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

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

Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse Republican calls second bout of COVID-19 'far more challenging' Conflicting school mask guidance sparks confusion Biden: Pathway to citizenship in reconciliation package 'remains to be seen' 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 ClintonCould Andrew Cuomo — despite scandals — be re-elected because of Trump? Biden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe Biden hits new low in Gallup poll 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 ObamaEmergency infrastructure needed to keep Americans safe: Public media Kavanaugh conspiracy? Demands to reopen investigation ignore both facts and the law Congress is to blame for the latest ruling on DACA MORE vanquished long-serving senator and war hero John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain on Pelosi, McCarthy fight: 'I think they're all bad' Democrats seek to counter GOP attacks on gas prices Biden nominates Jeff Flake as ambassador to Turkey MORE, and Donald TrumpDonald TrumpRonny Jackson, former White House doctor, predicts Biden will resign McCarthy: Pelosi appointing members of Jan. 6 panel who share 'pre-conceived narrative' Kinzinger denounces 'lies and conspiracy theories' while accepting spot on Jan. 6 panel MORE beat the previously most qualified candidate of our generation, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe Shontel Brown gaining ground against Nina Turner in Ohio: poll Biden hits trail for McAuliffe in test of his political brand 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 GoreKamala Harris's unprecedented challenge Gore warns of 'yawning gap' between long-term climate goals and near-term action plans Trump-allied GOP chairs turn on fellow Republicans 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 SandersTo break the corporate tax logjam, tax overinflated CEO pay Will Pence primary Trump — and win? Grassley pressured to run as Democrats set sights on Iowa MORE (I-Vt.) will be 79 and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWill Pence primary Trump — and win? Kavanaugh conspiracy? Demands to reopen investigation ignore both facts and the law Biden signals tough stance on tech with antitrust picks MORE (D-Mass.) will be 71. Democrats have picked older presidential nominees before, but it didn’t turn out well. John KerryJohn KerryEquilibrium/ Sustainability — Presented by NextEra Energy — Clean power repurposes dirty power No. 2 State Department official to travel to China amid tensions US and Germany launch climate partnership 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.