Opinion | We Were Wrong About President Biden

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The people willing to accept the invasive scrutiny and exhausting odyssey en route to the White House believe at some level that they belong there or keenly crave reassurance of that. They’re not sated by the next best thing. They’re after peak recognition, the apex job and the view of the world from that summit — a world now at their feet.

“Most of them had this ambition from grade school,” Timothy Naftali, a New York University historian, told me. “Others have appetites that grew with the eating. Regardless, there is something extraordinary — not normal — about desiring this much power.”

I’d bet a great deal that the rush of that power — more than safety from criminal prosecution, more than the opportunity to use the White House as a profit center — is Donald Trump’s greatest motivator as he makes another run at the office. There’s no magnitude of personal wealth, no amplitude of fame, that confers the sort of bragging rights that the presidency does.

The only presidents over the past century who could have run for re-election and chose not to — Calvin Coolidge in 1928, Harry Truman in 1952, Lyndon Johnson in 1968 — had served more than one term already, because they’d begun their presidencies by finishing out the terms of predecessors who had died in office. There’s a reason for that, and it’s a precedent that every modern president is aware of.

“History is such that it would be taken as an admission of failure if you didn’t run again,” Stuart Stevens, a Republican strategist who was a senior adviser on presidential campaigns for George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, told me. “Either you think you succeeded in the first term and you deserve a second one or you think you failed in the first term and you want to do better.”

In which category does Biden belong? “I think he thinks he’s been a great success,” Stevens said. “I agree.” Regardless, Stevens said, the presidency is difficult to surrender. “Being able to change history is intoxicating.”

Bush was proving the doubters, including his own parents, wrong. Obama was living the kind of dream that was out of reach for his father. Bill Clinton was a glutton for approval, forever supping at the nearest and largest buffet. Trump was — is — Trump, who judges every day, every hour, by some cosmic analogue to Nielsen ratings. The presidency is always the most watched program.


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