Last week wiped away Democrats’ worst fears. Joe Biden’s comeback likely ended the possibility that Bernie Sanders and his leftist fanatics will hijack their party and crash it in November. But they shouldn’t bust out the party horns quite yet.
Democrats think the general election can now be a referendum on President Trump, rather than one about the merits of socialism. But their embrace of Biden means they’re asking the country for something that might be equally unpalatable: a third term for President Barack Obama, except attached to Biden.
For now, Democrats might take some comfort. While the nonstop gaffes continue to provide fodder for gossip about his apparent slide into senescence, Biden at least seems to be more energized since his dramatic Super Tuesday victories.
But gaffes aside, now that he is the likely nominee, there is no avoiding the fact that his candidacy is the most backward-looking of any of the 2020 hopefuls or, in fact, of any presidential candidate in memory. Indeed, he would already be a political goner had he not tied himself inextricably to Obama’s legacy — for some good and much ill.
Left-wing activists like to highlight Biden’s transgressions against current progressive orthodoxy, including opposition to forced busing in the 1970s and support for a tough crime bill in the ’90s. But black voters seem to see only Obama’s faithful vice president.
This is good news for Democrats, since they know the only way they can beat Trump is by producing the same sort of massive minority voter turnout that enabled Obama’s 2008 and 2012 victories. By contrast, the failure to produce that kind of a response among African-Americans doomed Hillary Clinton in 2016.
That means that Biden will have no reason to stop constantly reminding us that he was Obama’s man. Many Democrats have moved on from Obama’s brand of liberalism to one that promises a far larger dilation of entitlements. Yet the memory of the Obama era still appeals to the party’s base. Moreover, Democrats are hoping to capitalize on the contrast between Trump’s divisive personality and what they remember as a gentler era dominated by Obama’s jazzy cool.
But remember: Trump was elected because many Americans — especially white, working-class voters Biden claims he can recapture for the Democrats — were sick of Obama. Though sacred to the memory of the Democratic elite, the Obama administration exemplified the rule of the liberal establishment that treated such voters with contempt.
What Biden is doing is inviting a referendum on a presidency that will solely be remembered for the historic breakthrough it represented for African-Americans. Shorn of that distinction, it just means tying today’s Democrats to the failed promise of the era of Hope and Change.
Obama’s political magic was never transferable. Hillary Clinton thought she could win what would, in effect, have been a third term for Obama. But if she couldn’t do it in 2016, it’s hard to imagine how Biden can pull it off in 2020.
Nor is tying the Democrats’ fortunes to Obama nostalgia the same as Trump’s vow to “make America great again.” Trump’s appeal was based on the fact that he was something new and entirely different in American politics, not, like Biden, an old and tired retread of the recent political past.
Trump’s re-election will hinge on whether voters see him as having succeeded where Obama failed. That’s why the impact of the coronavirus on a booming economy is such a problem for Republicans.
But despite their relief about torpedoing Sanders, Democrats should remember that there is no precedent for winning the White House purely on the basis of a longing for a past president. That’s all Biden has going for him. And though he has the virtue of not being a socialist, the idea that Biden can be elected as a tribute to Obama is a fantasy.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org. Twitter: @JonathanS_Tobin
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