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Opinion: Joe Biden, the placeholder president: How to explain his first-year woes

Make no mistake, this is the way it was always going to go

President Joe Biden sits in the White House in Washington.
President Joe Biden sits in the South Court Auditorium at the White House on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021, in Washington, D.C.
Yuri Gripas, Abaca Press via TNS

The headlines as of late have not been great for President Joe Biden.

“There’s no magic in the Oval Office right now,” says one, quoting a Senate Democrat.

“Joe Biden ‘Asleep’ at Climate Summit Sparks Wave of Criticism and Sympathy,” reads another.

“Tight Virginia race becomes referendum on Biden presidency,” according to another.

And finally, there’s this: “Poll shows Democrats want to replace Biden on the ballot in 2024.”

Yikes, you might say.

The new NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll shows Democrats are split 41 to 41 on whether Democrats have a better chance of holding onto the presidency in 2024 if Biden’s the nominee or if someone else is. When Democratic-leaning independents are included, only 36% say he’s the best choice, and 44% say someone else is.

Upon first glance that is a jarring and slightly embarrassing revelation, especially considering Biden’s only been on the job for just under a year.

But stalled negotiations in Congress, two unwieldy Democratic senators, a divided Democratic Party, an intransigent Republican Party, a disastrous and deadly exit from Afghanistan, border visit gaffes, a clumsy deal on submarines, an inconsistent vice president, and, perhaps most importantly, rising inflation, have all made Biden’s first year far from a success.

That some Democrats are eyeing a replacement is unsurprising. It’s also not a new idea; it’s actually how he got elected.

The word “placeholder” may sound like something of a diss, but there’s no shame in the political practicality behind it — especially when it comes to Biden and his presidency.

It’s been used countless times, by both Democrats and Republicans, pundits and voters, to describe Biden’s “transitional” role following former President Donald Trump and preceding, well, someone else, going all the way back to his early campaigning days.

For many voters on the left and in the middle, the urgency to oust a dangerous demagogue like Trump put Biden’s electability and experience at the top of the list, but with caveats.

“He can come in here and fix what is broken right now,” said one voter at a Biden speech in South Carolina in May of 2019. “And maybe pick a vice president that’s a little bit progressive?”

The idea that Biden might be a one-term president was, in fact, so baked in the cake that the political class openly speculated that he’d only serve one term, that his age meant his vice president, Kamala Harris might well be his “heir apparent,” that she’d run in 2024, and was “ready to go.”

This is not the way you talk about a president you think will be around a while.

For many voters on the left — as well as voters like me, who chose a Democrat for the first time in their lives because Trump was so ruinous to the conservative movement and the country — Biden was merely a way out.

He was politically experienced, and wouldn’t require on-the-job training. He was, by all accounts, a decent and moral human being — a refreshing change of pace from the last guy. And he was, above all else, the most likely candidate to beat Trump.

This was the bargain. Biden wasn’t ever going to be a transformational president. He wasn’t going to be the leader of the Democratic Party for decades to come. He wasn’t even, perhaps, going to be a top performer, given all kinds of circumstances, from his age to the Democrats’ razor-thin majority in Congress.

This isn’t a matter of resetting expectations — this is the way many voters described their choice in 2020. Most progressives thought Biden was too moderate. Moderates thought he’d cave to progressives. Never-Trump Republicans just wanted him to oust Trump. Most Americans worried about his age. Biden wasn’t so much a choice as a calculation, one that a majority of Americans were clearly happy to make.

So the “news” that Democrats might prefer someone else to run in 2024 should hardly be news at all.

In a better development for Biden, his average approval rating is steady at 43%. Trump’s average approval from 2017-2021 was just 41%. George W. Bush spent plenty of time in the 30s, and Barack Obama was no stranger to the low 40s.

And there’s time for Biden to bounce back, especially if he gets some policy and legislation wins — which may be on the horizon, as Democrats in Congress stumble ever closer to reaching a deal on infrastructure and “Build Back Better” legislation.

But make no mistake, this is the way it was always going to go. Placeholders by definition aren’t meant to be permanent. Now, as for whose place Biden is holding — that’s another question for Democrats. With Trump looming large on the horizon, it’s likely the most important one.

S.E. Cupp is the host of “S.E. Cupp Unfiltered” on CNN.