Are We Looking at George H.W. Biden?

Photo of author

By Ketrin Agustine

Are We Looking at George H.W. Biden?

When you played second fiddle to a revered, charismatic, transformative president who chose you as his running mate not because you dazzled him but because you dully rounded him out, not because he saw you as the party’s future but because you were a link to its past, can you ever shine as brightly as you deserve to?

When you’ve been in government forever and almost everything about you smacks of tradition, can you beat back complaints that you’re out of touch and sweet-talk voters who are soured on the status quo?

George H.W. Bush, running for a second term more than three decades ago, couldn’t.

Joe Biden, running for a second term now, is about to find out.

Among Democrats justly nervous about Biden’s poll numbers and rightly angry about the dearth of respect he gets, it has recently been popular — and consoling — to compare him to a different commander in chief, the one for whom he served as vice president, Barack Obama. At this point in Obama’s first term, surveys strongly suggested that he would lose his re-election effort.

Voters in late 2011 shortchanged Obama on credit for steering the nation out of the 2008 housing bust and recession, just as voters in late 2023 are shortchanging Biden for steering the nation out of the pandemic. They didn’t wrestle seriously with whether Obama merited a renewal on his White House lease until much closer to Election Day, and they won’t give Biden an accurate report card any sooner, or so the thinking goes. It also holds that once Obama focused on his campaign, he was able to cast his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, as an unacceptable choice. When Biden buckles down, he’ll do the same to his likely Republican rival, Donald Trump. Heck, he already did it in 2020.

I’d buy that forecast — I want nothing more than for it to be true — but for a few pesky details. Obama was 50 then. Biden is 80 now. Obama, our first Black president, still had the perfume of history around him. Biden has no such bouquet. And the Tea Party of Obama’s era may have been a precursor to our MAGA moment, but it was a firecracker beside this dynamite, as the wreckage at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, showed. We live, and quiver, in more explosive times.

The Bush-Biden parallels come easier. George H.W. Biden has a plausibility that Barack Biden doesn’t.

Admittedly, it’s not a tidy fit, for a range of reasons: The first President Bush immediately succeeded his boss, Ronald Reagan, so it was as if the same presidency went on and on, while there were four years between Obama and Biden, who represented not a continuation of the Obama administration but a merciful reprieve from the Trump interruption. “Poppy Bush” had a famously patrician aura, while “Scranton Joe” is a scruffier sort.

Then there’s the biggest difference of all. Bush faced an idealistic Democratic opponent, Bill Clinton, who presented a much younger, fresher face and whose liabilities didn’t include 91 felony charges tracing a contempt for democracy and appetite for insurrection. A vote for Clinton wasn’t a gesture of furious protest or expression of acrid contempt.

Biden is staring at a nihilistic Republican opponent who raged through the West Wing once already and, to cleareyed voters, is an autocrat in waiting. A vote for Trump is like a civic suicide pact.

Do the election results from Tuesday reflect an awareness of that? Democrats did very, very well: Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky, a Democrat in a deep-red state, secured a second term. Democrats won control of both chambers of the Virginia legislature. Ohioans rejected Republican calls for limits on abortion, enshrining reproductive rights in the state constitution.

“Democracy won and MAGA lost,” Biden said in a statement distributed by his re-election campaign. “It’s what we’ve always said. Voters vote. Polls don’t.”

That’s indisputable. But there are nonetheless facets of Biden’s circumstances that prompt flashbacks to Bush during the 1992 race for the White House.

The questions about whether Vice President Kamala Harris is a drag on Biden and should be replaced have nothing on the questions about whether Vice President Dan Quayle was a drag on Bush and had to go. Time magazine published a whole cover story on the dump-Dan movement, complete with a list of promising alternatives that included one Dick Cheney, then the defense secretary. And the dumping was seen as especially important because the president’s age made the possibility of the vice president’s ascent to the Oval Office seem very real. Sound familiar?

Bush struggled to please a fractious Republican Party, its divisions clear in the primary challenge mounted by Pat Buchanan. Biden struggles to please a fractious Democratic Party, its divisions clear in the fact that 22 Democrats just joined House Republicans in voting to censure Representative Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat, for her remarks about Israel.

