For the first three years of his presidency, Biden tried to avoid saying the words Donald Trump. On Friday night, he mentioned the man 44 times.
In a speech at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, on the eve of the third anniversary of the January 6 riot, Joe Biden made the case for his reelection by castigating his predecessor.
“Today we’re here to answer the most important of questions,” said Biden. “Is democracy still America’s sacred cause?. . . . [It’s] the most urgent question of our time, and it’s what the 2024 election is all about.”
He went on: “Donald Trump’s campaign is about him, not America, not you.”
The same can be said of Biden’s own campaign.
Faced with an unenthusiastic Democratic base, three in four Americans who say they are “seriously concerned” that his age might affect his mental and physical competence, and poll after poll showing him losing to Trump in a head-to-head matchup, Biden is betting on his opponent’s shortcomings rather than his own strengths.
Over the weekend, I spoke to journalist Salena Zito about the opening pitch Biden made in her home state as well as the dynamics of a Biden-Trump rematch. (Salena is one of the great explainers of the Trump phenomenon. If you’ve heard the phrase that voters take Donald Trump “seriously, not literally,” that’s her.)
As Salena sees it, Biden’s campaign is doubling down on the democracy rhetoric because they believe this is the key to their stronger-than-expected showing in the 2022 midterms. But his team is making a mistake if they fail to make a positive case for their own candidate, Salena told me. “They’ve got to address Biden’s own problems, and if he wants to win over voters, he’s got to address the issues.”
Salena added that it’d be a mistake to assume Biden will definitely be his party’s nominee. “I’m old enough to remember Lyndon Johnson dropping out, so I am of the belief that anything can happen,” she said. “We’re all operating under the assumption that it’s Trump and Biden. But I think we should expect the unexpected—if the past four years haven’t taught us that, then we haven’t been paying attention.”
Could He Really Drop Out?
Just last week, Republican pollster Frank Luntz told Bari and me on Honestly that it’s still possible Biden could drop out of the race.
“There has to be a chance because, in the end, if he loses to Donald Trump, that will be his legacy for the rest of time. I don’t believe he will want to be known as that individual,” he said.
Democratic elites are worried about whether Biden is up to the job—and are increasingly saying the quiet part out loud.
On Saturday, The Washington Post reported that Barack Obama grew “animated” in a conversation with Biden when voicing concerns about the reelection campaign during a recent visit to the White House.
One person saying what lots of other Democrats are thinking is Dean Phillips. He’s the moderate congressman running against Biden in the primary who hopes an embarrassing showing for the president in New Hampshire (where a debate over the primary calendar means Biden won’t appear on the ballot and needs voters to write him in) would force more in the party to consider dumping Biden. (Bari sat down with Phillips late last week for Honestly. . . stay tuned for that episode.)
It was only last September that Jim Messina, Obama’s former campaign manager, likened those worrying about Biden’s reelection chances to “fucking bedwetters.” But with every new poll and public Biden appearance—infrequent though they may be—the “bedwetting” looks rational, and Messina’s comment looks more foolish. The question is whether anxiety among Democratic elites ever tips over into a decision to do something about it. (J.P. Morgan listed Biden dropping out of the race on health grounds as one of its “top ten surprises of 2024” predictions in a report published January 1.)
In any decision about Biden’s future, one person will be central: Jill Biden. “The only person who could talk him out of it is his wife,” as Luntz noted on the podcast. “Nobody is looking Joe Biden straight in the eye and saying to him, ‘You’re going to lose this thing.’ It doesn’t happen in the White House. It doesn’t happen in politics. She’s the only one who could do this. And clearly, she’s not doing it.”
For now, Biden is very much in the race—and his campaign is all about Trump. Whether or not that is good politics, it is what motivates the 81-year-old. Biden has said Trump’s behavior in office sparked his initial run for president. He then painted 2020 as a “battle for the soul of America,” promising to turn the page on the divisiveness of the Trump years. This year, he is gearing up for an even darker version of that pitch. And if he loses in November, that’s all he will be remembered as: the man who failed to vanquish Trump.
The State of the Race
Biden (write-in): 47.3
All eyes are on New Hampshire, which holds its primary on January 23: that’s where someone not named Trump or Biden has the best chance of coming out on top. Granite Staters, save us from the rematch no one wants!
If we do end up with the same two candidates as four years ago, that continuity will belie some profound changes happening beneath the surface of American politics at the moment. Stay tuned for a big new piece on exactly that by my colleague Peter Savodnik later today.
The Big Schmooze: Free Press writer Olivia Reingold reports on the Golden Globes. . .
Last night, I did what 99.9 percent of America did not do: I watched the 2024 Golden Globes.
Partly because I’m a masochist, and partly because I wanted to see the Hollywood elites emerge from their Ozempic dens (I like what you’ve done, Oprah.)
But the night was a bore, right from the “what are you wearing” chatter, when various TV “personalities” fawned over the celebrities they purport to cover.
A typical interview went like this:
“Journalist”: Congratulations on your new child. How is motherhood?
Shiny actress: Just the best ever.
(That was almost verbatim an interview between Entertainment Tonight correspondent Rachel Smith and Sarah Snook, who plays the bitchy sister in HBO’s Succession.)
Then there was the actual awards show.
The host, little-known comedian Jo Koy, reminded me of a t-shirt cannon man trying to pump up a Little League game (he often followed up jokes by questioning the amount of applause he received: “Really?”). There were the bored and facially refreshed actors reading off teleprompters. Special mention to Jared Leto, who came dressed as a cat burglar in black leather gloves.
