Joe Biden has been embracing August: a relaxed beach day in his beloved Delaware, riding bikes and taking a moonlit stroll on the sand with the First Lady; and a trip out West to the Grand Canyon for an in-person signing of an order creating a new national monument, summer casual in a baseball cap, shades, and no tie. He even gave an interview to the Weather Channel about all the crazy summer weather and climate change—“the existential threat to humanity,” as he described it—though he declined to outright declare a national emergency. (Fox News coverage—no parody—was headlined “Biden avoids Hunter Biden scandal in sit-down interview with The Weather Channel.”)
The vacation vibe, though, came with an urgent political mission: revive his poll numbers before it’s too late. As the 2024 campaign begins in earnest, Biden has the lowest average approval ratings of any President since Jimmy Carter: 40.3 per cent approve, 54.8 per cent disapprove. Even Donald Trump, as hard as it is to believe, had slightly higher ratings at this point in his term. Other indicators—both economic and political—have been looking better for the President in recent months: low unemployment, easing inflation, better-than-expected performances in off-year elections, such as the win this week by abortion-rights advocates on a referendum in red Ohio. Economists and businesses began the year planning for recession; now they are talking of a “soft landing.” Past Presidents who sought reëlection under such circumstances—think Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama—tended to fare well in recent decades.
Since the beginning of June, the White House has leaned into Biden’s economic record as the key to resurrecting his political standing. In speech after speech, the President has touted his legislative record—investments in infrastructure spending, renewable energy, and manufacturing—with variations on a theme: “Bidenomics is just another way of saying ‘Restore the American Dream.’ ” On Wednesday, at a speech in New Mexico, Biden stood in front of a “Bidenomics” backdrop and waxed poetic about semiconductors and wind-turbine blades. (“And, by the way, they don’t cause cancer,” he added, a reference to Trump’s perplexing but oft-repeated view about the dangers of wind farms.) Biden bragged of eight hundred thousand new manufacturing jobs nationwide and poked fun at Republican members of Congress, such as Colorado’s outspokenly Trumpist Representative Lauren Boebert—“the very quiet Republican lady”—who voted against his bills and then happily touted the money that came to their states as a result. In short, he said, “Our plan is working. It’s working.”
As far as I can tell, the goal of Biden’s campaign will be to repeat this mantra endlessly. And I get it: the argument is that, in our polarized, nearly evenly divided society, Presidents are essentially doomed to unpopularity, regardless of their actual record. Breaking through, and changing minds, in such a situation is nearly impossible. “In the modern Presidency, we all know awareness level of accomplishment is super low, so what Biden is going through is not new or different than any other modern President,” a Democratic pollster told me. “The difference being everything he has done is incredibly popular—like, ridiculously popular.” Democrats hope that, at a minimum, they can point out to their own partisans that Biden has, in fact, delivered. “By the end of the campaign, after spending a billion dollars,” the pollster went on, “people are going to feel differently about the current situation. They are going to feel differently about what Biden has done for them, because, quite frankly, they are going to learn what Biden’s done for them.”
History suggests, however, that time is short to make the case. For starters, the economy itself might not coöperate. On Thursday, in fact, the July Consumer Price Index numbers were released, and showed a slight uptick to 3.2-per-cent annual inflation, the first such increase in a year. The country’s mood, post-COVID, is still dour, and prices for many everyday goods and services remain higher than before the pandemic. “A President can’t make voters believe the economy is great if they don’t feel it themselves,” Amy Walter, the editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, told me.
That’s where Biden’s summer feel-good tour comes in. Biden, it seems, is not selling the specifics of this or that infrastructure investment so much as an argument that he’s actually governing while Republicans stampede back down the path toward Donald Trump. Politics is about contrast, about making choices. Is Biden being too subtle about it? His speeches are, after all, pretty wonky paeans to the unheralded work of the technocrats that Democrats like Biden love to celebrate. Then again, Trump offers an awful lot of contrast. Walter pointed out to me that “chaos versus stability” was a winning hand for Biden in the 2020 election; Bidenomics versus “Trump’s never-ending summer of indictments” is the 2023 update.
Trump is certainly playing his assigned role. Since the special counsel Jack Smith announced criminal charges against him for seeking to overturn the 2020 election, the ex-President, now thrice indicted, with a fourth expected any day in Georgia, has entered a particularly aggressive new phase of his campaign to return to office. That campaign, as always with Trump, is designed to shock, with wildly intemperate social-media posts, overheated fund-raising e-mails, and a few in-person appearances heavy on name-calling and inflammatory zingers to reinforce his message: I may be a crook, but I’m your crook. Vote for me and we’ll get revenge on them all. Chaos is his brand. He’s leaning into it.
In New Hampshire this week, the forty-fifth President of the United States played along when an audience member referred to Chris Christie, his friend turned Republican rival, as a “fat pig,” while sweating profusely in an un-air-conditioned hall and led the crowd in chants of “Bullshit!” when discussing the latest charges against himself. Since the indictment was brought, Trump has attacked Smith, the judge in the case, and various potential witnesses, including his former Vice-President, Mike Pence. “IF YOU GO AFTER ME, I’M COMING AFTER YOU,” he threatened on his Truth Social platform. Prosecutors immediately cited that threat in asking for a protective order to be filed against Trump; the matter will be hashed out in Judge Tanya Chutkan’s Washington, D.C., courtroom in a Friday-morning hearing.
Trump’s temper tantrums after his latest indictment seemed so performatively over the top as to have been calculated. The ex-President has a playbook, and this is it: Go on offense, attack, attack, attack. On Thursday, he warned of Biden: “HE IS A MENTAL CATASTROPHE THAT IS LEADING OUR COUNTRY TO HELL!” Projection has always been one of Trump’s go-to moves. Yet I am mindful of an observation that Christie, a close watcher of Trump for years, made to me some years ago, arguing that journalists were always getting Trump wrong by making it out as if there were some “Machiavellian” grand plan that could explain his otherwise seemingly inexplicable behavior. “There is no strategy,” Christie said.
Jeb Bush, another of Trump’s failed 2016 rivals, came up with what to me remains the most enduringly correct assessment: Trump was a chaos candidate who would go on to become a chaos President. For 2024, that means a race not between Bidenomics and Trumponomics. It’s a contest about Biden’s wind farms versus a guy who believes, among other wild conspiracy theories, that wind farms cause cancer—between a President who loves to talk about infrastructure, and an ex-President who only speaks of himself and his grievances. In the end, the difference between Biden and Trump isn’t a wonky argument about policy but an existential one about America. ♦
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