Less than a year ago, America was led by a man who governed to please the Fox News host Tucker Carlson and toyed with the idea of imposing martial law. After Donald Trump, you’d think the American people would just enjoy having a normal president who doesn’t use his Twitter account to threaten neighboring countries or corporations. But they don’t. Take one look at national polling numbers and you’ll see that Americans are unhappy with Joe Biden: According to FiveThirtyEight, 51.7 percent of Americans disapprove of his job performance. A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed that 50 percent disapprove of Biden’s handling of the pandemic and 59 percent disapprove of his handling of the economy.
To improve Biden’s popularity, earnest consultants might tell him to work on the fundamentals. But the fundamentals are actually good: The economy is getting better. Americans have both cash and jobs. Sure, inflation is an issue, but it’s a global phenomenon and not unexpected, because we’re coming out of a pandemic. The disconnect between the facts and the polls suggests that Biden’s true problem is a narrative one. Specifically, he doesn’t have an enemy, a punching bag to absorb Americans’ anger (rational or irrational).
That’s what the Democratic strategist James Carville thinks. “As of now the White House does not have good story tellers. Good stories need villains,” he texted me. The Democratic pollster Jefrey Pollock made a similar point, telling me, “Every good campaign needs a villain.” Pollock believes that “the president and his team understand the enemy piece,” noting that “the president has zeroed in on the corporate greed of the oil and gas companies who are trying to raise their prices for nothing more than profit.” Perhaps Biden’s wising up. If he wants to win reelection, however, he needs to shed his nice-guy persona.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of the most popular presidents, dealt with numerous crises during his presidency, but he always had a foil. At first, it was the wealthy. In 1936, Roosevelt told the Democratic National Convention, “For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor—other people’s lives. For too many of us life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.” Roosevelt went on to win 523 electoral votes, the third-biggest victory since the election of 1820, and that was several years into the Great Depression. Americans weren’t exactly living it up, but they didn’t blame the president for their troubles.
Ronald Reagan pitted his supporters against the government itself, announcing in the first line of his first inaugural address, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” This was ingenious because it allowed Reagan to avoid taking responsibility for just about everything; if his administration messed up, he could just nod along, as if to say I told you so. He went on to cut numerous social programs, including welfare for working mothers and federal mental-health funding.
Americans are of course clued in to the idea that presidents need enemies to win over the electorate. Indeed, they sometimes assume that presidents are just making enemies out of thin air. Three days after Bill Clinton apologized for his affair with Monica Lewinsky, he ordered military strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan. He was responding to the bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, but some political observers were suspicious. One reporter even asked then–Defense Secretary William Cohen if he’d noticed a “striking resemblance” to the movie Wag the Dog, in which a Hollywood producer helps fabricate a war in Albania to distract voters from a presidential sex scandal.
If Biden needs to unite voters, whom should he unite them against? He could wage war on poverty, as Lyndon B. Johnson did. He could battle division—and the forces trying to divide Americans. Or, the Boston College professor Heather Cox Richardson told me, “Biden could easily declare ‘war’ on the authoritarians threatening our democracy, much the same as Abraham Lincoln did when he pulled northerners together to stand against the slaveholders.” That is, he could spend more time trying to direct Americans’ attention to the threat posed by the Trump-directed Republican Party, which is consolidating power at the state level and turning against democracy in large numbers.
Bill Kristol, the former editor of the conservative Weekly Standard and the current head of Defending Democracy Together, is worried about the GOP’s move toward authoritarianism, but he seems skeptical that Biden can succeed at convincing the country that the danger is clear and present. “Citizens in democracies—being free and kind of happy-go-lucky, as they should be—can get a bit complacent and take their freedoms and well-being for granted,” he told me. “Historically, they sometimes only fully wake up to dangers and rise to the occasion when the external threat seems obvious and dangerous. Can they mobilize as easily against a more insidious internal threat?”
Biden might worry that rallying Americans against one another would cause the national temperature to rise even higher. This is a serious concern. But by attacking the legitimacy of our elections and the peaceful transfer of power, Trump-aligned Republicans have already ensured that it will. Now Biden needs to remind Americans of what he’s trying to achieve—rescuing democracy from the threat of authoritarianism, both at home and abroad—and ask them to enlist alongside him in that cause. Voters rallied behind Biden when he made that case on the campaign trail in 2020, and with the right messaging they would do so again today. Democrats are facing considerable headwinds. Fixing the narrative could mean saving democracy.