Opinion: Biden is About to Make History for All the Wrong Reasons?

There are compelling parallels between President Joe Biden and a predecessor when seeking another term.

Influential Democrats — along with the majority of voters — don’t want Biden to run for reelection. However, history tells us if the president decides to step aside, he should do so by the end of the year. But Biden has given no indication he is prepared to do so. Suppose he exits halfway through the primary season. In that case, he will open his party up to substantial infighting at a rowdy convention and pave the way for former President Donald Trump’s reelection.

How can we know? The presidency of Lyndon Johnson, who decided not to seek reelection, offers clues of what could lie ahead.

Similarities between Joe Biden’s and LBJ’s presidencies are undeniable, including intrusions of wars. Both were influential, long-time Democrat senators and served as vice president before rising to the Oval Office. As president, they passed substantial legislation, but both saw their party divided and their fortunes sunk by overseas conflicts. 

Like Biden, Johnson began his presidency with high public approval ratings, only to see his popularity rise because of the growing Vietnam War. The United States sent hundreds of thousands of GIs to support the government of South Vietnam, which was fighting against Communists in North Vietnam. Younger Americans across the United States were furious. A draft nationwide was very unpopular, along with the government that enforced it.

Americans soured further on the war in Vietnam after, on January 30, 1968, the Viet Cong mounted the Tet Offensive. The effort was meant to topple the Saigon failed government but punctured what one source describes as the “illusion of progress that the Johnson administration had been holding before the American public.”

In mere weeks, support for the war decreased, from 50% believing our country was moving toward its goals to only 33%. Around 49% of Americans thought we should have never intervened in the first place.

Declining support for the war sang President Johnson’s approval ratings. By March, only 36% of Americans approved of the job the president was doing, with 52% disapproving.

Hostility toward Biden’s support of Israel has driven his approval lower

Now, hostility toward Biden’s support of Israel has driven his already paltry standing to the lowest point of his presidency. According to a recent NBC survey, an astounding 70% of voters ages 18 to 34 disapprove of his handling of the war.

On March 12, 1968, Eugene McCarthy, a little-known Minnesota senator, stunned the nation and won 42% of the vote in the first-in-the-nation Democrat primary in New Hampshire. Johnson got 48%. The close results encouraged the brother of the slain President John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, to enter the race, challenging Johnson’s path forward even more.

Coincidentally, another little-known congressman from Minnesota has thrown his hat in the Democrat primary race. Dean Phillips is hoping to achieve an upset in New Hampshire next January. Due to party infighting over the sequencing of its primary contests, President Joe Biden won’t be on the ballot in the Granite State, giving Phillips an unusual opening. If Phillips gains a large share of the primary vote because of Biden’s weakness, other Democrats can be expected to declare their candidacy.

Weeks following the surprise almost-upset in New Hampshire, President Johnson announced in a televised address from the Oval Office that he was offering to end the U.S. bombing of Vietnam to spur peace talks with the Communists.

Johnson also dropped a bomb of another kind — declaring he wouldn’t seek his party’s nomination for president — and cited “division in the American house.”

In response to LBJ’s shocking announcement, two Democratic camps scrambled for the nomination of their party. Kennedy and McCarthy ran against the war. After Kennedy was assassinated in June, Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, another anti-war candidate, joined the race. LBJ’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, represented the party’s establishment wing.

Additionally complicating the political scene for the Democrats was the emergence of a third-party candidate, Governor of Alabama George Wallace, who appealed to blue-collar workers and southern Democrats and garnered five states and 46 Electoral College votes.

Today, President Biden and his colleagues fear Democrat Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who has announced he won’t run to retain his seat, could play a similar role if he decides to mount a campaign as a third-party centrist.

The president also faced Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who was already running as an Independent, securing as much as 22% of the vote, with much coming from Democrats.

Democrats met in Chicago to choose their candidate in August 1968. The gathering at the International Amphitheater was fractious politically and overwhelmed by anti-war rioting; at the airport, delegates were met by National Guardsmen, and the convention center resembled a fortress. The day before the convention was marked by thousands of police attacking protesters with clubs and tear gas to remove them from Lincoln Park. Over the next few days, over 650 protesters were arrested, with over 100 treated in hospitals in the area. Almost 200 police officers, actually 192, were injured, with 49 requiring medical treatment.

In the arena, they became unruly. Several delegates supported a “peace plank,” which ended up being defeated. Some delegates split with their party to join a vigil against the war hosted by demonstrators. Because McCarthy and McGovern divided the anti-war vote, the party nominated Humphrey, who lost the Electoral College vote to Richard Nixon by a vote of 191-301.

The history of LBJ tells us that if Biden withdraws while the primary season is still underway, the contests will reveal serious divides, with moderates battling progressives and supporters of Palestine fighting those standing in support of Israel. At a minimum, Democrats will lose the enviable unity they have long enjoyed. Meanwhile, the Chicago convention will likely attract protests over President Biden’s support for Israel.

While history may not repeat itself — it just might.