Ruth Bader Biden

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We are a little over one week removed from the verdict—that verdict—and Democrats have what they’ve long been craving: a conviction of Donald Trump, 34 times over. What impact, if any, is it having on this noisy roulette game in which we’re trapped? Let us do the responsible thing and hedge: too soon, too soon. But early polls suggest that a significant plurality of Americans agree with the jury’s decision, and that it could produce at least a small bump in support for President Joe Biden.

The Manhattan verdict has interrupted the flare-up of bad vibes that had afflicted Democrats for weeks. “A pervasive sense of fear has settled in at the highest levels of the Democratic Party,” began one assessment in Politico a few days before Trump’s conviction. This followed a grim set of battleground polls in May from The New York Times and Siena College, and another survey, from The Cook Political Report With Amy Walter, finding that Biden was significantly underperforming Democratic Senate candidates in five of those key states.

But here is a broader thematic reality for the president: Bad vibes have been the persistent feature of his campaign. No matter the obstacles Trump creates for himself, Biden remains a comprehensively weak incumbent, weighed down by the same liabilities that burdened him from the start, beginning with the largest, and completely unfixable, one: At 81, he is much too old to run for president. Durable supermajorities of voters still do not want any part of Biden at this age. His bullheaded insistence on doing something no one has ever done (Ronald Reagan, then the oldest president in American history, was 77 when he retired), along with the unwillingness or inability of Democrats to stop him, remains an existentially risky, potentially disastrous, proposition. The stakes remain appallingly high. If Biden loses in November, that’s all anyone will remember him for.

If Biden manages to win in November, I will apologize happily—ecstatically—for feeding the bad vibes of spring. But it’s not just vibes: It’s the stagnant data behind them, a dynamic that’s been locked in place for months. At best, Biden is still tied in national polls, and he has shown little evidence of reversing his deficits in the most contested states.

Whatever benefit Biden received from the jury in New York, something else will inevitably smack him back in the other direction. The Wall Street Journal ignited one such furor Tuesday night when it published a story that included several accounts of the president showing “signs of slipping” in private meetings. The article was criticized, with some validity, for relying heavily on accounts from obviously partisan sources—Speaker of the House Mike Johnson and his predecessor, Kevin McCarthy. The White House protested, as it always does over matters of Biden’s age and fitness, easily the topic that members of the Biden administration get most touchy about—for good reason.

Meanwhile, last week’s verdict seems to have sparked something akin to activation energy among Republicans. The claim, no matter how dubious, that Democrats have “weaponized” the courts against Trump has clearly galvanized sectors of the right. “Through two primaries and two general elections I have never voted for Trump,” Conn Carroll, the commentary editor for the conservative Washington Examiner, posted on X last week. “I would crawl over broken glass to vote for him now.” Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee said that they raised a combined $141 million in May, boosted by a surge in donations in the 24-hour period following the verdict. This nearly doubles what Trump and the RNC raised in April.

At the same time, the various RC Cola candidates—Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Cornel West, Jill Stein—keep landing on swing-state ballots, or getting close to them. (Stein, the Green Party nominee, says she’s nearly there in Pennsylvania.) This could easily prove to be bad news for Biden, as evidenced by an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll last month that had Biden up two points over Trump in a two-person race, but losing by four when Kennedy, Stein, and West were included.

In its ongoing effort to console nervous Democrats, Bidenworld keeps trotting out its usual barrage of “Don’t worry,” “Voters haven’t really tuned in yet,” and “There’s still plenty of time left.” It is now June. Is this reassurance or wishful thinking? Does Biden’s team have any coherent message about what he hopes to accomplish in a second term, apart from thwarting Trump and staying alive?

A credible case could be made that Biden has done a good job as president, starting with the achievement that has earned him hero-of-democracy status: beating a racist autocrat in 2020. Biden has passed meaningful legislation; managed, to some degree of success (so far, at least), a welter of impossible foreign-policy crises; and generally been a norm-respecting mensch. You could also make a case that he has been a terrible candidate for reelection from the start. His presidential approval numbers would likely be higher had he imposed a four-year limit on himself and actually served as a “bridge” to younger Democratic leaders, as he suggested he would during his 2020 campaign.

It is too late for Democrats to do anything about their predicament now, barring some 11th-hour event that triggers an extremely unlikely swap-out of nominees at the Democratic National Convention. Trump and his party keep pushing further beyond the bounds of what would have been unthinkable even a year ago.

I’ve written variations of this before, most recently in March, following an earlier stink bomb from the Times and Siena. The next day, Biden delivered his high-energy and well-received State of the Union address, which, of course, instantly rendered all concern about his age and fitness inoperative—for a few weeks. Biden’s average approval rating from 538 now sits at 37.6 percent, slightly down from the 38.1 percent he was registering before the State of the Union.

Like many people, I’ve made the unwelcome comparison between Biden and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the late liberal icon whose legacy was stained by her unwillingness to retire while Barack Obama was still president. Ginsburg’s death, at 87, occurred in the final months of the Trump administration, which allowed him to appoint her successor (Amy Coney Barrett). The Real Time host Bill Maher dubbed the octogenarian president “Ruth Bader Biden” on his HBO program last September. Biden, Maher said, was “the person who doesn’t know when to quit and so does great damage to their party and their country.”

Biden’s conduct is far worse than Ginsburg’s, in fact, given the awesome power of the presidency and the havoc Trump could unleash with it this time.

I don’t keep bringing this up because I enjoy having jittery Democrats who secretly agree with this assessment tell me to shut up, that my doomsaying is “not helpful.” They reiterate that Trump would be tragically worse for the country than even an 86-year-old Biden in the White House. That’s essentially been Biden’s message for the past five years: “Don’t compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative.” He continues to submit that the main rationale for his presidency is as a high-stakes game of keep-away. There’s no question he’s better than the alternative, but that doesn’t mean it’s enough.

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