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What Exactly Does Biden Mean by ‘Finish the Job’?
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What Exactly Does Biden Mean by ‘Finish the Job’?

The president’s campaign slogan sounds nice but doesn’t make much sense.

President Joe Biden speaks at the Washington Hilton in Washington, D.C., April 25, 2023. (Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.

Decades ago, I wrote and produced a (not particularly good) documentary called Gargoyles: Guardians of the Gate. My figurative fecal-gifting colleagues always liked to ask me, “What gate?” 

I’d often reply, “Exactly.” Other replies might have included, “I dunno,” “shut up,” “work with me, man,” and “buy it and find out.” The truth is they’d ask me a lot, and since the nature of this gate was somewhat ephemeral and mysterious, conjured as much for reasons of alliteration as historical literacy, I could never give a dispositive answer.

All this came to mind when I watched Joe Biden’s reelection announcement video. 

Biden’s 2024 slogan is “Finish the job.” 

What job?” I asked, causing my dingo to look up at me as if I was talking to her. She seemed to be wondering whether I was alluding to some squirrel that needed to be dispatched to squirrel Valhalla, where the nut-filled bird feeders are always in reach. 

But, no really, what is the job? He doesn’t actually say. He suggests what the job might be at various times. The first hint is that the job is to protect freedom and rights. He then segues to democracy. “That’s been the work of my first term: to fight for our democracy.” Soon thereafter he says, “When I ran for president four years ago, I said we were in a battle for the soul of America. And we still are.”  He then runs through a list of statements about America that define America—statements when taken as generalities shorn of policy context I agree with entirely, by the way. Everyone is equal. Everyone deserves a fair shot, etc. He even paraphrases something that I’ve written or quoted Reagan saying dozens of times. “Every generation of Americans have faced a moment when they have to defend democracy.” More agreeable platitudes about standing up for rights, etc., and then he says, “This is our moment.”

Finally, the kicker: “So if you’re with me go to JoeBiden.com and sign up. … Let’s finish this job.”

So I ask again? What job? I ask because on Biden’s own terms, the job is not finishable

If every generation faces these threats or challenges, how can we “finish the job”?

Now I’m going to get to the punditry in a minute. And I fully understand that the last place one should bring intellectual or philosophical rigor to the text is a presidential announcement video. It’s a bit like the “You can’t fight in here, this is the war room!” scene in Dr. Strangelove.  How dare you take these profound statements about the nature of democracy and the soul of our nation seriously?

But I think this gets at one of the fundamental problems with democracy—not just our democracy. Movies and novels have finality. The hero struggles. The hero triumphs, the end, roll credits. The couple meet cute, fight, make up, get married, the end, roll credits. But you know what Luke Skywalker did after getting his medal for blowing up the Death Star? He probably went to the bathroom and was forced to use subpar rebel toilet paper. Eventually he had a nice meal, went to bed, woke up the next day, and went on with his life. Similarly, the people in the theater got up from their seats and went on with their lives too. 

Mario Cuomo liked to say that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose. I couldn’t stand Cuomo, but he was on to something. Every four years, candidates run for office promising that Election Day will be like the climax of a movie. They suggest, imply, or even shout that if Election Day goes right, they will deliver us to a new vista, a new destination. But the credits never roll. Al Gore used to have a painfully stupid riff at rallies where he’d talk about how if he won, everyone would wake up cheerful and full of energy in a beautiful world where the birds chirp and the sun shines warmly and brightly. But if he lost everyone will wake up grumpy and sad in a rainy, gray, and dreary world. 

Someone can check my work, but I’m pretty sure election results have minimal impact on the weather. While I get that people invested in politics will wake up in a better mood if their team wins, that mood is always short-lived. And for those who are overly invested in politics, when the realization that Obama’s victory didn’t result in the “fundamental transformation” of America and the rising oceans did not in fact start to recede as he said they would, disappointment and maybe even cynicism took over. 

This is an entirely human dynamic. Prize fighters want the belt, football players want the championship ring, writers want a bestseller—and when they get such things it feels good. But such feelings are fleeting to one extent or another. Life goes on. There’s always another squirrel, as the dingo says. 

 Talking about elections like our souls—individual or collective—are at stake might make sense for a campaign, but talking that way doesn’t make much sense in our actual lives. America was already great—not perfect, not flawless, but great—before Trump was elected, and it’s still great now. 

