December 21, 2023 | Reading Time: 7 minutes
If running for president, who would you rather be?
The answer is obvious, but to see it, you have to break “the illusion of presidential omnipotence.”
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There is a strain of American political thought that comes and goes, depending on the fortunes of the Democratic Party. It should have a proper name, I suppose, but whatever you call it, it’s dumb leftism.
Serious leftism offers a serious critique of the structures of power that prevent the flowering of egalitarian democracy. Dumb leftism gives lip service to that, but it’s usually indistinct from the rest of liberalism, which is often, but not always, concerned with the same things. Dumb leftism becomes distinct only when the Democrats fall on hard times.
If polling that shows Joe Biden trailing Donald Trump constitutes hard times, I suppose the Democrats have indeed fallen on them. In truth, they haven’t. Since 2018, the president’s party has been winning elections, big and small. This polling, however, does provide a basis for the illusion of hard times. And this illusion is itself the basis for current complaints by the dumb left. That the president is polling behind Trump is evidence that they were right all along. If Biden would only do what the dumb left says he should, he wouldn’t be in this mess.
“The bottom line on all this is that I think Biden is a good president. The county is better off. The Democratic Party is strong and winning elections. And they have Trump. Who would you rather be as we head into 2024? In every way possible, I would much rather be us than them.”
What should he do? That’s where the dumb left reveals its dumbness. I don’t want to get into the weeds too much, but the foundation of their grievance is a grotesque presumption – that the president has far more power than presidents are supposed to have. In other words, in this conception of the presidency, Biden is more like a god-emperor with vast supernatural powers. If he uses them for good, so be it. But because Biden doesn’t use them for good, or even refuses to use them at all, he’s revealed himself to be just another defender of the power structures that prevent the flowering of egalitarian democracy.
It’s dumb, yes. It’s also antidemocratic.
Which is why it becomes distinct from the rest of liberalism whenever the Democrats fall on hard times. Liberals (and serious leftists) will complain. Oh, how they complain! But they don’t expect presidents to be anything more, or anything less, than presidents. They do not hold them to godly standards, then pat themselves on the back for being right when the president inevitably fails to meet them. Liberals (and serious leftists) are grounded enough in democratic politics and left-liberal values to avoid being swept away by what the late Lars-Erik Nelson used to call “the illusion of presidential omnipotence.”
Nelson provided this terrific term in a 2000 review of Dead Center, a chronicle of Bill Clinton’s presidency by James MacGregor Burns and Georgia J. Sorenson. Nelson also showed us that dumb leftism is nothing new. “All that has gone wrong in America or the world at large — the slaughter in Kosovo, continuing inequality of wealth, the lack of national health insurance, even leaky roofs in our schools — can be blamed on Clinton,” he wrote in the New York Review. “He is guilty … not because he is a knave or a fool, but, just as bad, because he is a centrist who shunned the radical changes and bold solutions that a more energetic and partisan leader could have achieved.”
Clinton really was a centrist, but that’s beside the point. All Democrats are centrists, according to the dumb left, because no Democrat can reach the antidemocratic, god-emperor expectations of the dumb left. First, it was Bill Clinton, then Barack Obama (and Hillary Clinton). Now it’s Joe Biden. Whenever a Democratic leader loses, or can’t overcome structural obstacles that are built into the system, it’s not just a defeat. It’s a failure of moral conviction. He would have won, according to the dumb left, if he hadn’t “shunned the radical changes and bold solutions that a more energetic and partisan leader could have achieved.”
Such is “the illusion of presidential omnipotence.”
As I said, this strain of political thought comes and goes. It will go after it becomes clear to Americans who are currently not paying attention to politics that Donald Trump is going to be the GOP’s nominee. Once that becomes clear, the president will be seen in his proper light, as the alternative to the Republicans’ agent of authoritarian chaos. And once that becomes clear, “the illusion of presidential omnipotence” will be revealed for what it is, and what’s left behind will be the obvious – that if you’re going to run for president, you’d rather be Joe Biden.
