Barack Obama was one of the most sensational and talented politicians of his generation. His capacity to finesse the delicate Democratic needle, uniting an establishment base and grassroots support — and extricating the party from Clintonian influence — was remarkable.
That was Obama’s gift: getting himself elected, uniting his party, and pacifying the technocratic elites.
But if it was Obama’s gift, it was his party’s curse. Benjamin Disraeli, the great conservative Prime Minister of Victorian England, wrote of a politician in his novel Coningsby or the New Generation:
His successors inherited all his errors without the latent genius, which in him might have still rallied and extricated him from the consequences of his disasters. His successors did not merely inherit his errors; they exaggerated, they caricatured them.
Thus has been the situation for Joe Biden. He’s inherited all the problems of the Obama era — and none of the political star power to carry it. (Hillary Clinton could count here too, but her problems go deeper than merely being a successor of the Obama legacy. Hillary was sunk by the Clinton legacy, which is nowhere near as bright as its adherents claim — especially when compared to the political star of Obama.)
Over the course of the Democratic primaries, this point — Biden’s weakness — has been made, not by Republicans (though that’s coming), nor just the Bernie Sanders wing of the party, but by former Obama administration officials.
During the doldrums of the late summer campaign season last year, Politico reported that Obama officials were seething at the entire Democratic field. “Joe Biden is fair game. Barack Obama is not,” the reports alleged.
It’s not that Joe Biden is a good candidate (he’s not); it’s that the rest of the field was awful. That same Politico report quoted black Democratic party leaders in Florida, who cold-called the Politico journalist after a debate:
“We were sitting here watching this and wondering: ‘What the hell are you doing? What is wrong with our party?’ It’s like they want to lose,” [Henry Crespo, former chair of the Democratic Black Caucus of Florida] said, adding that Democrats like him resent Harris and Booker for attacking Biden’s record on race.
“Joe Biden is not Bull Connor,” Crespo said. “You just can’t make us believe it.”
Remember, this reporting was done back in August of 2019. The South Carolina primary, where Joe Biden took a commanding lead in the race, was still more than seven months away. But you can see hints here of what was to come in the 2020 Democratic race: Black Democrats were the key constituency in this race, and no one other than Joe Biden courted them effectively.
When Obama ran, voters flocked to him. The other candidates so repulsed everyone that voters found themselves left with one option. They found themselves sitting on a campaign bus that smelled of mothballs next to old Uncle Joe, a person with all the political pizzazz of tapioca pudding cup with a plastic spork sticking out of it.
The final debate Biden had with Bernie Sanders in March was the last time anyone thought Biden had all his faculties present. Since then, it’s been all downhill, and that’s not counting the sexual assault allegations. And there’s a reason Biden can’t shake those allegations either. He doesn’t have the star power, talent, or charisma to get people to look past this moment, like Obama or even Bill Clinton did.
Can Biden beat Trump? Absolutely. The path to victory is straightforward. Can Biden fulfill the tasks of the job? That’s another question entirely. The case for Biden has always been simple: he’s a “return to normal” candidate. If the Trump era has been too much for you, then Biden is the best electoral chance in all the Democratic Party to turn the clock back a few years.
But just because Biden is representative of the Obama era doesn’t mean he’s capable of governing in any way close to Obama. And that’s not my opinion talking; that’s Obama administration officials talking. Everyone from David Axelrod to David Plouffe to “unnamed sources” close to the Obama administration have knocked Biden throughout the entire campaign. No one in that orbit believed in him before South Carolina.
Everyone is pretending to be happy now, singing his praises, and pushing forward to 2020. But the question remains: If Biden wins, is he even capable of running the country? Biden may carry the sheen of the Obama era, but he lacks all the talent, charisma, and respect of those who built the Obama legacy. That’s left the former vice president by himself, flapping in the wind at times, trying to maintain some semblance of composure.
Biden is campaigning on a return to normalcy. But it’s unclear he could deliver that, or that he’d even know what normal politics would look like on a good day at this point.
The government and politicians Disraeli were describing as lacking all the talent of their predecessors didn’t last long. That government, since it was British politics, collapsed fast. Biden may not fair much better. The White House is a demanding job, and he has to show he’s up to the task — both to win the election and to maintain a stable presidency in the event that he wins.
Biden may have the capacity to win this race. But right now, it looks like what is running is a caricature of the Joe Biden from the Obama years, because the real Biden lacks everything his predecessor had in ample supply.