The Five Stages of Biden Grief

President Joe Biden in the Rose Garden at the White House on October 25, 2023. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Some truths are so bitter that they can’t be swallowed in one gulp. Ingestion is a process.

And that process doesn’t always work. Millions of Republicans have now entered their fourth year of trying to choke down the fact that Joe Biden won the 2020 election.

Likewise, the idea that a coup-plotting strongman given to describing his enemies as “vermin” really, truly might be president again is so preposterous and dispiriting that many of us have already begun to gag on it, with a year still to go before the expected rematch. Coming to terms with the reality that Biden might lose to an authoritarian cretin will be a psychological journey.

Some will never reach the end. More on that later.

On Monday, Politico columnist Jonathan Martin published a few recommendations for how the president might improve his chances of reelection, but it was these paragraphs—not quite opinion, not quite reporting—that rocked political junkies.

2024 will be an extraordinary election, and it demands extraordinary measures.

That’s in part for reasons Biden refuses to accept: his capacity to do the job. The oldest president in history when he first took the oath, Biden will not be able to govern and campaign in the manner of previous incumbents. He simply does not have the capacity to do it, and his staff doesn’t trust him to even try, as they make clear by blocking him from the press. Biden’s bid will give new meaning to a Rose Garden campaign, and it requires accommodation to that unavoidable fact of life.

“He simply does not have the capacity to do it, and his staff doesn’t trust him to even try.” Was that Martin’s own judgment of Biden’s capabilities and how he expects the campaign to function? Or was he repeating what sources inside Biden’s operation were whispering to him?

What a Politico correspondent might think of the president’s fitness for a second term is interesting, barely. What the president’s own aides might think of it is potentially tectonic.

Reaction was sharp. At National Review, Charlie Cooke warned of an eventual constitutional crisis if an enfeebled Biden were reelected. Nate Silver wrote that, if Martin’s view does in fact reflect the consensus inside the White House, Democrats should choose a different nominee. Jonathan Chait at New York magazine countered with a close exegesis by noting that Martin didn’t say Biden was too old to campaign or govern as he might like, just that he couldn’t campaign and govern. The president is simply prioritizing president-ing over hitting the trail.

That five sentences of not-quite-actual reporting could draw such an outburst from prominent commentators goes to show how fragile Biden’s position (not to mention Biden himself) has become, and how exasperated the pundit class is with the Democratic establishment’s omerta on the subject. The president’s polling is deteriorating, his own base thinks he’s too old to serve another term, yet he’s cruising to the nomination with little more than a whisper of serious opposition.

Does the party’s leadership not realize there’s a fair—and growing—chance that he loses to Trump? And that he’s the only prospective Democratic nominee (well, almost) who’s capable of doing so?

Our friends on the left do understand this to varying degrees, I’m sure, from the president’s inner circle on down to the grassroots. It’s not as if his deliberately light schedule is a secret.

But the thought of American voters preferring a malevolent villain in 2024 to the incumbent is a bitter one. And some truths are so bitter that they can’t be swallowed in one gulp.

Grief is a process. It has stages. I think Democrats are simply moving through the early stages of grieving an increasingly probable Biden defeat next fall.

The first stage of grief is denial. Here’s what denial looks like.

Barack Obama circa 2011 is not a fair analogy for Joe Biden circa 2023, although it’s been a common one since the New York Times dropped its doom poll on the president last week. Obama’s numbers were pitiful a year out from reelection, after all, and he went on to a comfortable victory in 2012. His campaign manager at the time, Jim Messina, published a piece a few days ago pointing to that cycle as proof that Democrats shouldn’t panic about their current nominee.

Of course, Messina is also the guy who admitted in 2016 to having prayed for a Trump victory in that year’s primary. Treat his analysis accordingly.

It’s understandable that he, Pelosi, and others would look back to 2012 as a shot in the arm for Democratic voters whose morale needs boosting. But the comparison is silly. Obama’s mental and physical fitness to do the job as president wasn’t in question; he was a vastly more talented retail politician than Biden; he had a unique ability to turn out the party’s African American base, a cohort that’s drifting away from Biden; he had a tougher economy, granted, but not one in which inflation had been devouring consumers’ purchasing power for two years; and he had the good fortune to face a Republican who held little appeal to the country’s working-class majority.

“Obama won so Biden probably will too” is denial at its most glib.

Another form of denial is believing that last Tuesday’s rosy election results for Democrats “prove” that the polls are underestimating Biden’s strength against Trump. They aren’t. For one thing, the polls of last week’s races were largely accurate. If they were trustworthy in that case, why wouldn’t we also trust what they’re telling us about the presidential race?

Beyond that, it’s silly to extrapolate from an off-year election what a presidential outcome might look like. As Russell Berman notes, the realignment of highly educated voters from right to left means the Democratic base shows up more reliably in low-turnout races than the Republican base does. Next year’s election will not be low-turnout, to put it mildly.

The second stage of grief is anger.

Coming from Democratic apparatchiks, anger at the president’s predicament sounds less like rage and more like whining and scapegoating—toward the press, in particular, for commenting so frequently on Biden’s age. The White House resents that so much ink and airtime has been spent on the elephant in the room, and Biden himself has been known to resort to profanity when discussing the coverage privately.

Sometimes Team Joe does more than just swear behind closed doors. In September, a number of his deputy spokesmen mocked reporters who questioned the president’s stamina during a trip to Asia. That same month, a staffer in the White House counsel’s office sent a memo to media organizations scolding them for not being skeptical enough about another political liability, the House Republican investigation of Hunter Biden. 

All administrations “work the refs” by grumbling about the press. But the anger of the Biden White House is apt to deepen next year given the special civic threat posed by Trump.

