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carlos lozada

We’re talking presidents today, but I’m wondering, does anyone have a favorite fictional president?

ross douthat

What’s the name of the president in “Dr. Strangelove?”

michelle cottle

Oh, yeah. That’s good. I’ll go with that one.

carlos lozada

Dimitri. I’m as upset as you are.

michelle cottle

There’s no fighting in the war room.

ross douthat

I mean, the unironic choice is Bill Pullman in “Independence Day,” but.

carlos lozada

Ooh! We will not go quietly into the night.

ross douthat

We will not go gently into the night.

carlos lozada

We will not vanish without a fight!

michelle cottle

I’ve never seen that movie, and now I never will.

ross douthat

Oh, you must!

michelle cottle

Never.

carlos lozada

What?

michelle cottle

No, no.

ross douthat

How can you not —

michelle cottle

Why don’t you guys just reenact it for me?

carlos lozada

I could!

ross douthat

I mean, we can.

carlos lozada

I could!

ross douthat

We can and we will.

carlos lozada

Ross and I could do — I think we could do dialogue verbatim from that movie. Yes.

ross douthat

Uh, Mr. President, that’s not entirely accurate.

carlos lozada

From New York Times Opinion, I’m Carlos Lozada.

michelle cottle

I’m Michelle Cottle.

ross douthat

I’m Ross Douthat.

lydia polgreen

And I’m Lydia Polgreen.

carlos lozada

And this is Matter of Opinion, where thoughts are aloud. I just don’t want anyone to forget the slogan.

michelle cottle

Oh, my God. [MUSIC PLAYING]

carlos lozada

So, today, we’re going to talk about the presidency and the re-election prospects of Joe Biden. Scranton Joe. Amtrak Joe. Whatever you want to call him. We’re going to look at how things are going for Biden heading into the re-election campaign. The short answer is that so far, not great.

In recent national polls, Biden is either neck and neck or possibly trailing in a rematch with Donald Trump. That’s the twice impeached, four-times indicted Donald Trump. Biden’s approval rating is 41 percent compared to a 56 percent disapproval, which is what political types call being underwater. Oh, and it doesn’t help that 6 in 10 Democrats would like some other candidate to challenge Biden for the nomination. Not anyone in particular, just someone else.

michelle cottle

Anyone, whoever.

carlos lozada

Michelle, you’re our politics guru. Looking at 2024 in particular, what’s going on with Joe Biden?

michelle cottle

Ooh, there are so many challenges, some of which aren’t really his fault and some of which he needs to take the lion’s share of the blame for. If we just look at the kind of top line ones, one, it’s not his fault, but the country is still and basically a sour, anxious mood post-pandemic. If you are president of the United States, you’re going to take a hit for that.

And then, whether fair or not, everybody thinks he’s too old. Now, it’s not just that he is old. He seems old. He seems old, and he seems frail, which is what matters in politics. You can have a Bernie Sanders. You can have an Elizabeth Warren. You can have a Donald Trump, who is almost as old as Biden. But instead of seeming frail, Trump always seems to be a toddler whose head is about to explode.

ross douthat

Full of vim and vigor.

michelle cottle

Exactly.

lydia polgreen

Although I mean, he does seem to be having some screws loose. I mean, there’s like videos that I see of him where he’s just like rambling in crazy ways. So I do wonder whether his —

ross douthat

As opposed to?

lydia polgreen

I know he’s always done that, but it does seem to get worse.

michelle cottle

Oh, I agree. I think there’s a kind of losing a step, a little bit of — I don’t even know how to politely put it. But there’s a potential slippage there with Trump. But he just seems crazy. Crazy is different than frail.

carlos lozada

So Michelle, how much of that is precisely attitude?

michelle cottle

Joe? Oh, a lot of it is.

carlos lozada

I mean, is it —

michelle cottle

But a lot of it’s not.

