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Team Biden banks on a meta-campaign

Four years ago, the coronavirus pandemic was a central challenge for Donald Trump’s reelection bid. The tumult caused by the emergence of the virus hurt the economy, contributed to a widespread malaise and amplified partisan tensions over the role of government institutions. Even if there had been no pandemic, Trump’s reelection was far from guaranteed: He was deeply disliked by a large percentage of the population. But the pandemic was a tangible manifestation of his chaotic administration, and he lost to Joe Biden.

Four years later, remarkably, the negative effects of the pandemic have flipped. Trump benefits from the blinkered idea that his presidency was a massive success derailed by a virus out of his control. Biden suffers from the long-tail effects of the pandemic, including and especially the role it played in inflation. If the presidential election were held today, polls suggest that Biden would lose in a rematch against Donald Trump.

So, as he did in 2020, the sitting president hopes to make the election centrally about Trump — and about the importance of the election in defending elections themselves.

Two polls released over the weekend demonstrated the challenge for Biden in approaching November’s election the way an incumbent president overseeing high stock prices and low unemployment might be inclined to approach it. Asked by Siena College pollsters surveying Americans for the New York Times, a plurality of respondents said that Biden’s policies had hurt them personally. Fewer than 1 in 5 said that Biden’s policies had helped them; even among Democrats, a plurality said that his policies didn’t make much difference.

That was not the case for Trump. A plurality said his policies had helped them personally. Only about half of Democrats said they had been hurt by Trump’s policies. (Seven in 10 Republicans said they’d been hurt by Biden’s policies.)

A Fox News poll had similar findings. Nearly half of respondents said Biden’s policies were hurting them and their families; only about half of Democrats said they were being helped. A large plurality said that Trump’s policies had helped them.

(A note: While Fox News itself is unsubtle about its efforts to frame political moments in favor of the right, its pollsters have a well-deserved reputation for objectivity and fairness.)

This is necessarily abstracted: What “policies” are we talking about? It seems clear that two things are at play. First, partisanship; that partisans are much more likely to say their guy helped them and the other guy hurt them. But, second, we’re talking about the economy and inflation. Fox News asked respondents whether they had more money in their pockets than a year ago; most people (including two-thirds of independents) said they had less.

Again, this sentiment is valid. The increase in inflation was significant, though wages kept up. Particularly when gasoline prices surged — in part because of the pandemic — Biden was viewed as responsible.

For months, the president and his team tried to reframe perceptions of his handling of the economy, hyping the success of “Bidenomics.” The weekend’s polls suggest it didn’t work very well. But, as a report from the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos delineates, the Biden campaign is focused in a different direction anyway.

Osnos spoke with campaign adviser Mike Donilon, a longtime aide to Biden.

“In 2020, [Donilon] and his campaign team had to decide whether to emphasize the economy or the more abstract idea that Trump imperilled the essence of America. ‘We bet on the latter,’ Donilon said, even though ‘our own pollsters told us that talking about “the soul of the nation” was nutty.’ That experience fortified his belief that this year’s campaign should center on what he calls ‘the freedom agenda.’ By November, he predicted, ‘the focus will become overwhelming on democracy. I think the biggest images in people’s minds are going to be of January 6th.’”

One of the patterns on display here is how political actors tend to extrapolate outward from small sample sizes: If something worked in a previous election, try it again. But that doesn’t make Donilon wrong.

Polling already indicates that much of Biden’s support comes not from people pleased with his handling of the economy but, instead, from people who oppose Donald Trump. In the Fox News poll, 67 percent of independents said they had less money in their pockets than a year ago. In a head-to-head matchup against Trump, they also preferred Biden by eight points. Biden and Trump were viewed with about equal favorability among those voters.

There’s an obvious benefit to this approach from the Biden campaign if it can make it work: Centering the election on the risk Trump poses to democracy means that views of Biden don’t matter as much. The low support Biden enjoys from younger voters (as in the Times-Siena poll) overlaps with their higher identification as independents and with independents paying less attention to the campaign (as in the Fox News poll). Younger Americans skew left but don’t particularly like Biden. If the election is about Trump, that latter issue becomes less important for the incumbent. You know, if they vote.

As Donilon notes, this approach isn’t new. Biden focused on it in 2020. He elevated the same issue in 2022, right before Democrats outperformed expectations in the midterms. (That success was largely because of the reversal of Roe v. Wade, yes, but that issue, too, plays into a narrative about Trump disrupting America.) Biden has focused generally on the tension between democracy and authoritarianism since the first day of his presidency; that is a useful frame for a Biden-Trump rematch.

There’s no guarantee it will work, certainly. Even among some vocal Biden supporters, there is skepticism that reelecting Trump would be the doomsday scenario that it’s useful for Biden’s campaign to suggest. But, at the moment, one can see the utility for Biden of at least elevating the concern that it might be.

If people think they fared better under Trump than Biden, the president’s pitch seems to be, maybe they will at least appreciate the chance that America itself might fare far worse should Trump return to the White House.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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