Ghosted by Carter. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

April 25, 2023   5 mins

On the face of it, Joseph Biden Jr and James Carter Jr ruled over two Americas, their terms separated by six administrations and more than four decades. Their futures, too, could not seem more divergent: today, as America’s 46th President declares his intention to remain in office, its 39th will remain at home receiving end-of-life care.

And yet, only 18 years separate the two men’s births; they are of the same generation. Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that their political careers seem inextricably bound.

Both presidents were explicitly defined as the antithesis to a tumultuous predecessor, with Carter as the anti-Nixon and Biden as the anti-Trump. Both were elected into eras of high inflation. Both had low approval ratings. And both pursued a foreign policy of restraint that, according to their critics, only emboldened aggressors. Carter’s administration saw the Soviets invade Afghanistan, following the fall of Saigon under Nixon-Ford. Biden’s saw Russia invade Ukraine, following the fall of Kabul to the Taliban a year before.

For all these parallels, though, there is a crucial difference: the composition of their party. While Biden’s party has all but severed its ties with the white working class, Carter was the last president elected by the coalition that grew out of Roosevelt’s New Deal America. The states of the former Confederacy all voted for Carter, as did the Southern evangelical regions that would later become a mainstay of the Republican party. Carter also appealed to white voters in the northeast by promising not to use federal force to change what he called the “ethnic purity” of Irish-American, Italian-American and other neighbourhoods resistant to racial integration.

Even before Carter’s election, the future of the Democratic Party had been foreshadowed — in George McGovern’s doomed campaign of 1972 and Nixon’s landslide victory that followed. By the Obama years, the McGovern coalition of college-educated white voters and racial minorities was the Democratic mainstream, growing by absorbing many former liberal Republicans concerned by the rise of conservatism and populism within their party. What had been the obsessions of northeastern liberal Republicans in the 2000s — family planning and environmentalism — became the leading issues of a Democratic Party that caters to rich and professional elites.

This was not inevitable. Until 1975, Massachusetts Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy, a Catholic as well as a liberal, insisted that human life begins at conception. By 1992, however, a brief period in which Democrats were allowed to disagree about the issue ended: at the Democratic convention that nominated Bill Clinton and Al Gore, Pennsylvania Governor, Bob Casey, was denied the right to speak because of his opposition to abortion rights.

Until the Seventies, the environmental movement had been similarly dominated by well-to-do, patrician northeastern voters, whose great cause was wilderness conservation. The New Deal Democrats, by contrast, favoured conservation as well as industrial and infrastructure development. But as wealthy Republicans switched their allegiance, the Democratic position shifted. The party began to call for the removal of more acreage from development and for increasingly draconian laws on what businesses and homeowners can do with their property. Just as its new pro-choice stance drove out many Catholic and evangelical Democrats, so the increasing environmentalism of the party, symbolised by Al Gore’s rise, alienated many former moderate Democrats.

Early in his career, Joe Biden was a New Democrat like Bill Clinton and, to some degree, Jimmy Carter: he was pro-business in economics and culturally moderate. But while Clinton was a socially moderate Southern governor like Carter, the rise of the McGovern coalition continued during his presidency. A 1996 Pew report described the alienation from the Democrats of New Dealers, whom it described as “older, unionist, socially conservative” (and implicitly white): “Clinton’s support is weakest and hostility to him strongest (23% unfavourable) here among all Democratic groups
 New Dealers, who often defected to Ronald Reagan, are the Democratic group least satisfied with the quality of the presidential candidates this year. One in three (30%) would prefer a GOP Congress if Clinton is re-elected.”

By the time Obama was elected, this New Deal coalition was finally and fully replaced. Indeed, Trump owed his 2016 primary and presidential victories to his appeal to white working-class voters from traditionally Democratic families, many of them members of union families in the industrial states of the Midwest and mid-Atlantic. Rather than mourn their loss, many Democrats saw the expansion of their vote among college-educated Americans and immigrants and started to believe they could dispense with white working-class votes altogether.

Yet in 2020, fearing a second loss to Trump, Democratic elites rallied behind Biden and pressured the progressives and Sanders, in many ways an old-fashioned New Dealer, to drop out of the race. The other great voting bloc in the present-day Democrats — black Americans — was rallied to vote for Biden in the primaries, winning him the presidential nomination. Biden went on to win the presidency and, in the midterm elections two years later, lose the House of Representatives. The great wave of revulsion against Donald Trump that many Democrats had counted on in 2020 and 2022 turned out to be a trickle.

This didn’t dissuade Biden, though. His administration has been the most Left-wing in US history. While Obama sought to make concessions to moderates and conservatives, Biden’s domestic agenda has mirrored the aims of the billionaire-funded progressive non-profits and public-sector unions that now dominate policymaking in the party. In just one term, he attempted to impose an extreme lockdown agenda, meeting resistance in the courts, and ordered his executive agencies to make race and gender inclusion central to all of their activities, whatever they may be. Meanwhile, the border crisis continues to fester, and his much-touted Inflation Reduction Act appears to have done little to stem inflation, instead handing out cash to renewable energy firms and wealthy owners of electric vehicles.

Why did the Biden administration turn over policymaking to progressives, who make up only a quarter or so of the electorate and half of Democratic voters? One theory is that Biden wanted to forestall a more progressive challenger in the 2024 Democratic presidential primaries. Either way, Biden and his allies are taking no chances with his renomination: the Democrats have made South Carolina, with its large number of black voters who gave Biden the nomination in 2020, the first primary state, replacing Iowa and New Hampshire, whose largely white progressives are to the Left of many black Americans.

Whether this strategy bears fruit remains to be seen, but Biden has advantages that Jimmy Carter lacked. Although Carter responded forcefully to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Republicans portrayed him as weak, and the prolonged American hostage crisis in Iran and the failed mission to rescue the hostages damaged his reputation. To date, however, the mainstreams of both parties have supported Biden’s policies in Ukraine, and few Americans will condemn him for finally ending the war in Afghanistan.

And Biden possesses an ally that Carter did not have — the US media. America’s establishment newspapers and networks were often critical of Carter, and even though most journalists were Democrats, the prestige press attempted to treat Republicans fairly. But during the 2020s, America’s mainstream media organisations were radicalised into becoming more or less explicitly partisan Democratic outlets, even in their news coverage — playing up Republican scandals and downplaying anything harmful to Democrats. Biden has held far fewer press conferences than other presidents, raising questions about the effects of age. Yet the press continues to treat him as a leader whom they must shelter and support, rather than a president to be questioned and investigated.

But perhaps the greatest difference between Biden and Carter is also the President’s greatest strength. While Carter had to fight the genial Reagan for his second term, Biden may be engaged in a rematch with the scowling, histrionic Trump, who is leading among Republican voters. Some polls show Trump slightly ahead of Biden, but polls are not votes, and it is hard to imagine significant numbers of voters who went for Biden in 2020 switching to Trump.

Biden, then, unlike Carter, may succeed in becoming a two-term president. What will that mean for the Democrats? Well, there was something poignant about Biden recently letting slip that Carter had asked him to deliver his eulogy. It seemed entirely fitting. If and when Biden does fulfil Carter’s wish, it won’t just be a eulogy to America’s 39th President, but to a Democratic Party that no longer exists.

Michael Lind is a columnist at Tablet and a fellow at New America. His latest book is Hell to Pay: How the Suppression of Wages is Destroying America.