Biden is up against nostalgia for Trump’s first term

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

CNN  —  President Joe Biden is casting the 2024 election partly as a referendum on Donald Trump, but it’s a harder card to play now that he’s in office and some voters have warming memories of the former president’s chaotic term.

The presumptive GOP nominee is showing progress in gathering the Republican Party around him, as his criminal trial underway in New York fuels his claims he’s a victim of political persecution. Even former Attorney General William Barr, who once said Trump shouldn’t be near the Oval Office, told CNN he’d back him. And the former president met with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, his former GOP primary rival, for several hours on Sunday. At the same time, Biden is still experiencing problems with key sectors of his own coalition, including younger voters, a new CNN poll shows.

Just over six months before the election, a volatile political climate is throwing up multiple tests for two flawed candidates, and it is hard to pinpoint which issues will be decisive in November. They span voter disenchantment with the economy, to abortion rights, as well as criticism of Biden’s leadership on key issues at home and abroad at a time of stubbornly high inflation and growing protests on college campuses over Israel’s war in Gaza.

There is also the unprecedented spectacle of the potential next president facing multiple criminal indictments, including a jury verdict within weeks in his Manhattan hush money case, as he tries to make a historic comeback after his efforts to overturn the 2020 election to stay in power.

And the impact on the race of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an independent candidate, remains unclear, although Trump is showing increasing signs of concern over his run.

Memories of Trump’s Oval Office chaos are fading

The CNN poll released Sunday suggests Biden is facing extreme pressure to do more to remind voters of the turmoil of Trump’s single term, which ended amid his erratic leadership in a once-in-a-century pandemic but that now appears to some voters to have largely been a time of economic stability.

More than half, 55%, of all Americans say they see Trump’s presidency as a success, while 44% see it as a failure. That contrasts with a survey taken just before Trump left office and days after the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, when 55% of voters considered his presidency a failure. Regarding Biden’s presidency so far, 61% say it’s a failure, while 39% see it as successful.

The findings underscored the reversed dynamic that the president must deal with as he seeks a second term. Four years ago, he was able to assail Trump’s time in office from his position as a challenger. Biden vowed the country would “overcome this season of darkness” and choose “hope over fear, facts over fiction, fairness over privilege.” Now, however, Trump is able to exploit Biden’s travails in office as he seeks to make the election a classic referendum on the incumbent despite his own liabilities. The former president paints a picture of a failing nation, adrift in a world spinning into disorder, almost every day during breaks from his trial in Manhattan.

“The economy’s falling apart now. Now you’re seeing it, very little growth, it’s going to get worse. Oil prices are going up and you have the college campuses all over closed down. Our country’s going to hell,” he said Friday.

Inflation is lower than its peak but still higher than when Trump was in office. And with voters weary of high prices, it’s one of the former president’s most fruitful lines of attack. Biden’s approval rating on the economy is 34% in the CNN poll — and on inflation, it’s even worse at 29%. And voters say economic concerns are more important to their choice in this election than they were in the previous two.

But the president has other areas of vulnerability. He’s facing a backlash over his handling of Israel’s war in Gaza, with 71% disapproving of his leadership on the issue. In a flashing danger sign among a cohort of voters critical to the Democratic coalition, he’s got an 81% disapproval rating among those younger than 35 over the war.

Numbers like these explain why Republicans are highlighting college campus protests. The GOP is largely unified behind strongly backing Israel in its war against Hamas. But the issue causes deep splits in the Democratic coalition and may threaten enthusiasm for Biden among key voting blocs that could be decisive in swing states. As Republicans seek to exacerbate the president’s vulnerability on the issue, House Speaker Mike Johnson visited Columbia University last week and called for the National Guard to be deployed to break up protests. Some Jewish students have said they were threatened by protesters and encountered antisemitic rhetoric at some of the campus rallies over the past week.

As Biden tries to temper a collision between his political interests (and what he perceives to be US national interests) with his support for Israel, he spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone on Sunday, underscoring his opposition to a planned Israeli incursion into Rafah in Gaza. Critics fear the operation to root out Hamas fighters could cause huge civilian casualties. Such a scenario would only intensify Biden’s political exposure at home over the crisis.

