Biden’s Most Urgent State of the Union Priority

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Written By Pinang Driod

As President Joe Biden prepares to deliver his State of the Union address tonight, his pathways to reelection are narrowing. His best remaining option, despite all of the concerns about his age, may be to persuade voters to look forward, not back.

In his now-certain rematch against former President Donald Trump, Biden has three broad possibilities for framing the contest to voters. One is to present the race as a referendum on Biden’s performance during his four years in office. The second is to structure it as a comparison between his four years and Trump’s four years as president. The third is to offer it as a choice between what he and Trump would do over the next four years in the White House.

The referendum route already looks like a dead end for Biden. The comparison path remains difficult terrain for him, given that voters now express more satisfaction with Trump’s performance as president than they ever did while he was in office. The third option probably offers Biden the best chance to recover from his consistent deficit to Trump in polls.

Political scientists agree: Every presidential reelection campaign combines elements of a backward-looking referendum on the incumbent and a forward-looking choice between the incumbent and the challenger.

But on balance, the referendum element of presidential reelection campaigns has appeared to influence the outcome the most. Since modern polling began, the presidents whose approval ratings stood well above 50 percent in Gallup surveys through the election year (including Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton) all won a second term comfortably. Conversely, the presidents whose approval ratings fell well below 50 percent in election-year Gallup polls all lost their reelection bids: Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, and Trump.

That history isn’t encouraging for Biden. His approval rating in a wide array of national polls has been stuck at about 40 percent or less. What’s more, most voters are returning intensely negative verdicts on specific elements of Biden’s record. In the latest New York Times/Siena College poll, released last weekend, just 20 percent of Americans said Biden’s policies had helped them personally; more than twice as many said his policies had hurt them. In the lastest Fox News poll, about three-fifths of Americans said Biden had mostly failed at helping working-class Americans, handling the economy, and improving America’s image around the world, while about seven in 10 said he had failed at managing security at the border.

In the past, such withering judgments almost certainly would have ensured defeat for an incumbent president, and if Biden loses in November, analysts may conclude that he simply failed a referendum on his performance.

But Democrats, and even some Republicans, see more opportunity for Biden than previous presidents to surmount negative grades about his tenure.

One reason is that in an era when distrust of political leaders and institutions is so endemic, officeholders are winning reelection with approval ratings much lower than in earlier generations, pollsters in both parties told me. The other reason is that the intense passions provoked by Trump may make this year less of a referendum and more of a choice than is typical in reelection campaigns.

The choice, though, has unusual dimensions that complicate Biden’s situation, including an especially concrete element of comparison: Trump was president so recently that most voters still have strong impressions about his performance. For Biden, comparing his four years to Trump’s represents the second broad way to frame the election. But at this point, that doesn’t look like a winning hand for the incumbent either.

One of the scariest trends for Democrats is that retrospective assessments of Trump’s performance are rising, perhaps in reaction to voter discontent over Biden’s record. Nearly half of voters in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal national poll said they now approve of Trump’s performance as president—10 percentage points more than those who said the same about Biden’s current performance.

Trump has made clear that he wants voters to view the contest mostly as a comparison between his time in office and Biden’s. “We had everything going so beautifully,” Trump declared in his victory speech after the Super Tuesday primaries. “Joe Biden, if he would have just left everything alone, he could have gone to the beach. He would have had a tremendous success at the border and elsewhere.”

Facing these dismal reviews in polls of his job performance, and the tendency among many voters to view Trump’s record more favorably than his, Biden naturally will be tempted in tonight’s State of the Union to emphasize all that he has accomplished. And he has many positive trends that he can highlight.

Yet every Democratic strategist I spoke with in recent days agreed that Biden would be mistaken to spend too much time trying to burnish perceptions of his record. “The challenge for Biden is his inclination to want credit and claim credit and talk about the greatest economy in 50 years or whatever,” David Axelrod, who served as the top political adviser to Barack Obama during his presidency, told me. “You have to resist that.”

The veteran Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg reacts as if he hears nails on a chalkboard whenever Biden stresses positive trends in the economy. That emphasis, he argues, is “missing how angry voters are,” particularly over the cumulative increase in prices for essentials such as groceries and rent since Biden took office. Greenberg told me, “That defines the economy for people, and they are angry at the huge inequality, the big monopolies that are profiteering. They are also angry about what’s happening with crime, and they are angry now with the border.” To tout other accomplishments against that backdrop, Greenberg said, makes Biden look out of touch.

Patrick Gaspard, the CEO of the Center for American Progress, an influential liberal think tank, says that although Biden may want to accentuate the positive, it is more important for him to acknowledge the frustration that so many Americans feel about their “lived experience with inflation and immigration.” “You can’t just race ahead with your policy prescriptions without people feeling that you actually get it and telling them that they are right to feel the way they do,” he told me.

