Inflation is surging, a recession is looming, the culture war is raging, Republican gains in Congress are surely coming, and Joe Biden’s poll numbers are slumping.
The Biden presidency began with Plan A: campaign from the center, govern from the left. That plan has now exhausted whatever potential it had. On his present course, President Biden is in danger of being remembered as the intermission between Act I and Act II of the collapse of American democracy.
Biden needs a Plan B, fast.
What would a Plan B look like? It should be built on five pillars:
Pillar One: Combat inflation. Nothing is more devastating to incumbent presidents than inflation. Of those in office during the age of stagflation, one resigned (Richard Nixon); the other two both faced devastating primary challenges and then were defeated in their bids for a second term (Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter). The story can be told in greater detail, but the pattern is the pattern.
Most of the fight against inflation will be directed from the Federal Reserve, over which a president has no control, but there are things that Biden can do. He can put a stop to the infantile refrain from some in his party that inflation is being driven by price gouging by meatpackers and oil companies. The Democrats’ progressive base may enjoy the corporation-bashing, but it’s an insult to everyone else’s intelligence. And because it is nonsense, it will not deliver results.
On the affirmative side, Biden can undo Trump’s tariffs and jettison his own buy-American regulations. Freer trade brings more competition, and more competition will bring lower prices.
He can also demonstrate commitment and leadership on energy. The oil-and-gas-development pipeline is slower than the political cycle. But Biden can at least make himself visible as a champion of faster return to market of oil refineries and natural-gas pipelines. He can connect this leadership to a strong message of support for a green transition by the 2040s, including the streamlining of approvals for nuclear plants, an indispensable partner of renewable-energy sources like wind and solar.
Those are measures for the future. For the present, he needs to affirm to anyone who will listen to this clear, true message:
Gasoline prices and oil-industry profits are high in the 2020s because they were too low in the 2010s to pay for the new investment that America needed. The U.S. inherited a gathering energy-supply crisis from Donald Trump—and that crisis arrived when Trump’s friend and political ally Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. The new Biden plan will encourage oil and natural-gas investment today, reduced oil and natural-gas prices tomorrow, and the green transition the day after that.
Pillar Two: Get ready for a possible recession. Recessions are not as fatal to incumbents as inflation: Dwight Eisenhower survived the recession of 1953–54 to win a second term in 1956; Ronald Reagan survived the severe recession of 1981–83 to win in 1984.
But any possible Biden recession will be tougher politically than Eisenhower’s and Reagan’s because it will arrive, if it arrives, later in Biden’s term. Eisenhower’s and Reagan’s recessions started early in their first year in office. If it comes, Biden’s recession will start late in his second year or early in his third. A hypothetical 2022 or 2023 recession could also be protracted, because it will not end until the Federal Reserve is satisfied that inflation has been snuffed out. That may take a while.
We know what Biden has already done. He’s already pumped a huge amount of federal spending into the economy: his large COVID-relief bill and his big infrastructure bill, all atop the previous COVID spending by the Trump administration. That was an underappreciated political success for Biden’s Democratic constituencies. At this point, however, more fiscal stimulus would only provoke more interest-rate increases by the Federal Reserve—even assuming that a soon-to-be-more Republican Congress will allow them, which it will not.
So what can Biden do? Get ready to go on defense. The coming more-Republican Congress will want to do many, many things that will be very, very unpopular. Biden’s least-bad move will be to focus the public mind as best he can on those unpopular Republican actions. (Their best move, conversely, will be to restrain themselves and let the recession finish off Biden. But their own internal dynamics will make that difficult to execute, especially under the weak House leadership of Kevin McCarthy.)
A recession in 2022 or 2023 may not end by November 2024. But if Biden can recast that election as a referendum on repealing the Affordable Care Act or some other Republican plan, he will do better than if he just keeps pleading for one more pull on a busted fiscal-stimulus lever.
Pillar Three: Act the peacemaker in the culture war. If Joe Biden won a mandate for anything in November 2020, it was to restore some normality to American politics. Biden can claim some limited success here. The COVID pandemic has abated; COVID-emergency measures can be relaxed; children have returned to school. But the Supreme Court’s activism on gun rights and abortion has now reignited the culture wars that Biden was elected to calm. Biden has an opportunity to position his party as the party of social peace against Republican cultural aggression.