carlos lozada

Is it just the contrast to the hyped up lunacy of the Trump years that Joe seems kind of staid and boring, or do you think people are worried that he actually looks like he’s not up to the job physically?

michelle cottle

I think it’s a bit of both. I mean, the staid, reasonable, balanced worked in his favor last time around. People wanted a departure from a complete lunatic. But four years in this job ages everybody. I mean, whether you start out young like a Bill Clinton or you already have a jump on maturity. You’re going to come out of that first term worn down. And he moves differently than he used to. When he speaks, it’s a little bit different than it used to be. So I do think that there are specific concerns about whether or not he is just going to have a hard time doing four more years.

lydia polgreen

Well, I think also, I’ve had a lot of conversations lately with both Democratic lawmakers who’ve spent time with the president lately and also big Democratic donors. And the thing that they tell me is that he seems super old, super slow, and in some ways, they kind of don’t even look forward to spending time with the president, which is like a weird thing.

Like, usually, it’s like a real big deal to spend time with the president because he’s just kind of rambling. And so if the people who are in your party and serving for office and also the people who are writing checks to keep you in office are like, I don’t really want to hang out with this guy because he’s a bit of a bummer, can we really blame the voters?

ross douthat

That’s striking that you don’t even have from prominent Democrats the whole line of like, oh, he’s so much better in small groups, right? That is sort of the classic thing that gets said about candidates who don’t seem to be doing well on the trail. I think where Democrats should be panicked is about campaigning because, yes, in 2020, voters liked Biden’s relative steadiness and discipline.

They also didn’t see anything of him because it was the middle of a pandemic, and he was literally campaigning from his home. And now he’s four years older, and it’s going to be a much more, presumably, let’s hope, a much more normal campaign season, where it’s normal for candidates to get out of Washington, get out of the White House, do events all over the country, gladhand, all the rest. Unless Trump suffers some debilitating setback, he’s going to be out there or another Republican nominee.

lydia polgreen

Debilitating imprisonment, perhaps?

ross douthat

Well, you’re right. No, no, that’s right. I’m leaving a side —

lydia polgreen

Does that count incarceration?

ross douthat

It could be that —

carlos lozada

That does keep you from hitting the campaign trail.

ross douthat

God help us.

carlos lozada

Yes.

ross douthat

It keeps you from hitting the campaign trail. So actually, that —

lydia polgreen

It does not keep you from becoming president.

ross douthat

Yeah, right now, I think the Democrats’ problem of Biden being president again, it’s eclipsed by the problem of him running for president again in this condition.

carlos lozada

The thing I’ll say on age, and then we can move on, I took a little dip into the archives to see what people were saying about Reagan’s prospects for re-election in the ‘80s, and I found this great story in the Washington Post from September ‘82. A majority of Americans thought Reagan should not run for re-election.

lydia polgreen

It was like 6 in 10, right? And yeah.

carlos lozada

Yes, 6 in 10, but that included half of independents and a third of Republicans. And especially getting to Ross’s point, when the debates came around, people started really worrying about his age. He seemed kind of lackluster. Like, he couldn’t hack it in the debates. And of course, we know what happened in ‘84. Absolute annihilation of a poor Walter Mondale. Reagan won every state, except Minnesota, except Mondale’s Minnesota.

lydia polgreen

We support our own in Minnesota.

carlos lozada

So I know Biden’s not Reagan. 2024 isn’t 1984, but it’s just a little reminder that it’s early, that a lot can happen, that what is conventional wisdom at one moment can dissipate in another.

lydia polgreen

My general read is that when you look at the national polling, you’re like, oh, my God, how could they be tied again? But not that much has changed. I mean, they’re the same two men. There have been various and sundry things the government actually can’t do very much. And there’s been some global affairs and things like that, but the sort of political dynamic hasn’t really changed. So I’m not that surprised by the national numbers, but I took a peek at some of the state by state numbers, and they’re patchy. We don’t have them for every state. But I don’t actually see a sort of catastrophic collapse for Biden. I see a frozen race in the states where things matter. So I guess I’m just not sure.

ross douthat

But isn’t I mean, to speak for panicked liberals everywhere, I mean, OK, it’s a frozen race. But one, some things have changed since 2020. Number one, Donald Trump tried to overturn the results of the 2020 election. I’m not someone who uses the phrase “insurrection” to describe the riot of January 6, but a lot of people do.