Gaspard, Axelrod, and Greenberg each said they believed that Biden, rather than looking back, must shift the economic argument as much as possible toward what he and Trump would do if returned to power. That’s Biden’s third broad option for framing the race. “I don’t think you want to argue about whether you are better off in those [Trump] years or these years,” Axelrod told me. “You want to argue about who will help you be better off in the future, and what you have to do to make people better off in the future.”

That future-oriented frame, all three said, will allow Biden to highlight more effectively his legislative achievements not as proof of how much he has accomplished for Americans but as evidence that he’s committed in a second term to fighting for average families against powerful interests.

Biden has already been portraying himself in that populist mode, with his regulatory moves against “junk fees” and surprise medical bills, and the ongoing negotiations by Medicare with big pharmaceutical companies to lower drug prices for seniors. “President Biden took on drug companies to get a better deal for the American people, and he won,” Neera Tanden, the chief White House domestic policy adviser told reporters yesterday, in a preview of what will likely be a common refrain through the campaign.

Greenberg believes that the president needs to drastically amplify the volume on this argument: He says that Democratic base voters expressing discontent over Biden are eager to hear him take on “the top one percent, the big companies, the monopolies that have price gouged, [made] huge profits at your expense, didn’t raise your wages, didn’t cut prices.” Greenberg, like many other Democrats, also thinks Biden’s best chance to narrow Trump’s advantage on the economy is to portray him as most concerned about serving the same powerful interests that voters are angry about.

Yet the viewpoint of many, Black and Latino voters included, that they were better off under Trump could blunt the impact of those Democratic arguments. Many voters may not mind that Trump’s presidency delivered the greatest rewards to the affluent and corporations if they feel that they also benefited more from his tenure than they have under Biden. With inflation still weighing so heavily on voters living paycheck to paycheck, “they blame [Biden] for the problem in the first place, and they don’t think his solutions help the situation,” Jim McLaughlin, a pollster for Trump, told me.

Democrats view the rising retrospective ratings for Trump’s presidency as a sign that many voters are forgetting what they didn’t like about it at the time, whether his belligerent tweets or his role in the January 6 insurrection. With those memories fading, fewer voters in polls are expressing alarm about the dangers a reelected Trump could pose to democracy and the rule of law as Democrats hoped or expected.

“This is one of the existential narratives of the campaign: How do we make people really fear his second term?” Leslie Dach, a veteran Democratic communications strategist, told me. “People aren’t focused. They are still in the denial phase. They think, Oh, he’s just a showman.”

A survey of swing voters released earlier this week by Save My Country Action Fund, a group that Dach co-founded, quantified that challenge. The survey found that less than one-third of swing voters in key states had heard much about Trump’s most inflammatory recent statements, such as his declaration that immigrants are “poisoning the blood” of the country and his pledge to pardon some of the January 6 rioters. Extreme comments like those, Dach argues, provide Democrats with an opportunity to refresh voters’ concerns that a second Trump term will bring chaos, division, and even violence.

“He has created an extraordinary body of evidence that he will be more extreme and more dangerous in a second term than he was in the first, and he keeps refreshing the body of evidence every day,” Geoff Garin, who conducted the poll, told me.

Abortion may offer Biden similar opportunities. In the new CBS/YouGov poll, just one-third of voters said Trump deserved blame for the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision rescinding the nationwide right to abortion, even though he’s claimed credit for appointing the three justices who tipped the balance. If Biden and his allies can increase the share who blame Trump, they will likely make voters more concerned that a reelected Trump would seek to ban abortion nationwide. Climate could serve the same function for young people: A survey of battleground states released yesterday by the advocacy group Climate Power found that “when people are reminded about Trump’s [climate] record, they become more concerned about what he will do” if reelected, Christina Polizzi, the group’s deputy managing director for communications, told me.

Though a race focused more on the future than the past might improve Biden’s prospects, it wouldn’t offer him guarantees. Voters’ judgments about what the two men will do are influenced by their assessments of what they have done; significantly more voters in the CBS/YouGov poll, for instance, said that Trump’s policies going forward were more likely than Biden’s to improve both inflation and border security. And a forward-looking race also forces voters to consider which man they believe is physically more capable of handling the job for the next four years.

In the 2022 election, Democrats won an unprecedented number of voters with negative views of Biden’s performance and the economy because those voters considered the Republican alternatives a threat to their rights, values, and democracy itself. That dynamic may work for Biden again—but only to a point: There’s a limit to how many voters disappointed in an incumbent president will vote for him anyway because they consider the alternative unacceptable. If Biden, starting tonight, can’t generate at least some additional hope about what his own second term would bring, fear about a second Trump term may not be enough to save him.

Ronald Brownstein is a senior editor at The Atlantic and a senior political analyst for CNN.

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