He knows where he’s not wanted and when it is time to go away.
In the closing weeks of the campaign, Biden largely avoided the battleground states that will (eventually) determine which party controls the Senate. Instead he shored up Democrats in blue states who were in trouble because of crime and inflation, but where the president’s job approval ratings were a touch higher than the national average.
The two exceptions were Pennsylvania, where Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman had his own needs to cut a low profile and rely on surrogates, and Florida, where the election was never really in doubt but Democrats wanted to see Biden inveighing against the GOP triumvirate of Trump, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), and Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL).
“I plan on doing whatever he wants me to do for him,” Biden replied, suggesting that may include continuing to stay away if that is best.
Trump was generous with his time, if not money, on the campaign trail, rallying for Republicans in the toughest Senate races. Some of those candidates even won Tuesday night.
But by doing so, Trump often made the races about himself, just as Biden and the Democrats wanted.
When Trump campaigned for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), the headlines were about his exclusion of DeSantis from the rally lineup and their subsequent dueling events. Trump’s rhetoric about DeSantis and other potential 2024 Republican rivals has since degenerated into the indefensible.
A rally for Hillbilly Elegy author JD Vance was dominated by rumors that Trump would announce his third presidential run at the event. Though Trump refrained from doing so, he heavily teased a Tuesday announcement that is widely expected to mark the beginning of his 2024 campaign.
Either way, the coverage was dominated by Trump’s ambitions — precisely where Biden and the Democrats wanted them, but not the Republicans.
Vance and Rubio won anyway. Other Republicans were not so lucky.
Exit polls indicate that Biden played a smaller-than-expected role in the election. “Let’s be clear: This election is not a referendum,” the president told a Democratic National Committee rally in Maryland, of all places, the night before the election. “It’s a choice. It’s a choice between two very different visions of America.”
All this redounded to the Democrats’ benefit electorally. Biden’s job approval ratings remain poor. Those same exit polls revealed deep dissatisfaction with the direction of the country, the impact of Biden’s policies on the economy, and the choices that voters will face if Biden and Trump both run in 2024.
One man made the midterm elections about himself. The other tried to change the subject to almost anything else. The latter approach, more or less, won.
The White House had steadfastly defended its approach to the midterm elections, arguing that the high profile Trump and former President Barack Obama cut on the campaign trail led to major losses for their respective parties in 2018 and 2010. Chief of staff Ron Klain asked an interviewer why anyone would be surprised they didn’t want to replicate failed strategies.
In fact, they stuck with what had largely worked for them in the past.
Biden won the 2020 presidential election while holding few events and making himself scarce on the trail, citing the pandemic. He was mocked as “Basement Biden” and “Hidin’ Biden.” But the end result was that it minimized his exposure and opportunities for gaffes. Now he is on track to become the nation’s first octogenarian president.
To be sure, the media allowed this strategy to work for Biden and Fetterman in a way that they likely would not have for a similarly situated Republican facing questions about age or infirmity. But the lack of vanity is a starting point.
After months of legislative inaction, particularly the failure of the multitrillion-dollar partisan Build Back Better bill, Biden contracted COVID-19 and retreated to quarantine. The White House also reduced its involvement in the reconciliation bill negotiating process.
The end result was a deal struck between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) that involved spending considerably less money and was rebranded as the Inflation Reduction Act. It passed and Biden signed it into law.
That began a flurry of legislative activity over the summer, much of it bipartisan, that led to a modest recovery in Biden’s approval ratings as disaffected liberals came home.
None of this speaks well of Biden’s vaunted ability to lead. But he has shown a willingness to follow or get out of the way.
Democrats have benefited.
Trump should, but likely will not, take notice.