And a lot of people think and assumed at the time that that would disqualify Trump with not the core Republican base, but some subset of swing voters forever. So that hasn’t happened. Trump has been indicted, as mentioned, four times. That has coincided not only with him consolidating control of the Republican primary, but with his poll numbers nationally improving.

And finally, yes, Biden, if you go back and look at the 2020 polls, they did not show a 46, 46, 47, 47 race. They showed Biden well ahead. So from that perspective, Trump’s position looks better than it did in 2020. Now, there are reasons for that. And again, it’s not predictive definitively of the result. We’re too far out for that. But it’s not where you want to be.

michelle cottle

Oh, sure, but I do think the too far out of that from the election counts for a lot in this situation because what’s different from last time also is Biden is the president, which means everybody’s funky mood and everybody’s dissatisfaction will focus on him vaguely at this point. As you get closer to time for the election, the mind focuses, and we’ll get a better sense of things, especially in those swing states. But I do think this far out, I mean, this far out, people were thinking that Biden wouldn’t win the primary.

carlos lozada

There was a time when Biden called himself a transition candidate, a bridge to a new generation of Democratic leadership. What happened to that?

michelle cottle

He won.

lydia polgreen

Well, I mean, he won. But I do think that having a president who’s at the end of his career, frankly, and —

michelle cottle

You can say it.

lydia polgreen

Actuarially speaking not far from the end of his life. I mean, again, just actuarially speaking, it does create a kind of space and energy, in a way, for younger figures. It’s just that they’ve only been able to emerge as his presidency has unfolded.

I mean, I think there are a lot of people who are obviously very excited about Gretchen Whitmer or people who are excited about Josh Shapiro, the governor of Pennsylvania, who I think has gotten a lot of very positive attention, Raphael Warnock, the reverend who is a surprise winner of a Senate seat in Georgia. I think that these figures, these younger figures who I think have been racking up some real political wins as Democrats actually really benefit from having a super old president because the contrast is very, very clear. So, yeah, I’m not sure that he hasn’t served as a transitional figure.

michelle cottle

It’s clear implication, though, was that he was going to do a one and done. Now, that’s crazy. Once you get in there, you dig in, and there’s no way you’re going to let go, especially for someone like Biden, who has been running for this office since God was a boy.

carlos lozada

His whole life.

michelle cottle

I mean, seriously.

ross douthat

Well, isn’t the whole issue here, though, just that you can’t transition to a new generation of leadership unless you have a vice president who you feel comfortable handing the baton to, right? I agree with Lydia. The Democrats have a pretty decent bench at this point of some people who are elected under Biden, some people like Gavin Newsom hanging around, looking for his chance. So that bench exists.

But I think the natural thing for Biden, for him to be one and done, you had to be able to say, I’m stepping back. And obviously, the person who I selected as my vice president is my natural successor. And because he can’t do that, there’s sort of no — there’s no natural way out.

I mean, I’m sure Biden is clinging — wants to be president again, in some way. I do think, though, his decline is sufficiently advanced that I would imagine that he could be talked into stepping back and not running again if there were an easy political way to do it where it seemed like the person he was stepping back for was more likely to beat Trump.

michelle cottle

Do you really?

ross douthat

But —

michelle cottle

Like genuinely.

ross douthat

I mean, I guess what I’m —

michelle cottle

‘Cause I’ve never seen anything from anybody who gets to this position where they behave rationally and as though they are not the exception to every rule.