This is an awards show, so in theory it’s supposed to tell you what the audience thinks of the films. But all I learned is what Hollywood thinks of itself: And it’s amazing, darling!
Robert Downey Jr. called Oppenheimer “a goddamn masterpiece” in his acceptance speech for his role in the film. Steven Yeun, who won Best Actor in a Limited Series for Beef, made the ultimate humblebrag, claiming he was “just the recipient of a long line of compassion and love and protection and goodwill.”
Someone needed to do a Will Smith and slap Hollywood with the truth—you look tired, sweetie. And dare I say, irrelevant.
I have newfound respect for the celebrities that, instead of attending, sent in outdated headshots (shout-out to Ricky Gervais and Steve Martin).
Many of America’s most watched shows weren’t even nominated, like Yellowstone, which averaged three times the number of viewers than the series finale of critical darling Succession. The Globes even created a new category to throw a bone to the hoi polloi, called the “Cinematic and Box Office Achievement” category, which went to Barbie.
In her acceptance speech, Margot Robbie said, “We would like to dedicate this to every single person on the planet who dressed up and went to the greatest place on Earth—the movie theater.”
The problem is that only 39 percent of Americans have been to “the greatest place on Earth” in the past year.
If the Golden Globes were a movie, it wouldn’t even win an award.
Better luck next year.
(Oh yeah, Oppenheimer won Best Drama. You can find the other winners here.)
Where’d You Go, Lloyd?
In the latest indicator that the republic is in rude health, three and a half days went by before the White House was informed that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was in the hospital.
Austin had suffered complications after an elective procedure on January 1, but the White House didn’t know he was in the hospital, including a stint in the ICU, until January 4.
Don’t worry, though—it’s just because Austin is a soldier’s soldier, according to Politico. The outlet’s Playbook newsletter notes that “The folks that we talked to leaned into Occam’s Razor as an explanation for how this happened. [Austin] is an intensely private man, a 70-year-old four-star general who is set in his ways and dislikes to ‘bother’ people (including, apparently, some of his staff) with his problems—a tough, ‘stiff upper lip’ bearing that will be immediately familiar to those of us who grew up in military families.”
Is that really the most likely explanation? I asked Free Press columnist and former Pentagon reporter Eli Lake for his take. Here’s what he said:
There is something that doesn’t add up about the latest turn in the story of Lloyd Austin’s hospitalization. How is it possible the White House did not know he was laid up in a hospital between January 1 and January 4? His deputy, Kathleen Hicks, had already taken over day-to-day responsibilities at the Pentagon. And the whereabouts of the secretary of defense, like the secretary of state and the national security adviser, are allegedly known at all times by the White House Situation Room. As Jeremy Bash, who served as chief of staff to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, told Politico, a secretary of defense is never truly off the grid.
So how could it be that Austin’s hospitalization was a mystery to the White House? The explanation that Austin is an “intensely private man” does not account for the protocols that exist.
The other explanation is that people are lying.
Biden still has confidence in his defense secretary, officials said Sunday. But Austin is still in the hospital and may have more questions to answer if he is to keep his job.
A Widening War?
Hezbollah missiles damaged an important air base in the north of the country, the IDF admitted Sunday. The attack, which happened Saturday, underscores the possibility of a widening war between Israel and its enemies. “We prefer the path of an agreed-upon diplomatic settlement,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Friday, “but we are getting close to the point where the hourglass will turn over.”
Biden has dispatched Tony Blinken to the region in an effort to lower the temperature, and the administration has reportedly cautioned Israel against a significant escalation in Lebanon.
From our newsroom. . .
→ The Case of the Kidnapped Imam: The son of Mohammaed Mushtaha, an imam in Gaza, wrote in The Free Press last week that Hamas had kidnapped his father for refusing to toe the party line: “My father knows the difference between right and wrong. He knew that refusing to act as a megaphone for Hamas could lead to his death, and yet he refused. He has a clear conscience. So does everyone who knows what really happened to him, and why.”
The response to the story from readers has been extraordinary. And now there is evidence that other Palestinians are demanding his release. Moumen al-Natour, a lawyer and an anti-Hamas activist in Gaza, wrote on X: “It is highly disturbing that Shaikh Mohamad Mushtaha was arrested in the midst of this conflict. I demand that the government of Gaza free him right away and without any conditions.”
Mr. Mushtaha shared his story with The Free Press as part of the ongoing series Voices from Gaza, our partnership with the Center for Peace Communications.
→ Fergie’s back: Readers will surely remember Fergie Chambers. The Free Press’s Suzy Weiss recently profiled the Marxist multimillionaire blowing his $250 million fortune on some of the worst causes imaginable (communism, Hamas, China propaganda). I regret to inform you that Chambers is back. On Friday, he posted this on X:
For Fergie, this kind of thing is nothing new. In the past he has donated to Samidoun, an organization that has ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and which is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, Japan, Canada, and the European Union.
→ The Free Press goes 2–0 in predictions: Abracadabra! Already, two of the forecasts made on our World in 2024 episode of Honestly last week have come true. First, our own Suzy Weiss declared that Catholicism was “in” in 2024 and—hey, presto—actor Shia LaBeouf converts. Second, Leandra Medine declared pants “out” in 2024—and days later, Kanye West agrees. “No pants this year,” he wrote in an Instagram post alongside a risqué photograph of his rumored wife Bianca Censori.
Oliver Wiseman is an editor and writer at The Free Press. Follow him on X @ollywiseman.
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