Biden should have followed Jimmy Carter’s example

May 9, 2023 2:35 pm

(Photo illustration by Iowa Capital Dispatch via Canva; Carter photo by Thomas J. O’Halloran via Library of Congress; official White House photo of Biden by Adam Schultz)

President Joe Biden announced recently that he will seek reelection. The president and his staff have been saying for weeks that he intended to run again.  The declaration of candidacy was not a surprise, but to me, the timing was questionable.

Most observers accepted the decision to declare now.  The reason was that he must get his campaign staff in place, start raising money (expected to exceed ultimately$2 billion dollars) and preclude anyone else from challenging him in the rigged nomination process he created.

Here’s why I have reservations about the announcements now. First, if a person is a sitting president and cannot raise money when they need it, that individual would not have gotten the job in the first place. Secondly, there is not now and unlikely to be a serious challenger to his reelection bid. Finally, by putting the presidency on the line at this early stage of the election, the president is throwing away one of his biggest assets: the value of incumbency.

Biden said he was running “to finish the job.” I think a more persuasive argument would be simply to keep doing the job. The president was elected in part because he was perceived as a Washington veteran, who could tone down the harsh political debate that plagues our public discussion about problems and solutions.

Most uninvolved, everyday Americans have the same question and that is why the Democrats and Republicans can’t get along. By embracing his quest to keep his job for four more years, Biden effectively steps down from the high perch of being president and enters the political fray, his policies and comments seen more in the context of wanting the job than performing while he has it.

I remember President Jimmy Carter, who was confronted with the worst of times. Inflation today looks mild compared to the 17 and 18% annual rate in 1979.  The Federal Reserve kept raising interest rates higher, pushing unemployment up.  There were long lines at the service stations, with people waiting to buy gas and the helpless national feeling of a time described as “American held hostage.”

Some may not remember, there was revolution in Iran. The American imposed leader, the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, faced with a revolution, fled the country, seeking care for his terminal cancer. The rebellion was led by Ruhollah Khomeini, a militant Muslim leader. He approved and encouraged the storming of the American embassy, resulting in 52 U.S embassy personal being held hostage. Pleas on humanitarian grounds to release them were of no avail and Carter was unable to obtain their release. He even tried a military rescue mission, which failed and resulted in the loss of eight U.S. servicemen, left dead in the Arabian desert.

But even before the Iranian crisis developed, Carter’s national approval rating was a 28% and there were loud calls for Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy to challenge him for the Democratic nomination for president. When Kennedy agreed to do so, he started with a commanding lead in the polls. There is a political lesson in Carter’s response. He simply announced that because of the pressing issues before the nation, he would not campaign, but remain in the White House.

True, he sent Vice President Walter Mondale off to the early states, like Iowa and New Hampshire. But the president remained off the trail himself. Some called this the Rose Garden strategy, because it assumed that the president was sitting in the White House Rose Garden.  Almost immediately, the polls swung, Kennedy got overwhelmed in the early states and Carter was nominated for his second term.

Now, Biden is doing a little bit of Carter in that he is sending his vice president back out on the Mondale trail. But he is doing it as a candidate, not as president. To me, it is dismaying to realize that we will now spend the next 17 months hearing political trashing of Biden’s proposals, which will be inherently seen by his opponents as needing immediate opposition. The opportunity for compromise has been diminished.

There is power in being the incumbent and speaking as leader of the nation, not a political party.  President Biden threw that advantage into the trash can outside the Rose Garden.

This column was originally published by the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.

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Dave Nagle
Dave Nagle

Dave Nagle, of Cedar Falls, is a former Iowa Democratic Party state chairman and three-term U.S. congressman from Iowa.