ross douthat

I think that’s true. I guess I’m just maybe I’m reading too much into the qualities that Lydia described Democrats seeing in conversation with him. I don’t think he’s in the place that sort of the normal, very old politician is, where they don’t want to let go. I think he is in a more vulnerable and persuadable place, just based on my reading of his behavior in public. But I could be wrong.

lydia polgreen

Well, we’ve been having this conversation as if it were absolute certainty that Trump is going to be the opponent. I’m curious, does the very what seems like the remote possibility that he will face a younger opponent change the way that any of you think about this?

michelle cottle

If you were a Democrat looking for another opportunity to pressure Biden not to run, if they had gotten rid of Trump early on, on the Republican side, Biden has used that as his rationalization for why he needs to run again. He’s beaten him once. Trump is so dangerous that you can’t risk an unknown quantity. Biden needs to do it again.

If you take Trump out of that equation, if you’ve done it in an early enough point, then that would have given Democrats another good pressure point for Joe. It’s like, OK, you don’t have to worry about that anymore. Just take your legacy and go home. But with Trump in the race, it makes it all the more complicated.

carlos lozada

If you look at his opening campaign videos for the 2020 race and for the 2024 race, the messages are the same. It’s about protecting freedom and democracy from Donald Trump and his supporters. 2020 was the backdrop of Charlottesville. The 2024 video was the backdrop of January 6. So that’s a great point, Michelle, because the question is, like, if it’s not Trump, then that impetus is diminished.

But also, from another point of view, if it’s not clear that Biden is going to beat Trump, right, if he’s kind of like tied in polls, then what’s the point of his candidacy? In 2020, it was like, I’m the guy who can beat him, not Bernie. That’s why you all have to line up behind me. If it’s not clear that he’s the guy that can take down Trump necessarily, then what’s the justification for his campaign?

ross douthat

Well, in Biden’s defense, he ran the anti-Trump campaign twice. He ran it in 2020, and he ran it in 2022. And in 2022, it was, in certain ways, more successful at outperforming expectations. The Democrats ran a January 6 campaign in 2022 against a bunch of candidates who were endorsing Trump’s election fraud narrative, and they dramatically outperformed expectations. And so from the Biden perspective, sure, the polls aren’t great now, but Democrats are doing well in special elections. Trump will probably be campaigning from prison, will run in 2022 all over again. And it will work.

michelle cottle

Ross is extremely optimistic about that prison scenario.

ross douthat

Well, no, now you guys have talked — I was leaving it out. And so now I’m including it because you guys reminded me of its importance.

lydia polgreen

I mean, one thing we — this hasn’t come up yet, but one wild card is the sort of Hunter Biden, if at all. I think that there is Amtrak Joe, a very clear picture of Biden as a certain kind of politician. And boy, is his son a huge fly in the ointment of that. Whatever ultimately these investigations find or what have you, it is puzzling to me that Biden has not found a way to more fully isolate himself from his clearly toxic son. And to me, the most worrying sign was him being at the state dinner with Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, right after he was in the headlines.

ross douthat

That is an argument against the thesis I just offered, that Biden is persuadable and could have been induced not to run again. That, yes, the way he has behaved, the sort of truculent, the refusal to acknowledge the obvious about his son, joined to, yeah, things like the state dinner, suggest a deep and abiding stubbornness that has obviously always been part of Biden’s character. But I feel like even with Hunter Biden, important as that is, we’re talking a little bit around the central question of the next election, which will be about the Biden record, right?

carlos lozada

Yes, I do want to talk about the Biden record, but first, let’s take a quick break. When we come back, let’s talk about Biden, and let’s talk about what we want out of our presidents in the first place.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

All right, we’re back. We have picked apart Biden’s potential challenges and pitfalls, from age to Hunter and the rest for 2024, but let’s talk about Biden as president now. How would you describe his presidency? What grade do you give him?

