conservative Weekly Standard and current head of the group Defending Democracy Together, Bill Kristol, worries that the GOP is going authoritarian, but he does not believe that Biden can convince the country that a clear danger exists. It is possible, he told me, for citizens of democracies who are free and seemingly content to take their freedoms and well-being for granted to get complacent. Historically, they sometimes realize the danger only when it is obvious and real. What if an insidious internal threat struck them as easily as they did an external threat?
The vice president may be concerned that rallying Americans against one another would cause the national temperature to rise a bit more. He has good reason to be concerned. However, Trump-aligned Republicans have already ensured that it will take place by attacking our election process and the peaceful transfer of power. To succeed, Biden needs to remind the American people of what he has set out to do, and ask them to join him in rescuing democracy from authoritarianism, both at home and overseas. During the 2020 campaign, Biden raised this issue, and voters rallied behind him. Today, as well, voters would rally behind Biden with the right messaging. The Democratic Party is in a difficult position. Saving democracy will require changing the narrative.