Journalists have never resolved the question of how skeptically they should cover the Republican frontrunner. Too skeptically and they’re evincing a liberal bias; not skeptically enough and they’re mainstreaming authoritarianism. That challenge will get worse for them the more overtly fascist he sounds. Anything short of outright hostility in their reporting will lead the left to accuse them of “normalizing” Trump’s illiberal agenda in the thick of a campaign.

We got a taste of what’s to come this past weekend, when the New York Times’ headline about Trump’s “vermin” comments underwhelmed critics.

That was a polite chastisement. Come next summer, if Biden is still trailing in the polls, Democrats will channel their supernova of anxiety into outrage at the media for failing to scare Americans straight about what’s coming.

The third stage of grief is bargaining.

There have been some creative bargains suggested in the past for how Biden might solve his Trump problem.

That’s not the sort of bargaining I mean, though. The hallmark of bargaining in the context of grief is believing that one still retains some control over one’s destiny. By pledging to perform an act of virtue if healed, the afflicted might persuade God to cure them.

The Biden campaign does control its own destiny to some degree, of course. All campaigns do. But I think the president controls the outcome of this race less than the average candidate would and much, much less than the average president would.

Political media is full of advice for him lately on how to be more proactive about reversing his fortunes. Talk less about “Bidenomics”! Talk more about the economy! Focus on your accomplishments! Focus on Trump! Enlist Rahm Emanuel, Ron Klain, and Liz Cheney as aides/surrogates! Answer literally every question for the next 11 months with the word “abortion”!

(I haven’t seen that last bit of advice, actually. But given how post-Roe elections have gone for Democrats, I might offer it myself.)

Some or all of that might help at the margins, but the unhappy truth for Biden is that his fate is in the hands of three forces of nature that are beyond his control. One is his age, of course. Another is inflation. And the third is Donald Trump.

Whether those forces work in the president’s favor or against him will determine whether he gets a second term. If he manages to avoid a health crisis before Election Day, if inflation eases soon-ish, and/or if Trump keeps ranting about “vermin” while he’s dragged off to prison, what Biden has to say about “Bidenomics” probably won’t matter. He’ll win.

If he does have a health crisis, if inflation persists, and/or if Trump’s aides lock him in a room away from cameras for the next year, what Biden has to say about “Bidenomics” also probably won’t matter. He’ll lose.

Come next summer, the situation might be sufficiently dire as to inspire some actual divine bargaining by Democratic voters to solve the crisis. If only the good Lord in his wisdom will grant Biden a few months of lucidity on the trail, or cause a downturn in the consumer price index, or haul Trump off to the big golf course in the sky, the large and growing minority of irreligious Democrats will give theism a second chance.

The fourth stage of grief is depression.

Hardly anyone has reached this stage yet. It really is too early to despair; the Republican frontrunner has too many liabilities in his own right to justify it. To believe that Biden can’t win and that Trump is destined to do so requires a profound, freakish, and frankly unhealthy amount of pessimism.

Levels of pessimism you basically won’t find anywhere—outside this newsletter, at least.

But one can imagine depression setting in early-ish next year. A few bad jobs reports, a quarter of disappointing GDP growth, or a Trump acquittal in court is all it would take to set off a panic. Biden’s problem is that the crises he’s managing might plausibly ease slowly, over the long term, but could easily deepen quickly in the near term before America goes to vote. Inflation could pick up again; Hezbollah could enter Israel’s war with Hamas; Ukraine’s military, starving for additional Western support, could begin to lose ground; Biden himself might experience what we’ll delicately call a “health event.”

Any or all of that would plunge Trump’s critics into stage four.

Baseline depression about the intractability of Biden’s problems has already begun to set in, in fact. “It’s hard to see how to brighten his public image on issues haunting the American public—crime, immigration, inflation, race, trust. And now two divisive wars America didn’t start,” Axios wrote last month of the many “horror shows” the president is facing. When they asked one Biden adviser what happens when so many liabilities pile up, the grim response was that “the load-bearing wall breaks.”

There’s no scenario in which Biden gets trounced next year. There probably isn’t a scenario in which he loses the popular vote. Trump is, in the end, Trump. But I think we could plausibly find ourselves by Labor Day in a race the Republican has led narrowly but consistently for most of the campaign and in which he seems headed for a comfortable Electoral College win.

Which will bring us to stage five.

The fifth stage of grief is acceptance.

Americans haven’t been great at the acceptance stage in the last few elections.

There was 2020, of course. But before that, hysteria about Russian interference in 2016 reached a pitch so feverish that one poll taken after the election found 52 percent of Democrats believed—without evidence—that Russia had probably tampered with the actual vote tallies to get Trump elected.

Neither side will take the L graciously if their candidate loses in 2024.

Trump is Trump. We’ve seen the playbook of how he’ll react if he loses. There will be the conspiracy theories, of course, but this time, he’ll also have a more substantive grievance: that he might have won if not for Democratic prosecutors burying him with curiously timed indictments.

Democrats will resist defeat too. The thought of Americans setting aside everything they know about Trump and reelecting him anyway is so disillusioning that some might cope by embracing ulterior explanations rather than accept that this is what their country has become. Dark theories about foreign interference on Trump’s behalf will reemerge. Suspicions about Republican officials putting a thumb on the scale in swing states won by Trump will swirl.

The party will be desperate to shift blame away from itself for its insanity in renominating a president whom huge majorities across all parties frankly don’t believe is fit for another term.

America won’t reach something like the acceptance stage for a presidential outcome again until after the MAGA movement has passed and the consequences of elections feel less existential. Figure 2060 or so.

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