Biden’s Unexpected Case for Making Presidential History

Published: Dec 13, 2022  |  

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Callaway Climate Insights

Forget Trump on Mount Rushmore; Biden’s legacy is looking most likely to be set down in stone.

Stop gap president. Doddering old fool. Foreign strategy bungler. Spendthrift. U.S. President Joseph Biden has come under historic critique for the handling of his first term. But how about this: one of our greatest presidents?

That’s right. He’s easy to criticize. Joe Biden has always been easy to criticize. Because he’s always been there in the seat of power in Washington, since 1973. But stepping back from the daily news cycle and endless stream of Trump abuse, more got done under the first two years of the Biden presidency than in a generation. Perhaps since Lyndon Johnson. 

A defeat of Trump, and Trumpism. Covid vaccines. A withdrawal from Afghanistan (yes, it was poorly executed). Unprecedented climate legislation. Gains in manufacturing jobs. The first major infrastructure plan in decades. A strong dollar. Restoration of relations with just about every friendly country. A return to normalcy in the White House. A defense of democracy abroad. 

Most importantly, President Biden led his party to one of the best performances in midterm elections in modern history, in effect saving our young Republic from a dangerous tilt toward authoritarianism. Only three presidents in the last century have retained the Senate for their party in midterm elections while losing less than ten seats in the House of Representatives, according to Axios: Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1934, John F. Kennedy in 1962, and George W. Bush in 2002—a year after 9/11. 

OK, Biden falls asleep at odd times. So did Reagan. But when’s the last time a President spoke at a United Nations summit in Egypt one day and met the Chinese leader in Bali the next, as he did during COP27 and the G20 last month? His energy is actually unsurpassed. 

Most of our legendary presidents—Lincoln, Jefferson, FDR, Kennedy, Democrats and Republicans alike—were reviled while in office. Lincoln had to sneak into Washington for his inauguration for fear of assassination ahead of time. Biden is no different. 

This is not to compare Joe Biden to them, except to say that, in America, presidential fame often comes in hindsight. It also coincides with periods of great upheaval in society, such as the one we’re gone through since 2016. Barack Obama certainly made history, in that he was the first Black man elected, but his two terms did not accomplish much, aside from his major healthcare reform. 

Until the midterms, most Democrats favored finding a new candidate to lead them in the country’s presidential race in 2024, citing the fact that Biden will be 82, making him the oldest president in history. But because of their performance in the midterms, some strategists are rethinking this math.

A sitting president historically has a built-in advantage in elections, and while Biden’s agenda May by stymied by a divided Congress in the next two years, the success of his first two years might continue to yield results in coming months, from the transition to renewable energy to infrastructure projects to gains in manufacturing jobs. 

A soft economic landing in 2023, instead of a severe recession, could also help. In foreign policy, we are now looking at democracy protests in Iran and China. Not since the fall of Communism with the Soviet Union in 1989 have protests like this been so strong. How the war in Ukraine plays out will also have a big impact. 

Much will depend on whether Biden runs for re-election, which at this point is looking increasingly likely. The key, his advisors say, is to avoid petty party politics and play the role of the global statesman as events shake out in Europe and China. 

I am not a huge Biden fan. But in presidential history, there is an element of being in the right place at the right time. On that score, President Joe Biden leads the US at a junction in our nation’s history which could come to be seen as one of the pivotal moments when the grand democratic experiment survived to fight another day, and regained its footing on the world stage. 

There is a news clip that was widely circulated on the night Biden won the election in 2020 from ABC News on Election Night in 1980, when Ronald Reagan became president in a Republican victory. Then-revered TV news anchor David Brinkley asked a young political reporter named Jeff Greenfield who he thought might be a rising star for the Democrats now that the Republicans were in the White House. Greenfield suggested a young senator from Delaware named Joe Biden. 

“Joe Biden?” Brinkley said, then shook his head and chuckled dismissively.

Former President Trump will never get his likeness carved on Mount Rushmore. But Joe Biden’s case for presidential history is being laid increasingly, stone by stone.

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