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When Joe Biden thinks he’s in the right, there isn’t much room for self-doubt in his orbit. So when exit polls on Tuesday indicated two-thirds of the country would prefer he not run for a second term, the President wasn’t much in a listening mode. And, on Wednesday when a reporter asked him how those numbers might shade his thinking about his next few moves on a political chess board, Biden was clear he was his own man who operates well outside survey data: “It doesn’t” shape his thinking at all, he told reporters at the White House. End of discussion. Full stop.
It’s easy for those of us in Washington to roll our eyes at this Bidenesque bravado. His hyperbole is the stuff of legend, his hype easily mocked. Literally is a trigger for a muffled chuckle. His swagger suppresses all manner of self-doubt. And yet… let’s not forget: Biden’s midterm showing beat historical trends. And while he was shunned in crucial races, and stayed away, many of those Biden-hesitant figures ultimately prevailed on Tuesday. Moreover, Biden’s first term has delivered significant wins that lap his predecessors. All together, the President is showing he can have garbage polling while simultaneously posting a scoreboard that surpasses many of his post-World War II comrades’ benchmarks.
Maybe—and it’s a big one—Biden can shelve his ego better than anyone else in Washington, and perhaps his understanding of politics is better than even his allies want to credit.
Biden’s first two years in office have been nothing if not a contradiction. A pandemic, a Russian invasion of Ukraine, a race of inflation, and a migration crisis have all earned Biden undeniable spots in history’s index—urgent unfurling events that typically hobble a new President. Yet Biden keeps marching on, passing a massive infrastructure agenda, cobbling together a bipartisan economic package, shipping staggering pallets of cash and weapons to Kyiv, mobilizing vaccinations and boosters so efficiently as to quiet most critics. The symbolic moves of patching up the United States’ image abroad after four years of his predecessor’s aggressive isolationist antagonism has been greeted fulsomely, and the traditional NATO embrace has calmed skittish allies about the West’s footing.
Twitter and cable news keep a lot of D.C. chasing the hourly imbroglio of error and gaffe. The fact that Biden fell off a bike in Delaware looped for hours, but his technical changes to environmental policy will last for years. He has stumbled on a few words here and tripped on some steps there; he also designated a new national park that is now untouchable for generations. His misstatements of fact don’t undermine that he erased a massive tranche of student-loan debt.
Washington—and those who control its power levers—reward the shiny objects, the headlines that get retweets and hate-forwards. Biden is of an era that came well before anyone could define doom-scrolling. His first race for Senate in 1972 predated the Watergate hearings, his first campaign for the White House predated commercially available cell phones. Biden is an old-school pol’ in the most classic of terms, and he makes no apologies for it. After all, having a winning record doesn’t really require it.
So when Biden dismisses his skeptics with a machismo “watch me”—as he did Wednesday when asked what he would say to those who don’t think he should run again—it is tempting to treat it as an old man’s delusions. But that would be a mistake; Biden may get Washington better than most, and, at least to his mind, he still has a toehold in U.S. politics that may prove far more durable than anything the D.C. set has found for itself.
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