Biden has the fire in him for a second term

Biden is also propelled by his obvious — and correct — conviction that the moral corruption of the Republican Party makes the stakes of continued Democratic control of the White House as high as can be

By Frank Bruni

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Published: Wed 26 Apr 2023, 11:22 PM

When I saw President George W. Bush aboard Air Force One during his first year in office, I finally fully got it — why an erstwhile cutup and goofball so strangely suited to the ordeal of a presidential campaign had put himself through one, losing sleep, tempting heartache, risking humiliation. On this airborne ego trip, he had a bed, and I don’t mean a seat that flattened into one. He had an office, with a desk bigger than those of some earthbound executives. Aides carried papers to him. Aides ferried papers away. They called him “Mr. President.” He’d upgraded from his old surname, as illustrious as it was, to a kind of divinity.

There was no doubt that he’d seek a second term of that, though he chafed at certain obligations of the presidency and palpably yearned for his Crawford, Tex., ranch.

I never flew with President Barack Obama. But I visited him in the White House several times. I went once with more than a dozen other well-known journalists, including the MSNBC superstar Rachel Maddow; I went another time with a half dozen fellow columnists, including my Pulitzer Prize-winning colleague Maureen Dowd. Our stature didn’t change the quickness with which we snapped to attention when he walked into the Roosevelt Room, the raptness with which we hung on his every syllable. His every syllable mattered: He was the leader of the free world, with more authority than anyone else in the richest and most powerful nation of them all. He could see awe in almost every face that turned toward him, as almost every face did.

There was no question that he’d try to hold on to that for eight years, despite signs and chatter that he and Michelle Obama disliked much about the gilded goldfish bowl of White House life.

And there should never have been much mystery about what President Joe Biden, who released a video announcing his re-election campaign early Tuesday, would decide. A person doesn’t just saunter away from adulation and affirmation on a scale this monumental — at least not the kind of person who wanted them enough to pursue the presidency in the first place.

Over the past six months, many of us commentators have weighed in on whether Biden, who, at 80, is older than anyone at the Resolute Desk before him, should seek the Democratic presidential nomination again. We weren’t so much putting odds on his course of action as we were assessing his energy, his acuity, Democratic voters’ preference for an alternative and the party’s smartest strategy for keeping Donald Trump and the MAGA conspiracists at the gate.

But that discussion made sense only if there were an actual possibility that Biden would step aside, so we were implying as much. And we were fools.

Maybe that’s too harsh: By dint of his age, we had reason to wonder if he’d be battling health-related challenges that would make his circumstances and calculations fundamentally different from Bush’s, Obama’s or those of many of his other predecessors over the past half-century.

But the idea that he’d coolly examine his favorability ratings (“Dammit, Jill, I just can’t seem to crack 50 percent!”), despair of Republicans’ ceaseless torture of him and his kin (“It’s malarkey!”), glance around at younger Democratic politicians itching for their day and decide to call it quits: That’s laughable. That’s malarkey. It contradicts the very appeal of the job. It disregards the nature of those who find it so very appealing.

The people willing to accept the invasive scrutiny and exhausting odyssey en route to the White House believe at some level that they belong there or keenly crave reassurance of that. They’re not sated by the next best thing. They’re after peak recognition, the apex job and the view of the world from that summit — a world now at their feet.

“Most of them had this ambition from grade school,” Timothy Naftali, a New York University historian, told me. “Others have appetites that grew with the eating. Regardless, there is something extraordinary — not normal — about desiring this much power.”

I’d bet a great deal that the rush of that power — more than safety from criminal prosecution, more than the opportunity to use the White House as a profit center — is Donald Trump’s greatest motivator as he makes another run at the office. There’s no magnitude of personal wealth, no amplitude of fame, that confers the sort of bragging rights that the presidency does.

The only presidents over the past century who could have run for re-election and chose not to — Calvin Coolidge in 1928, Harry Truman in 1952, Lyndon Johnson in 1968 — had served more than one term already, because they’d begun their presidencies by finishing out the terms of predecessors who had died in office. There’s a reason for that, and it’s a precedent that every modern president is aware of.

“History is such that it would be taken as an admission of failure if you didn’t run again,” Stuart Stevens, a Republican strategist who was a senior adviser on presidential campaigns for George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, told me. “Either you think you succeeded in the first term and you deserve a second one or you think you failed in the first term and you want to do better.”

In which category does Biden belong? “I think he thinks he’s been a great success,” Stevens said. “I agree.” Regardless, Stevens said, the presidency is difficult to surrender. “Being able to change history is intoxicating.”

Bush was proving the doubters, including his own parents, wrong. Obama was living the kind of dream that was out of reach for his father. Bill Clinton was a glutton for approval, forever supping at the nearest and largest buffet. Trump was — is — Trump, who judges every day, every hour, by some cosmic analogue to Nielsen ratings. The presidency is always the most watched program.

And Biden? The unlacquered oratory, “Scranton Joe” moniker and daily Amtrak schlep to the Capitol that he made during his decades in the Senate give him the unpretentious aspect of a journeyman toiling humbly in our service, unattached to and unimpressed by all the pomp of the office.

But we lose track: He announced his first campaign for the presidency in 1987, when he was just 44, apparently confident even then that he could lead the United States of America as well as anyone else. While that bid ended early and disastrously, amid allegations and then an admission of plagiarism, he ran for the presidency again two decades later, when Obama ended up prevailing and choosing him as a wingman.

We forget about the sting of rejection that Biden must have felt when, after serving loyally as Obama’s vice president, Obama essentially tagged Hillary Clinton to succeed him. We forget about how Biden pressed on after humiliating finishes in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary in early 2020. That determination suggests a robust self-regard and potent yearning.

And when we dwell on his age, we focus on what it may or may not mean for the vigor he brings to the job and for the degree of confidence in him that voters will feel. But there’s another facet of it: He waited for the presidency longer than anyone else. That must make his time in office all the sweeter.

Biden is also propelled by his obvious — and correct — conviction that the moral corruption of the Republican Party makes the stakes of continued Democratic control of the White House as high as can be. He surely sees himself as the party’s best hope for that. A part of him is indeed doing this for us.

But he’s doing this for himself, too — for a validation without rival, an exhilaration without peer. There are people to whom those feelings wouldn’t matter. They’re not the people who go around pleading for votes.

- This article originally appeared in The New York Times


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