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Never underestimate Joe Biden

The Hill logo The Hill 3 days ago John Kenneth White, Opinion Contributor
a man wearing a suit and tie: Never underestimate Joe Biden © Getty Images Never underestimate Joe Biden

Over the past few years, finding agreement between Democrats and Republicans has been a mostly futile exercise. One exception is the strange and mistaken bipartisanship when it comes to Joe Biden. From the moment Biden announced his candidacy for president in April 2019, Democrats in-the-know believed his presidential quest would implode - just as it had in 1988 and 2008.

But Biden's rivals underestimated him. From the start, Biden led in the polls, a lead many dismissed as based merely on name recognition. Many saw Biden as a castaway of an outdated and romanticized past. Then-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) criticized Biden for collaborating with Senate segregationists James Eastland and Herman Talmadge, describing it as "hurtful" and "misplaced." Meanwhile, others saw Biden as representing the status quo in a country longing for change. Biden himself gave credibility to the charge, saying "nothing would fundamentally change" in a Biden administration.

But Biden had strong backing from African Americans, a base of support premised upon his civil rights record and association with Barack Obama. The two African American senators in the race, Harris and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), failed to gain traction. In December 2019, Harris ended her campaign, saying she had "no path forward," and Booker followed a month later. Biden's first campaign manager, Greg Schultz, always believed his candidate would accumulate enough delegates to win the nomination thanks to Biden's ardent black support, particularly among older southern voters. Further powering Biden's candidacy was the overwhelming desire of Democrats to find someone who could beat Donald Trump. Thinking like the old-time party bosses, Democratic voters cast ideological compatibility aside in their search for a winner. Given Biden's sizable seven million vote lead over Trump last November - along with the razor-thin results Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin - it's hard to make the case that they were wrong.

After Biden's romp to the nomination, it was the Republicans' turn to underestimate their rival. Trump mocked Biden as "Sleepy Joe" who was locked in his basement, cognitively impaired, protected by staff and just too old to become president. Republicans continue to echo Trump's caricature. An April NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found Republicans frequently use the words "has cognitive issues"; "old and weak"; and "being handled" to describe President Biden.

These Republican descriptors underestimate just how strong Biden is with all voters. For starters, Biden beat an incumbent, becoming only the third person to oust an elected president since the end of World War II. (Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton are the other two.) Journalists Jonathan Allen's and Amie Parnes's book on Biden's 2020 candidacy is titled "Lucky," suggesting Biden's win was due to a convergence of fortunate circumstances. But from the outset, Biden spoke of restoring the "soul of America" - a theme he repeated from his announcement speech to his inaugural address. That resonated, and today Biden is the "fifty-something" president, with his approval hovering at or above the 50-percent mark.

Even more impressive is that voters simply like Joe Biden. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott's acknowledged this in his response to Biden's congressional address when he said, "Our president seems like a good man." Biden's life story - replete with a profound empathy for others forged by his own personal tragedies - clicks with voters. No-one is better on a rope line than Biden, and he has used that strength to transform the weekly presidential address into conversations with voters, giving him an opportunity to say how he will fix their problems.

Biden's likability makes it hard for Republicans to demonize him. Former N.J. Gov. Chris Christie recently called Biden a "liar," a charge unlikely to stick. Among those who approve of Biden, NBC News and The Wall Street Journal poll found the words "not Trump" and "honest" were most popular. Robert Blizzard, a partner with the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, says of Biden: "He's very difficult to pin down one negative thing on him."

Likability matters in politics, and Ronald Reagan proved the point. In 1988, 79 percent of respondents told Gallup that they approved of Reagan as a person. Then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo put it this way: "By his personal conduct when he's shot, when he's told he has cancer, when he goes to Normandy - the way he's deported himself has been a moral instruction to my children." When his two terms ended, 63 percent approved of Reagan's job performance, just eight points below Franklin D. Roosevelt's last measure of approval in 1945.

Like Biden, Reagan's opponents underestimated him. At the start of the 1980 campaign, Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter's chief of staff, thought Reagan would be the easiest to beat. His assessment was based upon watching Reagan stumble into one controversy after another - declaring the Vietnam War to be a "noble cause"; seeing "great flaws" in the theory of human evolution; and claiming trees cause as much pollution as automobiles. As Jordan put it: "For two weeks it was delicious, watching Reagan on the news each night stumble from one controversy to another, doing what we had thought we'd have to do - making him, not the President, the issue." Notably, Reagan's chief strategist, Richard Wirthlin, never underestimated Carter, telling his boss that "Jimmy Carter practices piranha politics - he eats his opponents alive," adding that beating Carter "will be extremely difficult, even unlikely."

In politics, one rule prevails: never underestimate your opponent. Today, Republicans have joined Joe Biden's former Democratic rivals in making a fatal miscalculation. Like "the former guy," as Biden is fond of calling Trump, they do so at their peril.

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America. His latest book is titled "What Happened to the Republican Party?"

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