A rematch of Biden v. Trump, two years early

Mr Trump (right) has arguably helped Mr Biden prepare for a political showdown to maintain grip on the Republican Party. PHOTOS: EPA-EFE, REUTERS

WASHINGTON - By this point in his term, President Joe Biden figured things would be different. His predecessor would have faded from the scene and the country would have restored at least some semblance of normalcy.

But as he said Thursday night, "too much of what's happening in our country today is not normal". And so, the president who declared when he took office that "democracy has prevailed" declared in a prime-time televised speech that, in fact, democracy 19 months later remained "under assault".

Former president Donald Trump "and the MAGA Republicans", as Mr Biden termed his predecessor's allies, still represent a clear and present danger to America.

If it sounded like a repeat of the 2020 campaign cycle, in some ways it is, although the incumbent and likely challenger have changed places. A country torn apart by ideology, culture, economics, race, religion, party and grievance remains as polarised as ever.

For now, unity's out the door

Mr Biden has scored some bipartisan legislative successes, but he has been singularly unable to heal the broader societal rift that he inherited. It may be that no president could have.

With an opposition party that has largely embraced the lie that the last election was stolen and remains in thrall to a twice-impeached and defeated former president who encouraged a mob that attacked the Capitol to stop the transfer of power, Mr Biden's appeals to national unity have found little traction.

Some Republicans have argued that his efforts to build consensus were fainthearted at best, while some Democrats complain they were excessive. Either way, they have made little difference in the national conversation.

And so, with the midterm congressional campaign getting underway in earnest, Mr Biden has dispensed with the unity message, at least for now, reaching into the 2020 file cabinet and bringing out the call to win "a battle for the soul of this nation" that was the cornerstone of his successful election.

The immediate strategy is self-evident. Rather than a referendum on his own presidency, which has been hurt by high inflation and low public morale, Mr Biden wants to make the election a choice between "normal" and an "extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic", as he put it Thursday.


If he has his way, it would be a rerun of Biden v. Trump without either man actually listed on the ballot.

If Americans are asked whether they support Mr Biden, they may say no. If they are asked whether they support him over Mr Trump, they may say yes. At least, that is the theory in the White House.

It is a view borne out by recent opinion surveys.

In the wake of a string of legislative and policy victories, Mr Biden's anaemic approval ratings have ticked upward, although they remain in the 40s. But when pitted against Mr Trump in a new Wall Street Journal poll, Mr Biden came out on top in a theoretical 2024 rematch, 50 per cent to 44 per cent.

Mr Trump has arguably helped Mr Biden set the stage for such a political showdown with his highly visible efforts to maintain his grip on the Republican Party. But it means that Mr Biden will take on a more confrontational posture for the next two months, undermining his desire to be a conciliator.

That left him in the odd position of being accused Thursday night of being divisive by allies of the most divisive president in modern times.

Trump Republicans argued that Mr Biden was the one tearing the country apart and threatening democracy, not the other way around. He had insulted, in their contention, the 74 million Americans who voted for Mr Trump.

"Joe Biden is the divider in chief and epitomises the current state of the Democrat Party: one of divisiveness, disgust and hostility towards half the country," said Ms Ronna McDaniel, the Republican National Committee chair, who has resolutely stood by Mr Trump despite his many divisive statements.

Uphill struggle

In his speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Mr Biden stressed that, in fact, he was not speaking of all Republicans.

"Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans," he said. "Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology. I know, because I've been able to work with these mainstream Republicans."

Republicans were not really Mr Biden's target audience in any case. For all his expressed hopes of bringing the country together, the president and his team have come to accept that 40 per cent of Americans are beyond his reach, unwilling to listen.

And so, Mr Biden was speaking not to them but to the 81 million Americans who formed the coalition of Democrats, independents and disaffected Republicans he assembled two years ago, hoping to bring them out for his favoured congressional candidates.

It will be an uphill struggle. Most Americans were not even listening Thursday night. The three main broadcast networks declined to carry the speech, evidently deeming it more of a campaign event than a presidential address to the nation.

Instead, they showed Law & Order, Young Sheldon and a game show called Press Your Luck with an episode titled "Zombie Apocalypse Ready".

The new normal

History has shown that the party of the incumbent president almost always loses the first midterm election. Republicans need only pick up a single seat in the Senate and a handful in the House to take control of one or both houses, which would effectively end Mr Biden's chances of major progressive legislation for the rest of his term.

But White House officials and other Democrats feel buoyed by the shift in political momentum in recent weeks, especially since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and eliminated the constitutional right to abortion, a decision that angered liberals and moderates and may motivate them to turn out.

The victory of a Democrat in a special House election in traditionally Republican Alaska and the decisive defeat of an anti-abortion constitutional amendment in red-leaning Kansas have provided a possible road map for underdog Democrats.

The Cook Political Report, which monitors every House campaign, moved five more races in the Democrats' direction Thursday, putting Mr Biden's party within striking distance of victory.

The question is whether focusing on the battle for democracy, as Mr Biden framed it, will move his own voters more than inflation, crime, immigration and other issues will move the other side.

The White House concluded long ago that it could not win simply by promoting Mr Biden's legislative record, even as his aides argued that he has accomplished a lot on infrastructure, climate change, health care and other issues.

The president's team determined that Democrats would win only by making Americans see the other side as too dangerous to let back into power.

In American politics in the Biden-Trump era, that debate is the new normal. NYTIMES

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