michelle cottle

I think he’s been productive. He’s not done everything that progressives wanted, but let’s be clear, progressives always want more by definition. And if you talk to the political anthropologists who look at these things over the sweep of history, they point out that Democrats tend to suffer from presidential savior complex, which is that they always think the president should be able to fix all of their problems. And he can’t, so then they turn on him. So you see this lots. And I think with the climate change, gun reform, all of the infrastructure money, he’s done a fair amount that he is not going to get credit for. And that’s just kind of the way this works in some cases.

lydia polgreen

Yeah, I mean, I think given the Congress that he’s dealing with and the other issues that he’s had to manage, we didn’t have letter grades at my college, so —

michelle cottle

Respect.

lydia polgreen

— I always forget what —

michelle cottle

A smiley face and two unicorns?

lydia polgreen

Yeah.

[laughs]

No, I mean, I think that we could look at this as a pretty significant record of achievement. I mean, I think on the domestic front and the economy, I mean, the economy, of course, people are unhappy with it, and there’s inflation, but the economy is actually doing very well. We’re basically at full employment. Wages have been rising, and that’s, I think, been good for people.

carlos lozada

Why does he get such lousy marks on the economy then?

ross douthat

Wages have been rising relative to the low place that they fell to, but they have not — I mean, there’s a bunch of different arguments about the right way to measure things. But my view is that wages are not back on track yet.

michelle cottle

And you can’t convince people that the economy is better than they feel that it is, no matter what number.

lydia polgreen

100 percent.

michelle cottle

You just never can.

ross douthat

I mean, Lydia’s right. We have a low unemployment economy, and that’s a very good thing. But the fact that the average American can feel confident that if they lose their job, they’ll get another one pretty quickly, is not nearly enough to compensate for the sense that their own wages have gone down.

michelle cottle

It also doesn’t help that the Biden administration tried to sell people on the idea that the rules had changed somehow with inflation, and that you could jumpstart the economy and throw all this money in, and it wouldn’t wind up with inflation.

ross douthat

Well, I mean, here, I will defend, to some degree, the Biden White House, which is that the rules had changed in the sense that we had spent a long time under Obama, and then Trump, running deficits without yielding any inflation. And we went through the entire Trump COVID period, where we threw absurd sums of money into the economy and also didn’t generate inflation. So I understand why they thought they could do what they did, but it did —

michelle cottle

But the rules haven’t changed.

ross douthat

But the rules had not — the rules had changed, but not completely.

michelle cottle

Not enough.

lydia polgreen

Well, and but then also, inflation is coming down, right? I mean, it’s —

carlos lozada

Well, yeah, but —

lydia polgreen

It has been transitory, but transiting over a longer period of time.

carlos lozada

Inflation —

lydia polgreen

Oh, Carlos wants to speak.

carlos lozada

No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, this is not —

lydia polgreen

Let the economist speak.

carlos lozada

I swear, like every episode, you use the fact that I worked for the Fed for two years in the ‘90s. You —

ross douthat

Well, the ‘90s were a good time, Carlos.

carlos lozada

Yeah, we were —

ross douthat

You were responsible.

carlos lozada

Yeah, thank me for it. We just didn’t see it all coming.

michelle cottle

Come on in, Carlos. Tell us.

carlos lozada

No, no, no. I mean, what I was going to say about him, first of all, I have lived through hyperinflation. It just wasn’t here.

lydia polgreen

Same, yes.

carlos lozada

The 1980s in Peru, oh, my God. We had to change the currency multiple times just to lop zeros off it, so it could be workable. Anyway, the thing about inflation is that we say inflation is coming down, which is true. That doesn’t mean prices are coming down, right? Inflation is a rate of increase of prices.

