Biden allies: Where the hell is Absent Joe?

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Oh, he’s around, appearing on TV occasionally but taking very few questions from reporters in either a press-conference or one-on-one format. Joe Biden made remarks earlier today to explain why the White House doesn’t have a definition of recession, in fact. And skedaddled shortly thereafter:


But just a couple of weeks after the New Republic described Biden’s presidency as “absent,” his allies have gone to The Hill’s Amie Parnes to corroborate it:

Allies to President Biden are voicing frustration about the political operation inside the White House as the midterm elections draw closer and the president readies for a possible reelection bid.

The allies say the lack of a “personal touch” from Biden has left them underwhelmed, with calls going unanswered, simple requests lacking a reply and little — if any — proactive outreach from staff inside the White House.

The most important thing is people just want to feel engaged,” said a longtime Biden ally, one of a dozen sources interviewed by The Hill who say Biden needs to do more to build support for the party and for his own political prospects to successfully run for reelection. They argue the problems are exacerbating an enthusiasm gap between the two parties that could hurt Democrats in the midterms and beyond.


Hold off on the 2024 aspect of this for a moment and consider the present context. Alex Shephard’s TNR piece painted a similarly bleak picture of a president disengaged not just politically but also on policy and shaping events. Instead, as everyone has noticed by now, Biden has done almost nothing to shape events and sometimes seems incapable of reacting to them as well:

Samuel Alito’s draft decision overturning Roe leaked on May 3; it was widely known that when the decision became official, numerous “trigger laws” further limiting reproductive rights would snap into place all across the country and that Republican legislatures would get to work—on not just the next wave of abortion restrictions but the next fronts in the culture war. The White House—and, for that matter, senior Democratic leadership—has had two months to prepare for events that became inevitable the moment Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed to the Supreme Court in the fall of 2020. Charitably, the response from Biden and other senior White House figures has been passive at best. …

In a year of crises—Roe, Ukraine, inflation—Biden has been notably tucked away, his major communications coming in newspaper op-eds (another, Monday morning, detailed his goals for a diplomatic trip to the Middle East). With Roe, the situation is particularly galling, given the long lead time the administration was given. That Pete Buttigieg, the secretary of transportation, has recently emerged as the administration’s most effective spokesperson on a range of issues, is itself a damning indictment of the administration’s messaging.


But it’s not just messaging, as Shephard pointed out:

Biden’s absence is particularly striking because it’s so uncommon. “At least since Franklin Roosevelt, every president has in one way or another steered the national discussion or at minimum had a strong and impossible-to-miss voice in it,” wrote Robert Kuttner in The American Prospect over the weekend. “You almost have to go back to those mid-19th-century presidential nobodies—Franklin Pierce? Millard Fillmore?—to find a president who figured so little in the national discourse, or who so ceded leadership to prominent members of Congress.”

Biden appears to be trapped in a vicious cycle. With his approval rating plummeting, he and his advisers appear to be gripped with anxiety that doing anything will only make things worse. And so he says little and does nothing, hoping that voters will blame Republicans for what’s ailing the country—or at least recognize the existential threat they pose to American democracy—and vote for Democrats in November. It clearly isn’t working: In the most recent New York Times/Siena College poll, released on Monday, nearly two-thirds of Democratic voters say “they would prefer a new standard-bearer in the 2024 presidential campaign.”

Absent Joe, indeed. It reeks of the incompetence that Biden has always exhibited, along with his completely unearned arrogance about the superiority of his own intellect. Still, it’s not as if Democrats couldn’t have predicted that Biden would adopt a bunker mentality, especially since he used that strategy throughout most of his 2020 presidential campaign after he more or less locked up the nomination in early 2020. It worked, but only because Democrats and the media let him get away with it.


What does this say about the 2024 election campaign, though? It makes it look like 75% of Democrats will get their wish:

“One of the things the Clintons did really well was make sure people were taken care of,” the ally added. “They need to do better … so, in March of next year, when [the Biden team] announce a reelection campaign and they start making calls to donors and political types, people are excited to take those calls.”

Er … sure. How many of them would be “excited to take those calls” now, or in March 2023? Not any that watch polling on Biden and Democrats in general. And that brings us to the obvious conclusion, which is that Team Biden isn’t making those efforts because Team Biden already knows it’s not going to compete next year. They won’t need the donors or the political types, and it’s likely that those players wouldn’t have been interested if Biden did need them.

In other words, Absent Joe has all but checked out and is now just going through the motions. He’s either not interested in or up to doing the job of a modern president, preferring demagoguery and crankery to competence and real engagement. He may be the first president who lame-ducked himself before the first midterms.

Update: I had written this earlier in the day and forgot to update with Biden’s comments before publication. I added them in shortly after the post went live.


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