You can love every policy, appointment, and statement out of Trump’s presidency and still acknowledge that the truly important things in life—our lives—were relatively unaffected for most of us. Sure, if you got a pardon from him, that was transformative for you personally. Yeah, if your uncompetitive business got a boost from his tariffs you made more money. But that’s all pretty prosaic stuff. 

Trump’s unofficial campaign slogan—“I am your retribution”—is just another version of this habit. Elect me, and the people you hate will be punished. Now he might actually try to punish people. But for his voters, they’d still be following politics like it’s a movie. And life isn’t a movie.  

America is bigger than any president and any election. And if you think the holes in your soul can get filled up by someone behind the Resolute desk at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, that’s a symptom of how deep those holes are. 

And now, the punditry.

Okay let’s take the Biden video seriously, not literally. 

If the text of the video is a long, extended, question-begging non-sequitur, the subtext is pretty clear. The “job” that needs to be “finished” is defeating “MAGA.”  At least that’s the conclusion the viewer is supposed to reach. The video opens with scenes from January 6 and is punctuated throughout with images and verbal shots at the sinister forces threatening America. 

It’s interesting. If you were an alien or an archeologist 1,000 years from now, and this video was the only artifact from our time and civilization, you’d be forgiven for thinking the country was like 80 percent black and Hispanic. With very few exceptions—Joe and Jill and a few others in the crowds—you’d think the white people were all scary insurrectionists.  It’s the same “nutpicking” on a grand scale we’ve seen for a long time now. 

This is obviously deliberate. This thing was probably focus-grouped a bajillion times. And I don’t think the people in the focus groups reflected the demographics of the people in the video. Of course Biden desperately needs a huge turnout of the black vote and that’s clearly part of the calculation. I mean, Ketanji Brown Jackson might appear more than Jill Biden. But the larger purpose is to appeal to college educated white liberals and independents who love to be told they’re part of the virtuous cadres of the unracist. There’s nothing wrong with this desire, but it does breed a certain arrogance that offends some voters and leaves other voters wondering if the Democrats don’t have much concern for the problems of people outside their self-congratulatory coalition.

I think this is a very risky campaign strategy. Seventy percent of the country doesn’t want this guy to run again, which means they’re looking for a reason not to vote for him. But as Biden says over and over again, “Don’t compare me to the almighty, compare me to the alternative.” This tactic worked for him well in 2020, and it’s probably likely it will again in 2024 if Trump is the nominee and if Biden doesn’t have a bad fall—literally or figuratively. There’s never been a president more carefully managed for the simple reason he’s one interview or speech away from saying something not merely bizarre—“Don’t worry about the rain, my aardvark has front end suspension!”—but something that confirms the widespread view that he’s just too old and out of it to be president. 

Biden’s “never Trump campaign” makes him like a boxer who has to clinch his opponent through the final rounds just to stay on his feet in the hopes that he’ll win by decision when the bell rings. 

If any other Republican is the nominee, including DeSantis, he won’t be able to run a “finish the job” campaign nearly as effectively.  Indeed, the fact that Trump is throwing everything imaginable at DeSantis is a gift—if DeSantis wins the nomination; “Really? I’m the same as Trump? The guy who said I’m a loser and a pedophile?” 

If Biden falters and can’t finish the actual job—running for reelection—his replacement will be Kamala Harris, who will have to carry the party across the finish line offering her disquisitions on the subtleties of chrono-normative contemplation.

It’s also a profoundly hypocritical and cynical approach to politics given that Biden is continuing the—so far—effective Democratic tactic of boosting the worst Republicans because they’re easier to beat. Most Republicans aren’t represented by the January 6 goons, even if too many Republicans feel compelled to defend them because they don’t want to give the libruls the satisfaction of agreeing with them about anything. Biden is the guy who talks constantly about the need for glorious and righteous unity, but he’s campaigning on the near-explicit assertion that if you don’t vote for him you’re against democracy, freedom, civil rights, etc.  

In fact, Biden is implicitly running on the same “I am your retribution” theme as Trump. 2024: Punish the woke or the MAGAs. 

Of course, because the GOP is determined to keep repeating its mistakes until it perfects them, odds are good they’ll do everything they can to make Biden’s pitch persuasive.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.