So if you have a big jump in inflation, right, that mean prices go from here to up here. Then you say, oh, inflation is coming down. True, but all that means is that the rate of increase of prices is slowing. So it’s not like prices come back down to where you felt comfortable with them. So they’re completely right, the Biden people, when they say, look, inflation is much, much lower. That doesn’t mean prices are dropping.

lydia polgreen

But I think that sort of circles back to the question of what do we actually expect of the president, right? I mean, these are — I mean, what did Donald Trump achieve as president? His lasting, lasting, lasting legacy, without any doubt, other than like totally putting our democracy in the shitter, is going to be the three seats that he got on the Supreme Court. I mean, his imprint on American history and the legacy and direction of America over all of our lifetimes, I think, will largely derive from him having been able to do that. And what that tells you, I think, is that presidents, he was just lucky, right? We just happened to have that number of vacancies during his brief presidency.

michelle cottle

And we had Mitch McConnell helping with that, so.

lydia polgreen

And we had Mitch McConnell helping him, of course, but that’s my question, right? Like, if basically, it is almost impossible to get Congress to do anything with you, and we’re essentially governing through reconciliation and everything needs to be stuffed into one big bill, other than these little tiny boutique things that you can get agreement on, what’s the presidency good for? What can we really hold the president accountable for and expect from him, and hopefully someday, her? And let’s dream — they/them?

ross douthat

Sorry, I was full of things to say, and you —

michelle cottle

You’ve just thrown Ross off his game entirely.

ross douthat

You gender nonconformed me into silence. I mean, one, to Biden’s credit, Biden has proven that that pessimistic vision of the presidency was maybe too pessimistic because he has gotten some things done, even with bipartisan support, that Trump wasn’t able to do. I think if you just sketched out for me Biden’s legislative achievements and foreign policy decisions and so on, and sort of held those up, independent of economic circumstances, I would expect him to be more popular than he is.

But I think voters expect the president to preside over economic growth. And obviously, there’s some unreasonably there. The president does not wave a magic wand and control the economy. But it is the loose heuristic that democracy has always followed that if you get growth, people will vote for you. If you get peace and plenty, you will get support, whether you deserve it or not. And if you don’t, you won’t. And I don’t think there’s any getting away from that reality in an election year.

We can talk long-term and say, well, this president who seemed to be a political failure actually had these important effects because of his Supreme Court appointments or some foreign policy moves he made. George HW Bush’s reputation has been rehabilitated, deservedly, because of the way the Cold War ended, but still, he lost, right? Because people weren’t happy —

carlos lozada

Because of the recession.

ross douthat

Because there was a recession.

carlos lozada

Because of a brief recession.

michelle cottle

Which people are still arguing about whether we’ve got another one coming on the horizon.

carlos lozada

Maybe that’s one reason to not call it Bidenomics.

michelle cottle

You’re going to beat that dead horse again, aren’t you?

carlos lozada

No, I’ve seen a number of people on Twitter pick up on this — pick up on that point.

michelle cottle

Well, you also have to, as a president, it’s a salesman’s job. You have to convey energy and confidence, and you have to get out there and sell what you’ve done, which is one of the things they said that the Obama administration wasn’t that great at. But when you’ve got a president who, again, is not conveying vim and vigor, you automatically are at a disadvantage with whatever you have achieved. And I do agree that, obviously, he has achieved quite a bit, especially in these times, when you do have the parties just determined to kneecap each other’s agendas all the time.

carlos lozada

You’re talking like strategists, you know? Like, you have to sell this and project that.

michelle cottle

Well, that’s not strategy. That is the American presidency.

carlos lozada

What qualities do you want in your president? Like, what do you —

michelle cottle

Nobody cares, Carlos —

carlos lozada

Oh, come on.

michelle cottle

— about what we really like.

carlos lozada

No, no, no, I don’t mean like personality. I mean like what —

michelle cottle

What image they convey is what people care about.

lydia polgreen

No, I think that, clearly, there is something about the sort of steady sobriety of Joe Biden that is appealing, right, and his experience, his — I think —

michelle cottle

Not to young voters, it’s not. No, I’m not so sure.

ross douthat

I don’t think Biden conveys steady — I think Biden conveys steadiness and sobriety only relative to Donald Trump. I think Biden —

michelle cottle

What?

