How Joe Biden Can Win Reelection

Dr. Louis Perron
blog post louis

I recently published two more guest articles with RealClearPolitics. It’s in fact a real double whopper: How Donald Trump Can Beat Joe Biden, and, How Joe Biden Can Win Reelection.

In this one, I look at the 2024 presidential race from the perspective of Joe Biden and describe how he can launch a comeback and win reelection:

Incumbents always think that if only they could explain better all the great things they have accomplished, they would win reelection. David Plouffe, the architect of Barack Obama’s election victories, told me this when I interviewed him for my new book, “Beat the Incumbent,” and I totally agree.

I would like to add, however, that, in my experience, there are important nuances. Politicians on the left tend to blame the voters when they are rejected in the polls. They think that voters are just not educated enough to understand their fantastic policies. Politicians on the right, on the other hand, tend to blame the media. If only they would get fair coverage, and journalists were not all leftists, they would fare better.

Both approaches are bound for failure because candidates effectively give away the keys to change their own fortune.

As an alternative, here are the steps to win a comeback for a vulnerable incumbent such as Joe Biden:

First of all, one has to be brutally honest internally about the state of things. This is easier said than done because politicians – incumbent presidents and prime ministers in particular – are normally surrounded by people who tell them what they think the politician in question wants to hear. I have worked for several presidents myself, and I can confirm what has been said, namely that conversations usually end with the same three words: “Yes, Mr. President.” The reality is that it’s awfully difficult to give powerful people bad news. It’s actually one of the reasons why I am occasionally brought in as a foreigner. Remember that the jester’s role was not really to make the king laugh, but to tell him what all the others were not allowed to tell him. Judging by their actions, I don’t think that Joe Biden (nor Donald Trump, for that matter) is being told the entire truth by his own people.

I insist on this point because it’s impossible to plan and launch a comeback in denial.

Second, an incumbent needs to acknowledge the situation and take responsibility. If an incumbent is vulnerable, voters are unhappy with the state of things. Ignoring what they are saying (or appearing as such) would be fatal. With respect to Biden, this means that lecturing the media about how they should cover the economy and claiming that he has proven himself on the age issue is certainly not going to cut the deal. I suspect that a focus group with swing voters would angrily refute those claims.

Third, an incumbent needs to fight and win back ownership over the dominant issue. Most of the time, and absent an international crisis or a pandemic, that’s the economy. One example I write about in the book is Helmut Kohl from Germany, who, after 12 years in power and during bad economic times, asked for another term – and received it. I can’t think of any other head of state that has fallen so low in public approval as Kohl did, so late in their career, but managed to win a comeback during a recession. The key was that Kohl aggressively fought back for ownership over the economy. Reading his speeches and interviews, it just struck me how decisively Kohl, after more than a decade in power, claimed to be the party of the future and tried to label the opposition as offering recipes from the past.

For Joe Biden, this is tricky. On paper, and judging by official numbers and indicators, the economy is doing fine. Large parts of the electorate, however, do not feel the Bidenomics (yet). What should he do? Blow his own horn and propagate that the economy is doing well, or showcase how he feels the pain?

The answer depends on timing. The more time there is available, the more an incumbent should fight to change the public perception and mood. After all, an incumbent president or prime minister has a unique ability to affect the media. This, however, has to be done very carefully, in the right tone, and in sync with where people are emotionally at the current moment. For Joe Biden, the main opportunity to do this starts with the State of the Union speech, and the window of opportunity will close at the convention. After that, he will be left with step number four.

That is, vulnerable incumbents need to go on the counter-offense and rip apart the challenger. As different as they may be with respect to policy, this is the strategy by which George W. Bush and Barack Obama won reelection. The rationale goes like this: You may not like what you have, but at least you know what you have, and the alternative is a big risk, and it’s likely that things will get worse. In that respect, Donald Trump is a gift from heaven for Joe Biden, and it’s noteworthy to me that Biden purposely and consistently makes it a point to run against Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans.

Lastly, vulnerable incumbents need to reactivate and mobilize the base. The key to doing this – in addition to logistics, campaign funds, and muscle – is that there is (still) a personal connection between the candidate and the base. The base might be disappointed that not all promises were fulfilled. But if base voters are still willing to listen to the incumbent, and if the personal connection is still there, it’s possible (and certainly a necessary condition) to launch a comeback.

As mentioned above, this article was originally published on RealClearPolitics.

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