Joe Biden isn’t going anywhere. His poll numbers are as solid as ever. For all that political commentators have focused elsewhere, not quite believing the avuncular near-octogenarian is really doing this, he’s still the front-runner. Perhaps the lack of media coverage makes some kind of sense: Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have run outstanding campaigns and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg has seen a truly improbable rise. Meanwhile, Biden has been—to put it charitably—unremarkable. He’s avoided interviews and the very few he’s given have been … odd. It hasn’t mattered. Nothing has hurt him in the polls: not the shoulder-rubbing nor the hair-smelling, not the New York Times’ endorsement of not one but two other candidates, not even former President Barack Obama’s obvious lack of enthusiasm for his former vice president.
Sen. Kamala Harris’ criticism of his record on busing didn’t take—he lost a little support from black Americans, yes, but her campaign has since been suspended. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have spent the past two weeks embroiled in a horrifying fight, their fans turning viciously on each other. It seems counterproductive to their mutual interest in progressive causes, but perhaps they’ve given in because they realize, on some level, that no one has found a way to attack the real front-runner, Joe Biden. Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg have elbowed each other on being the “centrist” candidate, and even Hillary Clinton has chimed in to comment on Sanders’ unlikability. But no attack on Biden really seems to take. Even Trump’s requests to not one but two foreign governments—Ukraine and China—to get “dirt” on Hunter Biden in order to help Trump defeat his father have failed to produce much beyond Trump’s own impeachment.
What is astounding is how well Biden’s passivity has worked. Normally, a candidate’s success depends on energy: an ability to stand out, command eyeballs, drive the narrative. But in our current political landscape, Biden’s lack of reaction—and his staff’s rumored efforts to keep him away from the press as much as possible—might accidentally be amounting to something like a superpower. It’s true that Biden’s lack of media appearances has been criticized in some quarters. “They have him in the candidate-protection program,” former Obama adviser David Axelrod told Olivia Nuzzi, of the vice president’s handlers. “I don’t know if you can do that. I don’t know if you can get through a whole campaign that way. Either he can hack it or he can’t hack it. If you’re worried the candidate can hurt himself talking to a reporter, that’s a bad sign.” This has been the conventional wisdom—exposure gets you votes—but Biden might be proving it wrong. In a landscape saturated by the furious exhalations of a president who can’t stop reacting and responding to every new development, restraint might have its charms for an understudied demographic: the American voter who wants nothing more than to tune out.
It’s not clear whether Biden’s nonresponse to various news cycles is a strategy—it seems more likely to be motivated by avoidance—but it’s coming across as a capacity to float above the noise. Biden’s appeal starts to make sense if you think of him as the political equivalent of an inert gas—helium, say. Here is an example: His best moment in the latest Democratic debate came when he was asked about Trump’s attacks on him, because, in answering, Biden actually performed his own nonreactivity. “I’ve been the object of his affections longer than anybody else on this stage,” he said, laughing. The moment was fleeting; Biden went on to ham-handedly brag about his support from the black community. But Biden’s apparent indifference to Trump’s attacks clarified to me why he might be appealing to some voters. As responses go, Biden’s was blessedly nonresponsive. His answer reflected an inclination to shrug off the petty, personalized, poisonous dreck most of us have grown to accept as an unfortunate feature of American politics from which we long to be freed.
There are two theories of what Democratic voters want right now. We’ve been living through a political moment characterized not just by anger but by an endless scream of reaction and response. Trump’s performance is largely legible as a furious reaction to President Barack Obama; he’s tried, with obsessive zeal, to undo everything his predecessor achieved, from the Iran deal to the Affordable Care Act. Trump’s more original initiatives have been reactive too, driven not by vision but resentment: family separations and the “Muslim ban” reflected the wishes of an embattled white conservative base happy to sacrifice things like human rights, an independent judiciary, and a free press if it could punish and dehumanize immigrants. Whether this rage against minorities is motivated by racism, “economic anxiety,” or some mix of the two is a matter of some debate; what it clarifies—on both sides of the aisle—is that most Americans aren’t content. Quality of life has gone down. One theory of how to respond to all this isn’t reactive but proactive: As the left has observed, income inequality is at an all-time high, corporations pay virtually nothing in taxes, and climate change will only accentuate the crises that currently exist. According to candidates like Warren and Sanders, part of the electorate wants change. Tired of the technocratic centrism that has enriched the 1 percent and slowly eroded the hopes of the rest of the country, voters want a system that actually responds to their needs. Achieving such a system will require enormous energy. Warren’s and Sanders’ agendas require work and engagement. (They also have the potential to transform society.)
The other theory is that people are tired. They’re tired of reacting; they’re tired of change; they’re absolutely sick of engaging, emotionally and practically. They don’t want to be glued to the news anymore. They want to be able to safely tune out. This is the group for which the inert gas candidate has some appeal. Trump’s presidency has, for many Democrats, been an unending emergency that has required voters horrified at his actions to throw everything they can—and it’s not much—against an out-of-control executive. The airport protests after the Muslim ban, the uproar over family separations, the Women’s March all reflected an enormous popular will to stop Trump’s government from doing what it threatened to do. With a government unable or unwilling to check or balance itself, the public has had to go into overdrive and react nonstop: People have had to plug so many leaks in this sinking boat that many simply feel depleted. That the plugging of the leaks isn’t really working only exacerbates the exhaustion.
I don’t know what percentage of the electorate wants to ignore the news without fear that the government is committing fresh atrocities in their name, but for them, Biden is the obvious candidate. Obama used to describe his politics in terms of Hope and Change; to plenty of people now, the message that might resonate is closer to Hope and Rest. Warren and Sanders argue, rightly, that there is no time to waste if climate change is to be addressed. They may have energy and anger and (in my view) truth on their side, but to much of the voting public, it may be downright reassuring to have a candidate who refuses to participate in politics on those gladiatorial terms. They just want someone to take charge and give them permission to tune out. If he tunes out a little himself—if he’s a little old, a little muted, and likely to nap—so much the better. Energy no longer feels like a prerequisite.
It’s worth observing here that Biden’s performance of calm, which he tends to deploy on the debate stage, is just that: a performance. Biden isn’t uniformly sedate; he famously called a voter in Iowa a “damn liar” for asking about Hunter Biden’s activities in Ukraine and then challenged that voter to pushups. But because he’s so seldom in the press, he gives the impression of being the composed and drama-free candidate. And Biden’s absence—from the interviews and TV appearances and the intraparty bickering—might be working in his favor. People are tired. Trump may have confirmed the conventional wisdom that there’s no such thing as bad publicity; he drove news cycles not just as a candidate but as president, guaranteeing himself coverage by being inventively awful. His strategy is overstimulation: of himself, of his opponents, of his supporters. But in his wake, there might be a new reality emerging that Biden is uniquely poised to collect on: the politics of exhaustion.
There is some power, after all, in not needing to react. In not tweeting out your thoughts. In not having to rush to defend yourself when unseemly attacks come your way. I’m sure Biden works hard—people who’ve witnessed him connecting with voters one-on-one describe him as a natural—but that’s not the image his candidacy projects. That image isn’t passionate or perfect; his performance in debates consists largely of noting he’s “run out of time” and him leaving questions half-answered. But it is usefully, maybe even appealingly, inert. Indeed, “Sleepy Joe Biden” might not be the insult Trump thinks it is. We might be in a moment when many Americans just want to go back to sleep.
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