ross douthat

— has always been — he’s always been — he was a loud mouth and a jerk as a younger man. And now he’s doddering and unsteady. I see neither steadiness nor sobriety, again, except relative to the Trump phenomenon. And I think people who think that he conveys those things are totally kidding themselves. The charm of Biden is that he’s a gaffe machine. He’s referred to himself that way. He says things like lying, dog-faced pony soldier and puts his foot in his mouth. What? I mean, what’s steady and sober about this guy?

lydia polgreen

I mean, compared — I agree.

ross douthat

Compared to Trump.

lydia polgreen

In comparison to Trump. Compared to Trump, yes. But I also think, again, I do think that — and I guess, this is more what I meant when I talked about sober and steady — I think that there is something about — and this cuts both ways, obviously, with the Hunter Biden stuff. I think there is something about Joe Biden’s devotion to his family and the seriousness with which he takes family, as a comparison to Donald Trump, that people relate to and feels like a tremendous relief. And I think that’s always been true of him. And —

ross douthat

Well, and to walk back my intemperate comments, what Biden has going for him is that he surrounds himself with normal seeming —

lydia polgreen

Sensible people!

ross douthat

Not always sensible. He hired way too many Warren people.

michelle cottle

Non grifters?

ross douthat

But they are normal seeming Democratic types. And that, again, contrasts —

michelle cottle

That’s his whole shtick —

ross douthat

The thing with Trump is not —

michelle cottle

— return to sanity.

ross douthat

Yeah, it’s not just who Trump is, but who he surrounds himself with and who he will surround himself with in his forthcoming second term.

lydia polgreen

Stop that.

carlos lozada

I do like — I mean, I understand, Lydia, where you’re coming from, in the way he’s like a family man and all those things. And when I think of all the things I want out of a president, just go down the list of presidents. I want the wisdom of Abe Lincoln, and I want the moral compass of Jimmy Carter and the ambition of FDR, the inspiration of Reagan and of Obama, you know? Madison’s genius. I want all of those things. I want the courage of George Washington. But you don’t get to build your president out of the spare parts of others.

And so when it comes down to it, I want ambition and restraint. I want someone who is ambitious enough to tackle the things that matter and restrained enough to not abuse the enormous powers we are granting the presidency. I mean, Ross has brought this up in past episodes of the podcast, right? Essentially, what you’re doing is you’re entrusting a person with life and death powers, with a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence. And so who do you trust with that, right? On that score, Biden does all right.

ross douthat

Here’s what I want in a president. I want a president who sees it as his political — I agree with everything you said, Carlos, in a way, but —

carlos lozada

No, no, just stop there. You agree with everything I said.

ross douthat

Who sees —

michelle cottle

That’s a wrap.

ross douthat

Who sees it as his political goal and makes policy with an eye towards being a president for 55 percent to 60 percent of the country, instead of 49 percent to 51 percent of the country. And I think almost all of our most successful presidents have been dividers who divided the country, but took by far the bigger half, right? Franklin Roosevelt was incredibly divisive. He just took 60 percent of the vote while he did so.

Ronald Reagan, polarizing figure. My parents in 1984 hated him. My earliest memory politically is my mom going to cast her vote for Walter Mondale. But most of the country loved Reagan. And I think the Biden folks, any strategy or sales pitch he comes up with, is going to have to define himself more overtly than they’re comfortable with against the left of the party. I think a different version of the Biden presidency could have been more successful on the terms that I see as key to a president’s success.

carlos lozada

My wife has this — her preferred slogan for the Biden campaign 2024 would be, “Reelect Biden. He’s fine.”

And I can see that being a way that you don’t sell it, but a way that people end up thinking about it. All right, we’ll have to leave it there. When we come back, let’s get hot and cold.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

And finally, it is time for Hot, Cold. I’ve always wanted Christopher Walken to do the intro and say like, I’ve got a fever. It’s time for Hot, Cold. Anyway, all right, so whose temperature are we taking today?

ross douthat

Mine, and I’m going to be predictably fusty and conservative and say I’m hot, which is to say glad that the Senate is formalizing a dress code requiring business attire. And this came after Chuck Schumer had signaled a relaxation of what I gather was the then informal dress code in the Senate, a move that I was very cold on, which seemed to be mostly aimed at accommodating Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, who had a desire to wear shorts and sweatshirts and hoodies on the Senate floor.

Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute and frequent contributor to The Times has made this argument that one of the features of our current era is that far too many people see important institutions not as places that shape them and that they conform themselves to, but as platforms in which to appear and use to build a brand. And a lot of the, let’s say, Republican congressmen that liberals love to hate fall into that category, the people who drive Kevin McCarthy crazy because they’re just there in the House of Representatives to make themselves famous.

And I think something that as arbitrary seeming as it is as a dress code, a way of appearing in an important body, is a way of conforming people to the institution, rather than making the institution about them. And relaxing that kind of code, especially for the sake of one senator’s sort of personal blue collar hero, pseudo populist brand, just seemed to me like a small but real further signifier, I guess, of institutional decline.

lydia polgreen

I would say the most important symptom of the institutional decline is what Mitch McConnell did to the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland and other subsequent Supreme Court issues, but I do very strongly agree with you, Ross. I think that John Fetterman should put on a suit and dress like a grown-up.

And also, the thing that I would add is that dressing up is nice. Last week was the UN General Assembly. And we had a number of very powerful important visitors who came into The New York Times. And so I wore a suit every day last week, basically. And you know what? It felt great, the sort of post-pandemic putting on proper clothes, wearing hard pants. And the whole thing —

michelle cottle

Hard pants. I like that term.

lydia polgreen

Right?

michelle cottle

Going to get me some hard pants.

lydia polgreen

The whole thing is actually just kind of wonderful.

michelle cottle

We can’t expect everybody to hold that kind of high personal standard, though.

ross douthat

We can’t, no. Not everyone can live up to the Lydia Polgreen standard, except when they’re a United States senator. That is my —

michelle cottle

That is true.

ross douthat

That is my informed position.

michelle cottle

Look, many businesses as industries have dress codes. I think it is especially important for Congress because, as Ross alluded to, right now, dignity and decorum are in the basement, and the whole thing is more like a joke in a carnival sideshow. So you could at least restore some visual sense of propriety to what has become a freak show.

ross douthat

What is certainly true is that this is not the most important signifier of American decline. But one way that you get continuing decline is that at every step along the way, people shrug and say, well, this isn’t that important. And the next thing you know, it’s 476 AD and the last emperor of Rome — no.

michelle cottle

Oh, my God. No.

ross douthat

I’ll show myself.

lydia polgreen

And you need to not do that today.

carlos lozada

OK.

lydia polgreen

Guys, I’m sorry.

carlos lozada

We’ve got to end this.

lydia polgreen

But I gotta go.

michelle cottle

With that, Lydia’s leaving.

carlos lozada

All right, we are cold on the Roman Empire.

michelle cottle

And shorts on grown men.

carlos lozada

Yeah, flip-flops. Flip-flops. That’s where we can come together. All right, folks. Good talking to you.

michelle cottle

Bye, guys.

ross douthat

Always a pleasure. [MUSIC PLAYING]

carlos lozada

Thanks for joining our conversation. If you liked it, be sure to follow “Matter of Opinion” on your favorite podcast app, and let us know what big questions we should think about next time by emailing us at matterofopinion@nytimes.com.

“Matter of Opinion” is produced by Sophia Alvarez Boyd, Phoebe Lett, and Derek Arthur. It’s edited by Stephanie Joyce. Our fact check team is Kate Sinclair, Mary Marge Locker, and Michelle Harris. Original music by Isaac Jones, Efim Shapiro, Carole Sabouraud, and Pat McCusker. Mixing by Pat McCusker. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta and Kristina Samulewski. Our executive producer is Annie-Rose Strasser.



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