Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.
On Tuesday, President Joe Biden announced he is running for reelection. And he appears to be running largely unopposed in his party. Yes, there are a few marginal candidates who have tossed their hats in the ring, but no prominent Democrat has yet to step forward.
That’s understandable – at a moment of rising right-wing extremism, and in the face of what could be a redo of the 2020 presidential election, Democrats who care more about the nation than about power are wise to line up behind Biden.
I count myself among those Democrats. While I would love to see a progressive in the White House, I am terrified of another Donald Trump presidency. And I just don’t see any Democrat in the field whose victory seems assured enough, or who is even enough of a known entity, to roll the dice on.
But Biden’s lack of major opposition is also frustrating. He is a lifelong moderate, but thanks in part to promises he was pushed to make on the campaign trail in 2020, he’s been a surprisingly progressive president, particularly when it comes to investments that help the working class. By many measures, he is the most progressive president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
But with no progressive Democratic challenger, there’s no one pushing him left in this election cycle. With a Republican likely running to the far right, Biden’s impulse may be to hew to a middle that has been pulled rightward.
That’s bad news for Americans. We hear a lot about “polarization” and “extremism,” but the truth is that it’s largely one party that has grown extreme: the GOP. According to Pew Research Center, Republicans in Congress have moved much further to the right than Democrats have moved to the left. And while both parties have fewer elected moderates than they did a few decades ago, the Republican Party has become far more conservative.
At the same time, conservatism has been taken to further extremes. According to an analysis in the Journal of Democracy, right-wing groups are now responsible for most of the political violence in the United States. Data compiled by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and then analyzed by the Washington Post in 2021, showed that from 2015 – the year Trump announced his candidacy – to 2021, “right-wing extremists have been involved in 267 plots or attacks and 91 fatalities.” By contrast, left-wing extremists were involved in 66 incidents, which were associated with 19 deaths.
For as much as conservatives and some moderates hand-wring about the extreme left, there are virtually no left-wing extremists in elected office. While some on the right claim the progressive congresswomen of “the Squad” are extremists, their views are well within the normal right-left spectrum seen in most economically stable democracies, including this one.
These congresswomen do not cheer on political violence, encourage the overthrow of the government, push for an authoritarian system over a democratic one or argue that American economic and political systems should be crushed and replaced with communism. At their most radical, they argue for European-style social democracy, with more aid to the American people and more taxes and checks on corporations and the wealthy.
By contrast, the Republican Party is teeming with people who have views far more extreme than even those of many conservative voters, whether the issue is environmental protection or abortion or gun control or immigration. The GOP tolerates members who stand accused of sexual assault, threaten their colleagues and spout conspiracy theories that range from the simply bizarre to the grossly anti-Semitic.
And a troubling number of Republicans have utterly failed to uphold American democracy when it faced its most significant challenge in years: A Trumpian conspiracy theory that the 2020 election was stolen, followed by a violent attack on the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the results of a free and fair election. In this crucial moment, 147 Republicans in Congress voted to overturn the results of that election.
Whatever you think of the policy positions held by progressive Democratic congresswomen, there is simply no comparison here, which is what makes the 2024 election so important.
If Biden spends the next year and a half running against a Republican – instead of competing in a Democratic primary – the incentive will be for him to move right in an effort to capture Republican and Republican-leaning independent voters. But it would be better for the country if Biden staked out a solid position on the center-left, which would better represent the interests of both the Democratic base and the moderates who want to see democracy restored.
There is also the age question. Biden is elderly, and while plenty of people can work into their 80s, Biden is already the nation’s oldest president ever at 80. There are real concerns about how effective any person can be – physically and cognitively – when they are working one of the world’s most demanding jobs.
And finally, there’s the problem – a big one – that Biden just isn’t all that popular. According to a new NBC News poll, 70% of Americans say that Biden shouldn’t run again, with about half saying that his age is a major factor. Fewer – 60% – say the same about Trump.
That said, while Biden lacks the fervent base that Trump enjoys, he also lacks the red-hot hatred that so many liberals and moderates feel toward Trump. Biden isn’t all that inspiring, but he’s also not all that polarizing.
And perhaps most importantly: Who else is there?
Right now, the two leading Republican candidates are Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the latter of whom has not even officially declared he is running. Either of them would make for a catastrophic presidency, and both pose an existential threat to American democracy. Trump has already demonstrated just how dangerous he can be; he’s already gearing up for an even more authoritarian round two.
And DeSantis has used his power in Florida to go on a spree of anti-intellectualism, banning books, curtailing free speech and kneecapping higher education, while also doubling down on authoritarian overreach, including stripping women and trans people of their fundamental rights to their own bodies.
For Democrats, there’s no other obvious superstar, and no one who I’d bet on in a contest for the future of the country. Vice President Kamala Harris has not excited the Democratic base, and her time as the number two has yielded few noteworthy accomplishments. The US Senate is a stale gerontocracy, and the few inspiring potential candidates in that chamber (Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts) are elderly or, in the case of Warren, have unfortunately failed to make headway with primary voters in the past.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is an exciting figure, but despite a stunning reelection victory, remains relatively marginal on the national scene. Wes Moore, the newly-elected governor of Maryland, is similarly inspiring, but a presidential run too soon could turn him into a quick has-been rather than a rising star. And, in any case, Whitmer and Moore aren’t going to risk their reputations and the party’s goodwill to run against Biden.
Now that doesn’t mean I don’t see room to critique Biden’s first term. His response to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has left much to be desired, and while his administration hasn’t been totally absent, it also hasn’t gotten creative enough in using its power to secure abortion rights for as many people as possible. His withdrawal from Afghanistan shamefully left behind far too many people who risked their lives to aid the United States or to advocate for democracy and human rights in their own country. And his immigration policies have been human rights disasters.
He, like every president before him, has utterly failed to provide American parents with much-needed paid leave or universal childcare, even if he made an effort to try. And when he believes that bigger goals like combating climate change and reducing US dependence on fossil fuels are in conflict with American jobs (a conflict that progressives say is a false choice), he tends to choose American jobs – approving, for example, the Willow oil drilling project in Alaska.
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And yet, despite all of that, Biden has been a far better president than I anticipated he would be. While Covid-19 is not over, Biden has transitioned the country out of the stage of acute emergency, helping Americans have a financial cushion and rolling out vaccines. He has taken action on climate change, on prescription drug prices, on infrastructure and on student loans. He’s appointed several very good judges to the federal bench.
Simply put, Biden gets stuff done – and it’s stuff that overwhelmingly helps average Americans and the working class, not wealthy donors.
In a perfect world, Biden would face a progressive primary contender – someone who actually stood a chance of winning. That would give the Americans who vote in Democratic primaries a chance to send a clear signal: Do they want more of Biden, or do they want to see the nation move more to the left? And in that same perfect world, the best candidate would go on to soundly defeat Trump, or whoever the Republican candidate may be.
But we live in the real world, where a hyper-competent and highly-qualified woman who was not a far lefty and was only marginally more progressive than Biden was already beaten by a right-wing candidate who bullied and barked. Given the stakes, and the nation’s historical preference for incumbents, it makes sense for progressive Democrats to sit this one out and for the rest of us to bet on Biden – even if he is far from our ideal horse to put in the race.