Quiet Competence Could Cost Joe Biden the Election

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Written By Pinang Driod

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Joe Biden is both old and boring. The American voter has come to expect celebrity and excitement from the White House, and they pay little attention to policy.

But first: Last year, Jake Tapper wrote about C. J. Rice, a Philadelphia teenager who was sentenced to decades in prison for a crime he insisted he didn’t commit. Today, Rice’s conviction was overturned. He now awaits a decision from the Philadelphia district attorney’s office on whether to retry the case or release him from custody. Read the full story here.

Plus, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:

  • Why America abandoned the greatest economy in history
  • The case that could destroy the government
  • Life really is better without the internet.

The Power of Magical Thinking

I realize that to note that Joe Biden is boring is not exactly breaking news. Michael Schaffer of Politico wrote more than a year ago that Biden not only kept his promise to be unexciting but also “over-delivered.” My friend Molly Jong-Fast this fall noted for Vanity Fair that “[Team Biden’s] superpower, its ability to slide under the radar while getting a lot done for the American people, may also be its Achilles heel, holding back the administration from getting the credit it deserves.” She places much of the blame on the media—a fair cop—but I think a lot else is going on that has less to do with Biden and more to do with the voters themselves.

The deeper problem is that America years ago entered a “post-policy” era, in which the voters simply stopped caring very much about the nuts and bolts of governing. Rather than policy, they care about politics as a spectator event—much like sports or reality television—and they want it to be exciting. They want to root for heroes and heels; they want to feel high charges of emotion, especially anger; they want their votes to express a sense of personal identification with candidates.

Biden can’t fulfill any of those desires. That’s to his credit, but it’s killing him politically.

As strange as this is to realize, our political environment is the result not of bad times but of affluence. Most voters are accustomed to relatively high living standards—even in poorer areas—because the world around them is filled with technology and services that mostly just work, no matter who’s in the Oval Office. The days of knowing which politicians paved the roads are mostly in the past, and today voters mostly draw connections from their daily lives to their elected leaders only if something aggravates them: If gas prices are high, then it’s the president’s fault.

For voters to blame political leaders for almost everything is not uncommon, but as I explained in a recent book, this tendency has become extreme not just in the U.S. but in many democracies, where bored and sated voters are more prone to reward showmanship, overblown promises, and made-for-TV rage than competence. Donald Trump is the obvious American case, but think of Boris Johnson in the U.K., the late Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Geert Wilders in Holland, and Javier Milei in Argentina. (And what is it about right-wing populists and their signature hairdos? I have to believe there’s a connection. But I digress.)

Biden’s critics might scoff at such an explanation, and counter that the president has sludgy approval ratings for good reason. James Freeman of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page made this case in April, hanging inflation—then hovering near 5 percent—around Biden’s neck and noting that the president should have kept his campaign’s implicit promise to govern as a boring old guy but instead had been a radical in office. (Freeman also thinks that Biden should debate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., so he might not be arguing this issue entirely in the name of good government.)

A Democrat, no matter how centrist, is never likely to find love in the arms of the Journal’s editors, but some Democrats themselves seem submerged in a kind of moral fogginess about what their own party represents. Last week, The New York Times published a discussion with a dozen Democratic voters about Biden and the future of their party. The Times asked these participants to explain what it means to be a Democrat:

Many hesitated or said the lines between the two parties had grown “blurry.” The participants said they held core values: tolerance, respect, an unshakable belief in the freedom to choose. They shared deep concerns about the divisions in this country. And they believed that Democrats were generally focused on the right problems—gun violence, student debt, climate change and homelessness. But they had little confidence that the Democrats could fix those problems.

Right off the bat: I cannot imagine anything less “blurry” than the difference between Democrats and Republicans. But on top of that, I admit to raising an eyebrow at the line that these voters, who ranged in age from 27 to 72, felt “betrayed” on student loans “more than any other issue.”

This was only one focus group. But a few weeks ago, the Times also spoke with Democratic voters who were more enthusiastic about Vice President Kamala Harris than about Biden, and the answers were equally incoherent. One respondent, a lifelong Democrat, said in the poll that “she would vote for Mr. Trump over Mr. Biden, whom she called ‘too old and a bit out of touch’ and ‘a bit of a doofus.’” By the end of the interview, she said she’d probably vote for Biden again, but “I’m just not happy about it.”

Voters rarely have ideologically consistent views, but they generally used to care about policy. In the post-policy era, they care about personalities. Abortion seems to be the one issue that has risen above the “post-policy” problem, but it is the exception that proves the rule: The Republican assault on abortion rights is now so extensive and relentless that voters can’t help paying attention to it. But even on that issue, Biden faces voters such as the one the Times interviewed who said that “she strongly supports abortion rights—and did not realize that Mr. Biden does, too. She said that because states’ abortion bans had gone into effect during his presidency, she assumed it was because of him.” Once, we might have expected such contradictions among low-information voters, but when even partisans are confused, candidates face the problem that most voters are low-information voters—a natural advantage for Trump (whose voters rely on their emotional attachment to him) but an obstacle for Biden.