Simon Rosenberg hasn’t been talking about “the illusion of presidential omnipotent,” but the Democratic strategist and publisher of Hopium Chronicles has been trying to get people to see that the president and the Democrats are in a much better position than the polls would suggest or that the dumb left (my term) would have us believe. In this interview, Simon points out what should be obvious, but won’t be for a while, which is that a rematch of 2020 will probably end similarly.
JS: Already, the overwhelming theme of the 2024 election seems to be that Donald Trump is a danger to democracy, and that some Americans are jim-dandy with that. But you have suggested that the overwhelming theme will be opposition to Trump. Can you explain your thinking?
SR: It’s my view that the most powerful force in American politics today is fear of and opposition to MAGA. It’s what drove our strong performances in the 2018, 2020, 2022 and 2023 elections.
Given that Trump is not just running as MAGA in 2024, but super-MAGA, it is likely to be the most powerful force next year as well. It’s a central reason I am so optimistic about our chances in 2024 – they keep running on a failed politics and they keep losing.
JS: Trump’s lead among GOP candidates suggests that Americans have forgotten all about the J6 insurrection and the second impeachment trial. Call me crazy, but I don’t think they have. Thoughts?
SR: There is a deep understanding in the American electorate that something has gone wrong with the Republican Party. Our candidates have been able to tap into that sentiment in different ways – abortion extremism, fear of losing our democracy, book burning, bigotry and racism, etc. Yes, large numbers of Republicans are OK with MAGA’s illiberalism, but a majority of the country isn’t, which is why MAGA Republicans keep winning primaries but losing general elections.
Trump’s comments in recent days – immigrants are “poisoning the blood of the country” – guarantees that his illiberalism and threats to end American democracy for all time will be on the ballot in 2024. That’s a big problem for the once proud party of Lincoln and Reagan.
JS: The Dow Jones hit a record high Wednesday last week. According to Bloomberg, the rally was weeks in the making. Will that kind of news finally cut through the current malaise on the economy?
SR: The economic performance of 2023 creates a strong foundation for Biden’s reelection campaign. I am not as convinced as others are that there is a malaise. When asked, voters are overwhelmingly content with their lives, their work and their pay. Democrats approve of Biden’s handling of the economy by 4 to 1, and if there were broad economic discontent, we would have not been winning elections across the US since the spring of 2022. It’s going to take some work, and a bit of luck, but the indisputable strong performance of the US economy under Biden will in my mind be a central reason to reelect him next year.
Things have been hard in America. Covid, insurrection, supply chain disruptions, global inflation, Russian invasion of Ukraine, OPEC price hikes – these all create tough conditions for this country. But the innate can-do American spirit prevailed in this time of struggle, and things are much, much better now. We still have a lot of work to do, but things are better, and we are getting to the other side.
JS: Some Democrats are distancing themselves from “Bidenomics.” Are they just protecting themselves or are they canaries in the coal mine?
SR: I like what Biden has done with the economy, but I don’t like the Bidenomics frame. The goal should be to make the American people and their grit and resilience – and success – the hero of this story, not Joe Biden, not Washington, not the government. Our success these past few years needs to be seen as the success of us, not the success of those of us in Washington. It’s how we get to our post-covid version of “morning in America” in 2024. This is more of a tweak than a big shift.
JS: Puck News reported on a focus group in which participants complained aplenty about Biden but also said that they’d vote for him. I suspect this nuance is more common than generally acknowledged.
SR: As for Biden’s age, I think any fair read of aging is that it is both an asset and a liability. Yes, we lose a step or two. But we also gain wisdom, experience and capability. And it’s my view that Joe Biden’s success domestically and abroad has been because of his age, not in spite of it, and in a time of enormous challenge – insurrection, covid, inflation, war – the nation may have been truly blessed to have the most experienced man to have entered the Oval Office leading us.
Yes, I think as the campaign turns on, and our coalition understands the choice in front of us, that a large part of our coalition that is currently wandering, and not sure, will come home. We will need the campaign through November to go get the rest and, hopefully, more.
The bottom line on all this is that I think Biden is a good president. The county is better off. The Democratic Party is strong and winning elections. And they have Trump. Who would you rather be as we head into 2024? In every way possible, I would much rather be us than them.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.