And those divisions matter more in the context of something else that Biden shares with Bush: “Biden is the first person elected president since George H.W. Bush without a political base,” Doug Sosnik, a political strategist who worked in the Clinton administration, told me. “Bush got elected basically as a Reagan third term, and Biden got elected as a vote against Trump.”

By a “base,” Sosnik means a large core group of passionate supporters who see the candidate as more than just the best option available, who will stick with the candidate through thick and thin. Reagan and Obama had that. Trump has that, which is why the other Republican candidates for president can’t muscle him out of the frame.

“A base is critical, because it becomes the foundation from which they’re able to persuade the remaining voters,” Sosnik added. “It’s critical because of the inevitable ebbs and flows when you’re in office — when things aren’t going well. It’s critical because it creates a higher floor for your support.”

Bush hoped that his experience on the world stage and proven stewardship of tricky international relations — his elder statesman bona fides — might counteract voters’ dissatisfaction with the economy. There’s a similar wish in Biden’s camp, and it makes Bush’s experience in 1992 not just an interesting point of reference but also an instructive one, with an important lesson: Fail to project extreme attentiveness to Americans’ financial anxieties at your electoral peril. They want their pain felt.

And it’s tough for a longtime Washington insider who lives in the bubble of the presidency to project that he’s sufficiently in touch. That required more intense and sustained effort than Bush managed in his day, and Biden will have to do better than “Bidenomics,” a nifty but nebulous portmanteau.

Not that Trump is some exquisitely sensitive man of the people! He is, however, the challenger, and even with his own stint as president behind him, he represents change. Biden embodies continuity, which is often the harder sell, and an aged incumbent is a vulnerable creature. Bush learned as much. For all of our sakes, Biden should study that history.

A yak.Getty Images

In a recent essay about aging in The Washington Post, Anne Lamott fashioned one memorable sentence after another: “Getting older is almost like changing species, from cute middle-aged white-tailed deer to yak. We are both grass eaters, but that’s about the only similarity.” “Some weeks, it feels as though there is a sniper in the trees, picking off people we have loved for years. It breaks your heart, but as Carly Simon sang, there is more room in a broken heart. My heart is the roomiest it has ever been.” “In my experience, most of us age away from brain and ambition toward heart and soul, and we bathe in relief that things are not worse.” (Thanks to Melissa France of Flemington, N.J., and Steve Aldrich of Minneapolis, among others, for nominating passages from Lamott’s essay.)

On her website The Marginalian, the Bulgarian essayist Maria Popova wrote: “We were never promised any of it — this world of cottonwoods and clouds — when the Big Bang set the possible in motion. And yet here we are, atoms with consciousness, each of us a living improbability forged of chaos and dead stars. Children of chance, we have made ourselves into what we are — creatures who can see a universe of beauty in the feather of a bird and can turn a blind eye to each other’s suffering, creatures capable of the Benedictus and the bomb.” Had she just seen “Oppenheimer”? (Jo Radner, Lovell, Maine)

In the unsigned Lexington column of The Economist (which I happen to know is written by my former Times boss and colleague James Bennet), there was this description of the G.O.P. in 2016, when Donald Trump was its presidential nominee, versus 2012, when Mitt Romney was: “The Republicans’ swing in four years to Mr. Trump from Mr. Romney seems neck-snapping even now; it was a kind of penance in reverse, a brawling, bankrupting bender in a strip club after a quiet morning in the pews.” Give me the pews. (Roger Tellefsen, Berwyn, Pa.)

In Slate, Luke Winkie marveled at the athleticism of Cooper Flagg, a precocious 16-year-old who recently joined the Duke basketball team. I didn’t understand all of Winkie’s terms — I’m a perversely but proudly stubborn naïf when it comes to college basketball — but could appreciate the writing even so: “At 6-foot-8 and still growing, Flagg can protect the rim, he can drift out for threes, he possesses a silky handle, and he can absolutely yam on any of the puny teenagers who step in the lane on his way to the basket. Flagg’s highlight mixtapes are downright gratuitous — look at him reducing these poor kids into piles of gristle and bone! It should honestly come with a content warning.” (Matthew Dallett, Brooklin, Maine)

