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The Obama Years Are Gone, and Biden Ain’t Bringing Them Back

Trump won on toxic nostalgia in 2016 — now Democrats want their own fantasy of the past

When all is said and done for the 2020 election, we are likely to recall some words that came not from a candidate, but Barack Obama. Early in 2019, as Joe Biden weighed a run at the White House, Obama reportedly told his well-liked vice president not to jump into the race from any sense of obligation. “You don’t have to do this, Joe, you really don’t,” he said, according to the New York Times. The remark hinted at both a fear that Biden wasn’t up to the task — that he was beyond his prime, with a résumé of disastrous primary campaigns — and skepticism of the establishment forces then pressuring him to carry the torch that Hillary Clinton had dropped.

Less remembered, though more relevant now, were Obama’s instructions to Biden’s circle: They were to ensure that the former veep didn’t “embarrass himself” or “damage his legacy.” That ship has long since set sail. Between Biden’s verbal incoherence, bizarre fibs, failing memory, aggression with voters, inappropriate behavior toward women, deeply tainted record and dismal policies for the future, he has all but assured that we will remember him as a man who overstayed his moment on the national stage, too proud to step aside and help his party behind the scenes instead.

What’s funny (or would be, if American democracy weren’t crumbling to radioactive ash before our eyes) is that in 2008, he became Obama’s running mate to “conjure the comforting past” for voters apprehensive of an African-American president. Now he aims to win the top office the same way, yet the past he seeks to conjure is less than a decade old.  

The power of nostalgia can’t be dismissed. Biden had a big Super Tuesday as other moderates dropped out and threw their support behind him; millennial ex-candidate Pete Buttigieg announced that the 77-year-old would “bring back dignity to the White House.” Trump’s “Make America Great Again” concept tapped into toxic resentment and regressive impulses on the right. That parallel should worry us, because “things used to be normal” offers nothing to a younger base that doesn’t remember and isn’t invested in a prior state of affairs, nor can it hope to inspire the people who were victimized, disenfranchised and cast aside before Trump showed up.

Nominating Biden would also lead to an election in which neither party dares to look forward — something likely unprecedented in modern presidential politics, which have usually focused on challenges and opportunities for progress ahead. This is a recipe for stagnation. History is history. You can’t bottle and sell it at the ballot box, except as a transparently bogus miracle cure.

The #Resistance types who criticize Trump daily for blathering about a lost version of American life have lined up behind a bumbling Democrat who projects the illusion of a liberal equivalent. He promises, at best, to be a personable executive who, while doing little to reform health care and immigration, tackle inequality or help the suffering and marginalized, gives you the space to enjoy your mimosa brunch with a clear conscience. Trouble is, it’s exactly this kind of complacency that allowed Republicans to conquer state and local governments, as well as the courts, with reactionaries pushing extreme agendas.

This is one reason leftists have little love for Obama’s administration; Biden, sure to be a far weaker figurehead or caretaker in the Oval Office, would simply watch that erosion continue, with a cabinet of 2008-2016 veterans running on a hamster wheel to nowhere.

And that’s if he wins.

Biden’s vulnerabilities play easily into Trump’s backward-facing style of campaigning. Not only will he project the substantive allegations of his own sexual misconduct, corruption and mental instability onto creepy, sleepy, crooked Joe — he’ll meanwhile revive the racialized contempt for Obama that was his entry point for worming into the electoral discourse.

In short, Biden would prefer to run on his image as Barack’s best friend, but Trump won in 2016 by exploiting a hostile white minority’s urge to tear down whatever (and whomever) bore Obama’s imprimatur. He can do that again. On Biden’s side, though? No structure, no strategy, and a whole lot of naïve fan fiction:

It’s amazing and dispiriting that so few have been humbled enough by 2016 to doubt their certainty in any 2020 result. But even if you’re persuaded that Biden beats Trump, and that this is reason enough to coalesce around him, it’s ridiculous to assume the celebratory return to a status quo that is irretrievable and was always insufficient. Is it too much to ask that the folks endorsing him — particularly Democratic leaders — figure out any other reason he deserves to sit atop our fractured republic?

Probably. Which is reason enough to see that he doesn’t.