Trump needs a target to stay interested in reelection campaign - for now, it's Democratic frontrunner Biden

US President Donald Trump has shown no interest in formulating a new message for his campaign, instead continuing with the winning "Make America Great Again" slogan from his last race and adding that he also wants to "keep America great".
US President Donald Trump has shown no interest in formulating a new message for his campaign, instead continuing with the winning "Make America Great Again" slogan from his last race and adding that he also wants to "keep America great".PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Late at night, using his old personal mobile phone number, President Donald Trump has been calling former advisers who have not heard from him in years, eager to discuss his standing in the polls against the top Democrats in the field - specifically Mr Joe Biden, whom he describes in those conversations as "too old" and "not as popular as people think".

After being briefed on a devastating 17-state poll conducted by his campaign pollster Tony Fabrizio, President Trump told aides to deny that his internal polling showed him trailing Mr Biden in many of the states he needs to win, even though he is also trailing in public polls from key states like Texas, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

And when top-line details of the polling leaked, including numbers showing the President lagging in a cluster of critical Rust Belt states, Mr Trump instructed aides to say publicly that other data showed him doing well.

Mr Biden seems to have gotten into the President's head - at least for now. And on Tuesday, the President will engage with him, if indirectly, for the first time during the 2020 campaign when they both make appearances in Iowa.

Mr Trump's visit to an ethanol plant in Council Bluffs is an official White House event. But campaign aides see it, as well as a later appearance at a Republican dinner, as an opportunity to both troll Mr Biden and invigorate a candidate who needs an identifiable opponent to keep his interest and who has been alternately engrossed in and detached from his reelection effort.

In a recent overarching state-of-the-race briefing in Florida with Mr Brad Parscale, his campaign manager, Mr Trump was consistently distracted and wanted to discuss other things, according to people familiar with the meeting. When it came to the campaign, his main focus was on his own approval numbers.

Unlike nearly every recent modern president who sought reelection, Mr Trump rarely, if ever, speaks to aides about what he hopes to accomplish with what would be a hard-won second term; his interest is entirely in the present, and mostly on the crisis of the moment.

 
 
 
 

Mr Trump has shown no interest in formulating a new message for his campaign, instead continuing with the winning "Make America Great Again" slogan from his last race and adding that he also wants to "keep America great".

Mr Trump has griped about travelling too much, but then lashed out at aides, demanding to know, "why am I not doing more rallies?"

He insists on having final approval over the songs on his campaign playlist, as well as the campaign merchandise, but he has never asked to see a budget for 2019.

His lack of interest in the bones of his campaign is not wholly out of the ordinary for an incumbent running for reelection.

"At this point in the cycle, (former) president Barack Obama was pretty consumed by governing," Mr David Axelrod, a former top adviser to Mr Obama, said of his reelection focus. "He was briefed on the startup, but we didn't have our first big campaign meeting until the fall of 2011."

But with a limited policy agenda and little interest in governing, Mr Trump has been running for reelection virtually since the day he won. For the most part, though, he has been letting his campaign operatives get things organised without immersing himself in the details.

Mr Trump may be indifferent to the mechanics of running a presidential campaign, in part because he continues to view his 2016 victory as driven almost entirely by his own force of personality and messaging.

"His counter-intuitive gut instinct that drove much of the 2016 race was spot on through the primary and the general elections," said Mr Jason Miller, who served as a communications aide on Mr Trump's 2016 campaign. "I wouldn't expect that to change going into 2020. He's always going to be the one who drives the message and makes the important political decisions."

Mr rump is also aware that his signature campaign promise - to build a wall along the border with Mexico - has not come to fruition. He has been looking for opportunities to demonstrate to his core voters that he is fighting to get it done, according to aides, and that he is being stopped by intractable political forces.

But many of his private, election-related conversations, aides said, tend to centre on Mr Biden.

 

In conversations with donors and allies, the President has continued to refer to him as feeble (Mr Biden is 76; Mr Trump will turn 73 this week) and noted that he was part of the Washington establishment, giving Mr Trump the opportunity to run as the outsider even from his perch in the Oval Office.

"He views Biden as a failed vice president who's going to be savaged by the left in the primary to the point of unpredictability," said Mr Sam Nunberg, who worked on the 2016 campaign. "He also doesn't believe he has energy."

Mr Trump has tried workshopping versions of those critiques as Twitter attacks, referring to Mr Biden as "sleepy" and "swampman", and blaming him for the 1994 crime bill that critics say increased mass incarceration. West Wing aides have been discussing another criminal justice reform event as a vehicle to underscore Mr Biden's support of the crime bill.

During a recent state visit in Tokyo, Mr Trump appeared to side with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by saying on Twitter that he, too, called Mr Biden a "low IQ individual, & worse".

In Iowa, Mr Trump will finally be in a place where he will be expected to go after Mr Biden, rather than be criticised for it. He will also attend a fundraising dinner for the state Republican Party chairman Jeffrey Kaufmann, an event his campaign aides said they had wanted to get on the books for months, as a way to incentivise other state party leaders to work hard on behalf of Mr Trump.

Longtime aides and advisers said they expected him to hit his stride once he had a clear opponent in front of him like he will have, for one day, in Iowa.

"President Trump is always strongest when he has a direct foil," Mr Miller said. "I can't imagine him not taking advantage of the opportunity to jab at Biden."