In The Wall Street Journal, Jason Gay rendered a damning (and furry!) judgment of the organization that oversees college sports: “Handing the N.C.A.A. an investigation is like throwing a Frisbee to an elderly dog. Maybe you get something back. Maybe the dog lies down and chews a big stick.” (Paul Shikany, the Bronx)

In The Times, David Streitfeld summarized the rise and fall of Sam Bankman-Fried: “It’s impossible to read the sad saga of Mr. Bankman-Fried without thinking he, and many of those around him, would have been better off if they had spent less time at math camp and more time in English class. Sometimes in books, the characters find their moral compass; in the best books, the reader does, too.” (Paula Huguenin, Collex, Switzerland, and Christine Thielman, Arlington, Mass.)

Also in The Times, David French puzzled over the supposed religiousness of Republicans like Speaker Mike Johnson, contrasting him with another Republican, Mike Pence: “One Christian man tells the truth, and it kills his career. Another Christian man helps lead one of the most comprehensively dishonest and dangerous political and legal efforts in American history, and he gets the speaker’s gavel.” (Phil Ryburn, Seattle)

Also from that column: “This is precisely indicative of the political ruthlessness that’s overtaken evangelical Republicans. They are inflexible about policy positions even when the Bible is silent or vague. They are flexible about morality even when the Bible is clear.” (Joel Parkes, Altadena, Calif., and Michelle Cheatham, Calgary, Alberta, among others)

To nominate favorite bits of recent writing from The Times or other publications to be mentioned in “For the Love of Sentences,” please email me here and include your name and place of residence.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
  • In advance of the Republican presidential debate on Wednesday night, I talked with the polling analyst Nate Silver and Katherine Mangu-Ward, the editor in chief of Reason, about the 2024 election. You can read our online political round table here.

  • Chris Christie’s composure amid the jeers when he appeared at the Florida Freedom Summit on Saturday was neither any surprise nor any great credit to him: He has spent enough time in public life and dished out enough that he should be able to take it. But the accuracy and bluntness with which he called the puerile hecklers on their behavior and told them precisely how they were degrading themselves and the country were beautiful to behold: a firm spanking of the noblest order. Please watch.

  • I’m excited to welcome my Times colleague Wesley Morris, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, to Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy on Monday, Nov. 20. That evening, I’ll interview him at an event open to the public, so if you’ll be in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, please consider popping by. Here are the details.

Damon Winter/The New York Times

The day after his election as the new speaker of the House of Representatives, Mike Johnson gave his first extended interview — on Fox News, of course — and said this: “Someone asked me today in the media, they said, ‘It’s curious, people are curious. What does Mike Johnson think about any issue under the sun?’ I said, ‘Well, go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it.’ That’s my worldview.”

Those remarks drew enormous scrutiny, including from my Times colleague David French, who cited them in his excellent column — mentioned above — about the fickleness and hollowness of many Republicans’ professed religiousness.

But while most commentators focused on the glimmers of Christian nationalism in Johnson’s words, I’m struck as well by their hints of simple-mindedness. Where’s the independence of thought in outsourcing all your judgments to a single source? Where’s the openness to evolving knowledge, to fresh perspectives, to different ones?

I say that not to be besmirch Christianity or religion: I know and greatly respect many Christians and many other people who use the Bible, the Torah, the Quran or some other sacred text as a trove of inspiration, a store of wisdom, a repository of counsel. Their relationships with religion allow for broad interpretation and plenty of disagreement. They recognize the need for that.

And maybe Johnson was speaking of the Bible in such a vein. But he didn’t say “guide.” He said “worldview.” His tone, his record and much else about him suggest an uncritical obeisance, and he’s emblematic of many current Republicans’ reductive and oppressive piety.

He’s also emblematic of something broader, something by no means limited to certain strains of religiousness, something with secular examples aplenty: the temptation to quiet the jangle and resolve the complications of our maddening world by latching onto one answer, lining up behind one leader, taking the oath of one tribe and then reveling in its smug and censorious rightness.

That’s undoubtedly a clarifying decision and a comfort. But it can be hell on a democracy.


Leave a Comment