Did Biden break a ‘one term’ pledge?

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If you want to understand what’s really happening behind the scenes with the American mainstream media, look not only at what gets published, but also at when and why it’s published.

For example, this “fact check” from the New York Times this week on President Joe Biden’s “tall tales”: “In President Biden’s telling, he was a teenage civil rights activist, a former trucker, the first in his family to go to college and the nephew of a cannibalism victim,” wrote reporter Linda Qiu. “All of these claims stretch the truth or are downright false.”

This was not an opinion column — it was a lengthy reported piece from the news division. The piece comes a week after a much-discussed Wall Street Journal deep dive on Biden’s mental “slipping” happening “behind closed doors,” that has the Democratic establishment freaking out. Both pieces are revelatory for the average reader who isn’t a political junkie — and, most crucially, the timing of their publication is not tied to a specific news hook.

But we know the presidential first debate is two weeks away. And Biden’s approval rating in the FiveThirtyEight average ticked down this week to its lowest point ever, just 37.4 percent. The occasion got influential prognosticator Nate Silver to assess the dire situation this way on X: “Democrats would have been better served if Biden had decided a year ago not to seek a second term, which would have allowed them to have some semblance of a primary process and give voters a say among the many popular Democrats across the country.”

But what transpired this week was a debate not about the Biden reelection campaign, but about the 2020 race. Because some may remember reports about Biden back then that could have resolved this current crisis for the left — when Biden indicated that, if he won, he would be a one-term president.

The storyline really began with a New York Times report published in March 2019 — more than a month before Biden even announced his candidacy — about the “unique steps” he was contemplating. “Mr. Biden and his top advisers are considering nodding to the rising next generation in Democratic politics — and elevating an heir — by announcing a running mate early, well before the nomination is sealed,” reported Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns. “Also under discussion is a possible pledge to serve only one term and framing Mr. Biden’s 2020 campaign as a one-time rescue mission for a beleaguered country, according to multiple party officials.”

But the report most cited by those who believe a one-term promise was in place was from Politico in December 2019. “Biden’s top advisers and prominent Democrats outside the Biden campaign have recently revived a long-running debate whether Biden should publicly pledge to serve only one term, with Biden himself signaling to aides that he would serve only a single term,” reported Ryan Lizza. “While the option of making a public pledge remains available, Biden has for now settled on an alternative strategy: quietly indicating that he will almost certainly not run for a second term while declining to make a promise that he and his advisers fear could turn him into a lame duck and sap him of his political capital.”

Lizza would go on to quote “four people who regularly talk to Biden” who said “it is virtually inconceivable that he will run for reelection in 2024.” One “prominent adviser to the campaign” said explicitly, “he won’t be running for reelection.” That same advisor said that by signaling this one-term run, it would make the candidate a “good transition figure.”

That “transition” line is important, because it’s one Biden himself used publicly and on the record. “I view myself as a transition candidate,” Biden said at an online fundraiser in April 2020. In March of that year, at a rally where his eventual VP pick Kamala Harris was by his side, he used similar language: “I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else.”

As we now know, that turned into a bridge to nowhere. By March 2021, Biden was saying something entirely different. “My plan is to run for reelection. That’s my expectation,” he said shortly after he was inaugurated.

So Biden never explicitly made a one-term promise during the campaign, but he certainly implied it with the language of “transition.” You don’t typically think of eight years in office as a “transition.” And he had surrogates talking to their pals in the press planting the seeds of a single term, for a Democratic electorate that never saw Biden as their first choice, just as an acceptable consensus pick to take out the hated incumbent.

It feels, in retrospect, patently strategic. New York Times political reporter Astead Herndon put it bluntly: “Biden 2020 intentionally signaled this wouldn’t happen during his original run,” he wrote this week on X. “They gaslit public and may pay for it.”

The legacy press worked with the establishment elite to ensure that Biden beat Bernie Sanders in the 2020 primary. They could try something similar again, pushing Biden to the side if they truly think he can’t defeat Trump in 2024. And what we’re witnessing is precisely the playbook they’d use.

Here’s what I wrote in February: “Watch for leaks about what Biden is really like behind-the-scenes at the White House. Or maybe a damaging new Hunter Biden investigation. Or maybe just a lengthy focus on the worst of Biden’s latest poll numbers — particularly on the issue of age and competence.”

Biden and his surrogates may have standing to push back on the claim that he explicitly broke a one-term promise, but it’s a moot point now — if he can’t turn around the political headwinds, he’s going to become a one-term president anyway.

Steve Krakauer, a NewsNation contributor, is the author of “Uncovered: How the Media Got Cozy with Power, Abandoned Its Principles, and Lost the People” and editor and host of the Fourth Watch newsletter and podcast.

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