But there are three culture-war issues that Biden has not calmed—indeed, that his administration has in some ways inflamed. The angriest of those flash points is crime. At the beginning of the pandemic, Americans raced out to buy millions of guns supposedly to protect themselves from one another. Instead, they are horribly harming one another. The years 2020 and 2021 saw a generational surge in violent crime, made worse by the 40 million new guns bought in those two years.
The United States desperately needs now to empower police and local law enforcement to restore order. The Supreme Court’s gun jurisprudence has made it harder to protect the public from violence. But raising the consequences for carrying a firearm in public within whatever regime of legal permission the Court still allows is possible. Law enforcement is mostly a state and local matter, but Biden can talk about it. And he can make clear that states that experiment with constitutionally compliant versions of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg–style stop-and-frisk laws to check for illegally carried weapons will not face federal legal challenges.
A second culture-war issue that Biden has not calmed is immigration. At least 3 million people have more or less walked into the country across the southern border under his administration. The perception, largely correct, that border enforcement had collapsed sent a message to the whole planet: Try your luck now. It also sent a message inside the United States: Nobody is in control. As always, that message is triggering the extreme political response I warned about in The Atlantic in 2019: “If liberals insist that only fascists will enforce borders, then voters will hire fascists to do the job liberals refuse to do.” The borders must be enforced, and Biden must be seen trying to enforce them.
The third culture war is one that the Biden administration actually more or less started on its own initiative. On his first day in office, Biden issued an order that forbade “discrimination on the basis of gender identity.” Last week, the administration went even further, issuing regulations that federal law against sex discrimination in higher education will now redefine “sex” to also mean “gender identity.”
Biden has thus put the weight of the federal government behind the claim that “man” and “woman,” “boy” and “girl,” are categories that depend purely on the self-identification of the individual. This is not a broadly accepted idea in American society, and its practical implications—particularly for women’s sports—are even less accepted. Biden did not have to charge into this fight, but he did, and he’s losing it. Maybe he cannot now entirely retreat, but he can retrench and let the federal government follow public opinion more closely. The attempt to force opinion in a direction that the Biden administration wishes to go is stoking a backlash that may overwhelm a lot more than Biden himself.
Pillar Four: Defend democracy first. The work of the January 6 select committee is clarifying beyond doubt that the violent attack on the Capitol was only one piece of a larger scheme to overturn the 2020 election. The crux of the plan would be action inside the states to rewrite election laws and alter election administration in ways that would substitute the wishes of the majority party in state legislatures for the democratic votes of the people in a presidential election.
Many of those who put their hopes in Biden imagined that they were voting, first and foremost, to defend American democracy. It is dismaying how little Biden has done to realize that hope.
Barton Gellman warned last year in The Atlantic that the next attempted coup is already under way. The Biden administration has declined to make a priority of protecting the voting system from a repeat in 2024 of the Trump scheme from 2020. The House of Representatives passed the Protecting Our Democracy Act in December. The law would address many of the defects and deficiencies exploited by the Trump presidency. The bill has stalled in the Senate, and the Biden administration shows no sign of caring or intervening. The defense of democracy should have been priority No.1 all along. It’s been shunted to priority zero. There’s still time to enact something before congressional Republicans start doing Trump’s dirty work for him. Do that something, and soon.
Pillar Five: Clarify the 2024 ticket now. In 2020, Joe Biden delivered a 13-point swing among white men—the single largest move of any major voting bloc between the presidential elections of 2016 and 2020, and an absolutely crucial precondition for the defeat of Trump.
Who will hold that bloc of men in a 2024 contest against Donald Trump? That’s the pre-eminent electoral question for every supporter of U.S. democracy in this hour of crisis. For many, Biden’s age calls into question whether he can or should run again. The only clean and simple way to replace Biden is for him to step aside in favor of Vice President Kamala Harris. If the polls are right, however, she probably won’t hold those men and will therefore lose. Yet if Democrats try to replace both her and Biden, they will likely trigger an all-out party brawl spiced by accusations of racism, sexism, and homophobia—an even more certain guarantee of disaster.
So unless some clever person has a plan to reenact the 1944 Democratic convention and—without shattering the party—replace a seemingly doomed VP with a more electable one (North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper springs to mind as a suitable candidate today), then Democrats have to make up their mind to consolidate quickly and unanimously around Biden. And no more anonymous comments to reporters about his waning capacities.
Admittedly, five pillars is a lot of pillars. But Islam has five, and with them it swept the world from Morocco to Indonesia. All the Democrats have to do is hold a few swing states. It won’t be easy. It can be done.