IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Why Biden is staying quiet about his biggest accomplishments

Unlike other incumbents, the president doesn’t have to define his most likely opponent.
President Joe Biden in the Oval Office of the White House on April 20, 2023.
President Joe Biden in the Oval Office of the White House on April 20.Oliver Contreras / Sipa USA / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Joe Biden is running for re-election — and based on his announcement video released this week, he plans to make the 2024 election a referendum not on his first term but rather on Donald Trump’s.

For all of Biden’s accomplishments in his first term, it’s clear that what motivates Democratic voters most is not a litany of policy achievements but rather the specter of what might happen if the other guy wins. The same dynamic is largely true of Republicans. We are living in an era of extreme polarization in which fear, not hope, is the greater driver of electoral outcomes.

Considering Biden’s low approval numbers and the mood of the country, which can perhaps best be described as “agitated,” the president's chosen strategy isn’t necessarily surprising. Biden wouldn’t be the first president to make his re-election more about his opponent than about him. In perhaps the best-known example, unpopular incumbent Harry Truman won election to a full term in 1948 by running against the “do-nothing” Republican Congress. More recently, in 2004, George W. Bush, with approval ratings hovering just around 50%, made his re-election bid a referendum on John Kerry and won, albeit by the narrowest winning Electoral College margin for an incumbent in 88 years. 

The strategy has failed, as well, as seen with Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992. But Biden has an advantage that neither of those one-termers had — he’s most likely running against a former president who is deeply unpopular, particularly among independents. Unlike other incumbents, Biden doesn’t have to define his most likely opponent. If Trump is the GOP nominee, Biden will be the first president to have run against a former president since 1912 (William Howard Taft vs. Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson). As a result, there are few Americans who don’t already have distinct and largely unalterable opinions about the former president. There’s a reason, after all, that historians are likely to refer to this period as the Era of Trump, not the Era of Biden.

This ahistorical dynamic is obvious in Biden’s announcement video. It starts off with images of Jan. 6, then pivots to a protester holding up a sign that reads “abortion is healthcare,” all underpinned by spooky, discordant music. Biden’s first spoken word is “freedom.” The theme of the next three minutes is that liberty is under assault from “MAGA extremists,” and only Joe Biden can protect it. If this sounds familiar, it repeats Biden’s explanation for why he ran in 2020: “to restore the soul of America.” Last election, Biden ran as the antithesis to Trump — the candidate of normalcy over drama. He’s running for re-election in largely the same way. 

While Biden’s strategy isn’t surprising, what makes it unusual is that he has a positive record to run on. A major infrastructure bill, hundreds of billions of dollars in climate spending and building an international coalition to challenge Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are just the start. Amazingly, Biden’s most notable accomplishment — the rollout of Covid vaccines for millions of people, the decline in Covid death rates and an end to mask mandates and social distancing — goes completely unmentioned in the video. One might expect the successful national re-emergence from a pandemic would feature prominently in a president’s re-election campaign. And yet, Biden seemingly has no interest in running on it. In fact, there are more references to his Supreme Court nominee, Ketanji Brown Jackson, than Covid (which, considering the prominent role of Black women in the Democratic coalition, shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, either).

While I’m not privy to the president’s internal campaign polling, I imagine the explanation is rather straightforward. In our moment of extreme political polarization, hostility toward one’s political rivals (negative partisanship) is the key driver of our national politics.​​ According to an Pew Research Center poll in August, “72% of Republicans regard Democrats as more immoral, and 63% of Democrats say the same about Republicans.” In 2016, the numbers were 47% and 35%. There’s been a similar dynamic in the share of voters who view members of the other party as dishonest, less intelligent and more close-minded.

Furthermore, what has pushed Democratic voters to the polls in the past three election cycles is fear of Donald Trump. And there’s little doubt that it has been a successful strategy — in 2018 Democrats picked up 40 seats in the House, in 2020 they won back the White House and the Senate, and in 2022 they dramatically overperformed many expectations, even picking up seats in the Senate. It’s small wonder that Biden is trying to replicate it for his re-election bid.

For Democrats, Trump is the political gift that keeps on giving. Even if somehow he loses the Republican nomination, the playbook wouldn’t be likely to change much. Whether the nominee is Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or someone else, fear of the MAGA movement, the GOP’s continued opposition to gun control measures and its assaults on democracy, voting rights, reproductive rights and civil rights will continue to bring Democrats to the polls.

It’s hardly an ideal outcome for the country, and it runs counter to the historically aspirational element of American politics. But at a time when polarization is so great — and the risks to American democracy from Trump couldn’t be clearer — it might be a while until appeals to the “better angels of our nature” is the dominant message on the presidential campaign trail. Biden’s strategy might increase the nation’s divides, but then, consider the alternative.