Joe Biden could be a great president, but can he win?

Joe Biden could be a great president, but can he win?
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Joe BidenJoe BidenDonald Trump and Joe Biden create different narratives for the election Poll: Biden widens lead over Trump to 10 points Biden: 'We are a nation in pain, but we must not allow this pain to destroy us' MORE could make a great president, but he’d have to defy history to do it. All signs point toward the former vice president making a presidential run, but to win Biden will have to throw out most of his past political lessons and learn some new tricks. 

As a U.S. senator, Biden participated in every serious policy debate of the past 40 years. As vice president, he helped bring the country back from the brink of financial ruin and protected President Obama’s flank. The Obama history will help him with African-Americans, but many Democrats fret that Obama’s tenure was marked by too many half-measures and not a full-throated liberalism. Biden will have to give these hungry progressives a vision of the future independent of Obama’s.  


There is no Democrat more experienced than Joe Biden running for president, but experience rarely has been a decisive factor in how Americans pick presidents. The country chose a one-term Georgia governor over President Gerald Ford. Arkansas Gov. Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonTop Democratic pollster advised Biden campaign to pick Warren as VP How Obama just endorsed Trump Trump, Biden signal how ugly the campaign will be MORE beat President George H.W. Bush, who had been vice president, CIA director, emissary to China and a congressman — even after a resounding military victory. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe battle of two Cubas Obama on the death of George Floyd: 'This shouldn't be "normal" in 2020 America' Democrats gear up to hit GOP senators on DACA MORE vanquished long-serving senator and war hero John McCainJohn Sidney McCainHow Obama just endorsed Trump Former Texas Rep. Sam Johnson dies at 89 Trump's needless nastiness and cruelty will catch up with him MORE, and Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDonald Trump and Joe Biden create different narratives for the election The hollowing out of the CDC Poll: Biden widens lead over Trump to 10 points MORE beat the previously most qualified candidate of our generation, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump campaign launches Asian Pacific Americans coalition Van Jones: A 'white, liberal Hillary Clinton supporter' can pose a greater threat to black Americans than the KKK Taylor Swift slams Trump tweet: 'You have the nerve to feign moral superiority before threatening violence?' MORE, former secretary of State, U.S. senator and first lady.

Also, it’s sobering to remember no current or former Democratic vice president (who was not elevated by death of the president) has ever won the White House in the history of the modern Democratic Party.

I am a Joe Biden fan and I’m not alone. Polls show the former vice president with a big lead over his competitors. However, in every presidential cycle since 1972, the candidate leading in national polls this early lost the nomination except for three: Walter Mondale (1984), Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreCNN coronavirus town hall to feature science author David Quammen, 'Empire' actress Taraji Henson Top Democratic pollster advised Biden campaign to pick Warren as VP Melania Trump to appear on CNN coronavirus town hall Thursday night MORE (2000) and Hillary Clinton (2016). Ahem.

Age ain’t nothing but a number” but Biden will be nearly 78 years old on Election Day 2020. He won’t be the only septuagenarian. Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersExpanding tax credit for businesses retaining workers gains bipartisan support The battle of two Cubas Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Ro Khanna MORE (I-Vt.) will be 79 and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Memo: Trump ratchets up Twitter turmoil Hillicon Valley: Twitter flags Trump tweet for 'glorifying violence' | Cruz calls for criminal investigation into Twitter over alleged sanctions violations | Senators urge FTC to investigate TikTok child privacy issues Warren condemns 'horrific' Trump tweet on Minneapolis protests, other senators chime in MORE (D-Mass.) will be 71. Democrats have picked older presidential nominees before, but it didn’t turn out well. John KerryJohn Forbes KerryThe continuous whipsawing of climate change policy Budowsky: United Democrats and Biden's New Deal Overnight Energy: 600K clean energy jobs lost during pandemic, report finds | Democrats target diseases spread by wildlife | Energy Dept. to buy 1M barrels of oil MORE was 60 in 2004. Hillary Clinton was 69 in 2016. But non-incumbent Democrats who have won the White House have been first-time candidates, decades younger than Biden. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE was 43 years old; Jimmy Carter was 52, Bill Clinton was 46 and Barack Obama was 47. Something about a new warrior, unencumbered with years of partisan struggle, in touch with the moment and looking forward with a brighter vision, enchants Democrats. Biden will need to find that fresh voice.

Let’s be frank. When Biden ran for president before, the Democratic Party was more dominated by older, white voters. The modern Democratic Party is younger. Millennials play a strong role. It’s browner, too. African-American and Latino voters are nearly dominant in several early contests, especially South Carolina and Nevada. And women are ascendant. Democrats sent over 100 women to Congress last year and four of their seven new governors are women. These voters listen to more Beyonce and Cardi B than Carole King and Joni Mitchell.

This will be a tougher race for Biden than many expect. He can be the party’s champion if he changes with the times. He needs a team that understands how to wage a campaign in the modern Democratic Party — persuading lapsed progressives to turn out as much as getting soft moderates to switch. Genuine progressives who understand the policy and rhetorical minefields of the left should help. And many of those people will be more ethnically diverse than Biden’s inner circle has been.

Biden has to take on economic policy with fervor, proving mainstream progressives can solve problems for working-class and poor people too. He should stand up for social justice and fight for innovative, economically responsible policies. That doesn’t mean trying to split the baby with conservatives. Triangulation won’t sell. A successful mainstream progressive will name policies that would positively impact women, rural Americans, people of color and religious minorities, not couch positions in code words meant to make unreachable conservative voters feel more comfortable.  

America needs to democratize capitalism, helping more working-class and poor people get the skills and open the doors to build more assets, earn more money and pursue more entrepreneurial and innovative endeavors. We need to disrupt the opportunity caste system that allocates most of America's benefits to a small group of wealthy or educated elites. Those benefits shouldn’t be determined by heredity and cronyism more than ability and grit. And the country needs to protect women in the workplace, the rights of African-Americans in the criminal justice system, Latino and Muslim immigrants and LGBTQ Americans just trying to be full citizens. 

Joe Biden can be the champion for the modern Democratic Party, but to win he must defy history and become the change Democrats desire.

Jamal Simmons is a Democratic strategist who has worked for the Clinton White House, Congress and the Clinton, Gore and Obama presidential campaigns. He is a liberal host for The Hill’s new Hill.TV video division.