Trump and DeSantis meet

Polls can show only a snapshot of opinion at any given time.

Trump’s (49%) and Biden’s (43%) levels of support among registered voters in a head-to-head matchup aren’t significantly different from where each was in January in CNN polling. And most poll averages show the race a statistical tie. CBS News polls published Sunday show Biden and Trump even in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — several of the key swing states that will decide the election. Biden won all three in 2020 after Trump won them in 2016 in his victory over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Some Republicans now believe the dynamics of the election favor Trump, despite his confinement to a Manhattan courtroom four days per week while his hush money trial plays out. “Your poll tells me everything I need to know about these legal problems for Trump. People are looking at their problems, not Trump’s legal problems,” South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the ex-president’s top supporters, told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” on Sunday.

The CNN poll suggests most Republicans are massing behind Trump, despite thousands of GOP primary voters still casting votes for former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who dropped out in March. And the ex-president appears to have more control over his party than Biden does over his. In the poll, 92% of Republicans view Trump’s time in office a success, while just 73% of Democrats say Biden’s has been a success. And while 85% of Democrats polled say they back Biden, 91% of Republicans say they support Trump.

One hallmark of Trump’s political success has been his capacity to crush GOP opposition and to force Republicans who want a political future — or who simply want a home in the party — to bow to his will. In a fresh sign of this phenomenon, DeSantis, who had lambasted Trump before ending his primary campaign, had breakfast with the former president Sunday, CNN’s Kristen Holmes and Kit Maher reported.

In an extraordinary interview with CNN’s Kaitlan Collins last week, the ex-president’s former attorney general said he’d vote for Trump. Barr, who rejected Trump’s claims of electoral fraud in 2020 as the former president tried to steal the election, insisted that Biden and progressives represented a greater threat to democracy than Trump, partly because they wanted to tell “people what kind of stoves they can use and what kinds of cars they have to drive. … Yeah, those are the threats to democracy.”

And New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Haley supporter who has previously described Trump as an extremist and a loser, said before his candidate had even dropped out that he’d vote for Trump if he were the nominee — even if he were a convicted felon.

Why Biden isn’t catching on with some voters

Biden has made the ex-president’s threat to democracy a cornerstone of his campaign. But it appears unlikely that Trump will face any accountability for his attempts to overturn the election result in 2020 before the 2024 election, with two — one federal and one in Georgia — tied down in pretrial litigation. The president is again warning that political freedoms that Americans once took for granted are at stake. “Every single one of us has a role to play, a serious role to play, in making sure democracy endures. American democracy,” Biden said at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on Saturday night.

Biden has had a successful presidency by many traditional metrics. He has presided over a long period of historically low unemployment following the pandemic-induced economic crisis. He has unified the West to support Ukraine, a democracy, under a ruthless and illegal assault from Russia. And earlier this month, he presided over a stunningly successful US operation to shield Israel from a volley of Iranian drones and cruise and ballistic missiles. He’s passed as much or more major legislation as any of his recent predecessors, including a bipartisan infrastructure law that Trump failed to enact. Yet whether it is because of high inflation or a prolonged feeling of economic insecurity still haunting Americans, he’s not getting much credit from the voters.

Biden’s troubles are more remarkable given that he’s running against the first ex-president to be indicted, who incited a riot that almost broke American democracy, and who left office in disgrace after a single, tumultuous term. “Saturday Night Live” comedian Colin Jost made this point in his roast of Biden at the correspondents’ dinner Saturday. “The Republican candidate for president owes half a billion in fines for bank fraud and is currently spending his days … (in) a porn star hush money trial and the race is tied? Nothing makes sense anymore,” Jost said.

The joke went down well in the cavernous ballroom of the Washington Hilton. But outside of the cities where the political elites and media congregate, Trump enjoys a deep well of support from tens of millions of Americans waiting for a chance to try to send him back to the White House.

Related Articles

Back to top button