By most all accounts, Joe Biden is cruising. Ostensibly the Democratic favorite, he has led—usually by large numbers—in almost every poll since he entered the 2020 presidential race in April. He has seemed to outlast concerns about his age, his long, sketchy political record, and his suitability to lead a changing Democratic Party. Hits from rival Dems have come—he had to swiftly abandon his decades-long support of the discriminatory Hyde Amendment after a nearly universal outcry—but they have not had a significant effect on his candidacy. He has spent much of the early electoral season acting as if he has already won the nomination.
As The New York Times reported on Monday, Biden has spent most of the last several days off the campaign trail, even as his rivals for the nomination—there are twenty-two of them—criss-crossed the early primary states. He has paid lip service to retail politics, but has spent most of his social time courting big money donors on Wall Street. When pressed about his campaign (or lack thereof) he reminds the press that voters care about electability—and, more subtly, that he is considered the most “electable.”
“Who is most likely to be able to beat President Trump?” he asked rhetorically. “Because if that doesn’t happen, nothing changes.”
It is a variation on the age-old Rose Garden strategy. That approach led incumbents to wrap themselves in the trappings of the presidency, reminding voters of the power they held without dirtying their hands on the grubby business of campaigning. Incumbents have used this approach time and time again, from FDR to Barack Obama. (It doesn’t always work, of course—just ask Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush, who all unsuccessfully employed it.) The idea is simple: Do everything you can to remind voters that you are in charge and that everyone else is a pretender.
Biden is up to something similar, barely even paying attention to his rivals, and acting almost as if he’s still vice president. “The more time he’s explaining his record, the more trouble he’s going to get into,” Democratic strategist Jim Hodges told The New York Times. “The more time he’s comparing the Obama-Biden administration to Trump-Pence, the better off he is. That’s a classic strategy.” But Biden, of course, isn’t still vice president—he’s a 76-year-old who has been more or less retired for over two years—and he lacks the bully pulpit that office would afford. Instead, he’s trying a Rose Garden strategy without the Rose Garden.
Biden’s approach may very well be born of weakness rather than strength. His penchant for putting his foot in his mouth is as great a liability as ever. But he also now has to answer for 40 years of legislative baggage on abortion, race, finance, and his disastrous handling of sexual harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas during the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Biden may have more to lose by campaigning at this juncture than he has to gain.
So, instead, he campaigns as the presumptive nominee—one not particularly interested in even acknowledging his fellow candidates (it’s quite possible that he can’t even name all of them). Asked to comment on a recent speech by Senator Bernie Sanders about democratic socialism and FDR—a speech aimed, in part, at showcasing what makes the Vermont Independent different from Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren—he gave an answer that can only be described as a “verbal shrug.”
“I just think we’ve got a lot of really good candidates out there and making the case, and I don’t put a whole lot in terms of labels,” Biden told reporters. “I just think that if you think about it, the vast majority of members who are running, the folks who were running now, are all kind of on the same page.”
Sanders, Biden added, is “sincere about what he thinks, and I think he should go out and say it.”
There are, of course, colossal and obvious differences between the democratic socialist Sanders and the Democratic insider Biden, but for now Biden doesn’t have to bother with explaining them. Or with delineating any of his positions. He may not have the Rose Garden, but he has the trappings of the frontrunner, and he is using every opportunity to communicate the fact that he is leading—and, as a consequence, that every other Democrat is trailing.
But the Rose Garden strategy works best when you can use the presidency to communicate something about your candidacy. President Trump has used it literally—giving eleven speeches in the garden itself in the last five months alone, but also using (as have presidents before him) Air Force One, the presidential seal, and his custom-tailored POTUS windbreaker as a kind of immersive Rose Garden dark ride, complete with twists, turns, the power of the office, and lots of branded merch. Others have used the approach to dole out goodies and tout progress in key states.
But Biden doesn’t have any of that—at least not right now. In its place, Biden’s campaign is all about telling voters that they can unwind the past two and a half years and return to the halcyon days when his old boss was president. It is probably the same strategy that Biden would have used had he run in 2016; it is similar to the one employed by Hillary Clinton, who made the case that her presidency would represent a sort of third term for Obama. It’s an argument that his rivals, to be fair, have struggled to counter. But it still feels out of place (quite literally), shallow, and, given Biden’s lack of campaigning, a bit lazy. As a blueprint for governance, let’s just say this strategy lacks promise. Sometimes it helps to have an actual Rose Garden.