His analysis, however, is the kind of reassurance that is only soothing to people who already have come to terms with the knowledge that they are in a dire situation. Let’s not lose hope: These experimental drugs seem to be potentially effective in certain types of patients. We’ll need you to sign a waiver.
The most striking element of Klain’s tweet was how it underlined something that happened so gradually people could easily not notice: the reversal of a central pillar of Biden’s strategy.
At the start of his presidency, Biden’s promise was that he would vindicate political normality. He and his party would thrive as Donald Trump and Trumpism receded and soon became irrelevant.
Now the barely concealed premise is that the best hope for Biden and his party is if Trump and the most radical and raffish elements of Trumpism remain front and center.
The only way Macron won emphatically with approval ratings that low was against an opponent that a majority of French voters found an unthinkable alternative. (Even so, he was pelted with tomatoes at an appearance days after his victory.) That’s what Democrats are hoping for as well, in the mid-term elections, when they will try to put Trumpism on the ballot, and in 2024, when Trump himself may be on the ballot once more.
Biden and congressional Democrats surely find winning ugly — put aside any disappointment in us to focus on how frightening the other choice is — a more appealing prospect than losing ugly. In any event, this is always a common political strategy, hardly a recent innovation.
So the real question is how credible Klain’s appraisal is: Does Macron’s victory offer relevant insights into American political dynamics in the three years ahead?
There are good reasons to be cautious about how deep the similarities run, but there are undoubtedly surface commonalities. Macron’s support sagged after his 2017 victory as he discovered how lonely the center can be in an angry and agitated age. The left recoiled at his business-oriented policies and tepid progressivism; the right regarded him as the epitome of an affluent, elite, cosmopolitan class that is allegedly indifferent to the cultural values and economic challenges of the working class, especially in rural areas.
Suffering the fangs of both left and right does sound a lot like Biden’s problems here. Macron’s successful remedy — spend lots of money and rhetorical effort in an effort to shore up his left flank, while trying to project empathy with people across the spectrum who feel they are falling behind — is one Biden is trying to emulate in the United States. Macron and Biden are equally sincere in believing their opponents represent an existential threat to Western alliances like NATO and the European Union, and to liberal democracy broadly.
Biden’s approval rating, hovering around 40 percent in most polls, is actually a shade better than Macron’s. His party, meanwhile, must buck historic trends to avoid loss of congressional control this fall. Any Democrat taking solace in this week’s French experience, however, should probably inspect the merchandise carefully before buying.
Of course, one doesn’t need to go overseas to find plenty of examples over the past generation of politicians with very bleak approval ratings soaring to election. In fact, in an era of highly polarized, intensely combative politics, it is hard for any national figure to maintain majority approval for long. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all faced sustained periods in which it looked like they were facing steep climbs to reelection; all three won second terms. Trump won his first term despite inspiring deep antipathy from half of the electorate. While he lost a second term in 2020, he won millions of new voters over his 2016 total.
Why aren’t these bounce-backs, just like Macron’s bounce-back, a good sign for Biden and Democrats?
There are two potential reasons. One is that all these other politicians — even at moments when their approval ratings were below 50 percent — retained certain cadres of supporters who were intensely enthusiastic about them. It’s a lot easier for a politician to live with a low ceiling of support if they have a comparatively high floor.
Surely, Biden has some people who feel intensely about him in absolute terms — he generates passion based on his own values and leadership style — but there is no evidence they exist in abundance. In 2020 he won the nomination mostly because people found him at best satisfactory in relative terms — he was a comfortable choice in comparison to other Democrats, and an urgent choice in comparison to Trump.
That means the passion he must generate in 2022 to help his party avoid or mitigate congressional losses, and in 2024 if he is again on the ballot, must come from somewhere else. Given his troubles holding together a Democratic coalition stretching from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) — with neither wing feeling especially enthusiastic about his record to date — this means the passion for him must once again be supplied by Trump.
There are a couple problems with that. One is that the off-year elections of 2021 showed that hanging the Trump mantle on Republicans not named Trump or not intimately connected to him is hard. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, keeping Trump at a distance while never repudiating him, was able to keep the former president’s supporters in his fold while also winning a good share of suburban voters who backed Biden in 2020.
The other problem is the same one Biden confronted in 2020. The expressions of contempt toward Trump that rally anti-Trump voters also help energize pro-Trump voters. This may have also been a factor also in the Macron-Le Pen contest. In a sequel to their 2017 contest, Le Pen softened some of the hard edges of her far-right persona and increased her vote by eight points to win 41.5 percent of the vote.
Yes, Macron stared at his political grave and managed not to fall in it. But he is a young and highly resourceful leader — more like a French version of the first-term Clinton or Pete Buttigieg than a French version of Biden. Of course, Biden, too, has previously faced existential political challenges and survived.
How do you say “Hmmm….” in French?