“He’s old” isn’t enough to explain all of Biden’s bad vibes. The president is only four years older than Trump, and he keeps a travel schedule that would grind me, nearly 20 years his junior, into the ground. Sure, he seems old. He speaks like an old man with a gravelly voice, instead of thundering and booming like Trump. And no doubt, the White House comms shop—with the notable exception of National Security Council communications coordinator John Kirby—could be better at keeping Biden in the news for his policy achievements.

But voters’ obsession with bad news even when the news is good is a global problem, and one that predates Biden. Americans, in particular, are susceptible to what the political scientist Brendan Nyhan has called the “Green Lantern” theory of the presidency. The Green Lantern, for you non-nerds, is a comic-book hero with a ring that can manifest almost anything he imagines, as long as he concentrates hard enough. Trump cleverly promises such powers: He claims that something shall be done by his will, and his fans and base voters never care whether it actually gets done or not.

Biden, however, lives with this magical-thinking expectation from his own voters. If Biden only wanted to, he could forgive student loans. If he willed it, he could stop the Israel-Hamas war. If he so ordered, he could reverse all prices back to 2019 levels.

As America heads into the 2024 election, Biden has an enviable, and consequential, first-term record of policy achievements. The calls for him to step down make no sense other than as a frustrated surrender to the politics of celebrity. In that political contest—for the role of Entertainer in Chief—Trump has a distinct edge. Possibly only Trump’s mutation into an openly fascist candidate might change the dynamics of the race as voters focus more on the threat he represents—and decide, once again, that boring is better.


Today’s News

  1. Israel and Hamas have agreed to extend their humanitarian pause for two more days, according to Qatari officials, as exchanges of hostages and prisoners continue.

  2. The suspect in the shooting of three college students of Palestinian descent in Burlington, Vermont, over the weekend pleaded not guilty.  

  3. Documents published by the Centre for Climate Reporting reveal that the United Arab Emirates, which will host the COP28 climate talks beginning this week, planned to discuss oil and gas deals with foreign governments at the summit.


Evening Read

Aaron Graubart / Trunk Archive

Anything Can Become Gluten-Free Pasta
By Matteo Wong

To my grandmother, who has lived her entire life in Italy, gluten-free pasta is “una follia”—nonsense, madness. A twirl of spaghetti or forkful of rigatoni should provide a familiar textural delight: a noodle that is both elastic and firm, holding a distinct, springy shape that your teeth can sink into with some, but not too much, resistance. That is all because of the gluten in wheat.

Upon taste-testing some popular brands of pasta made from ingredients such as rice, corn, and chickpea flour, I understood my grandmother’s doubts. The various noodles retained a firm, if not al dente, shape at the lower end of their packaging’s recommended cook time. But approaching the upper end of the range, the noodles became soft and eventually collapsed; penne ripped in two by the time it was on my fork. Even when the noodles didn’t turn limp, they were almost sticky against my teeth. And the pastas had faint aftertastes: of overcooked rice, of tortilla chips, of chalky chickpeas …

Yet gluten-free pasta is a billion-dollar industry, so mainstream that you can find multiple kinds in basically every supermarket.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

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  • It will never be a good time to buy a house.
  • The tech giants’ anti-regulation fantasy

Culture Break

Man on music note tightrope
Ben Kothe / The Atlantic

Read. In Harvey Sachs’s new book, the music historian tries to understand the lingering resistance to Arnold Schoenberg’s classical works.

Listen. Of the late Frank Zappa’s many records, Over-Nite Sensation best crystallized his cutting satire of our country’s blank-eyed habits.

Play our daily crossword.


P.S.

Last week, I wrote about the 40th anniversary of The Day After, the 1983 made-for-TV nuclear-war movie that scared the bejeebers out of millions of people, including President Ronald Reagan. I am not going to suggest more atomic-bomb pop culture this week, but I do want to note that if the farmer’s wife in the film, played by Bibi Besch, seems familiar, it’s because you also saw her a year earlier in a film that celebrated its 40th anniversary last year: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

If you’re not an aficionado of movie trivia, you might not realize that Star Trek II was also directed by Nicholas Meyer, who labored under immense strain to get The Day After to the screen in one piece. (He discussed his fights with the ABC network in this fascinating podcast interview.)

Anyway, let me put in a word for every Star Trek stan in the world: Star Trek II saved the franchise, and it’s wonderful, even if you don’t like Trek stuff. William Shatner and Ricardo Montalbán reprise their roles from a 1967 episode of the original TV series, and these majestic hambones engage in a scenery-chewing competition for the ages. The movie has a great plot that boils down to a submarine chase in space, and the dialogue—“He tasks me! He tasks me, and I shall have him!”—has provided me and my friends with repeatable lines and memes for four decades.

— Tom


Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.

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