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The Huge Challenges Facing Biden

The presidential race is far from over, but the former vice president is already thinking about the stakes of governing after Trump and the 2020 crises.
June 25, 2020
The Huge Challenges Facing Biden
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Delaware State Universitys student center in Dover, Delaware, on June 5, 2020. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

For three and a half years, America has been governed by a president with a pathological need for our attention.

He certainly has it. His ceaseless insults, braggadocio, divisiveness, power grabs, self-absorption, and self-pity have shattered norms and split Americans into warring camps—the adoring and appalled, the latter suspended between loathing and exhaustion.

Now reality has presented Donald Trump with a past-due bill in the form of a deadly pandemic and an incendiary racial reckoning. An election which was always about him has also become about them—and what kind of leadership such crises demand.

Fortuitously, the Democratic primaries yielded a candidate who is Trump’s tempermental opposite: seasoned, empathic, conciliatory, inclusive and, when appropriate, modest. Unlike Trump’s glaring pathology, Joe Biden’s well-known flaws are human-scale. His undeniable normality poses a beguiling question: Wouldn’t it be nice to go whole days without obsessing on our president—or worrying about where he’s taking us and what he will do next?

A demographically weighted Morning Consult survey of registered voters conducted last weekend is particularly telling: 71 percent said they think America is on the wrong track. As the veteran Democratic consultant Joe Trippi told Thomas B. Edsall: “The more wound up we get on coronavirus and unemployment and race, the more chaos we see. If Trump is chaos and Biden is community, what will the country choose?”

Recent polling suggests an answer. Trump’s favorability ratings are consistently underwater: A RealClear average of surveys from the last seven weeks puts his unfavorability rating at 55 percent and his favorability at 41 percent. Gallup’s tracking poll of Trump’s job-approval rating concurs; as of early June, he was at 57 percent disapprove, 39 percent approve. Head-to-head national surveys have Biden leading by an average of 10 percent. More important, polls show Biden ahead in several key battleground states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, Arizona, and Wisconsin.

Why? Unlike, say, climate change, COVID-19 is the reckoning Trump cannot escape. Gallup polls in April and May showed that 40 percent or more of respondents believed the pandemic was the most important problem besetting America; by this month, respondents were saying that the country’s three most important problems are the pandemic, racism, and “the government/poor leadership.” The new Morning Consult survey referenced above also shows that the respondents were deeply concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on the economy—the area Trump had counted on to justify his re-election.

Instead, the coronavirus is becoming his electoral millstone. In the Morning Consult poll, 50 percent of the respondents disapproved of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, compared to just 34 percent who say he has done an “excellent” or “good” job of handling it. The latest New York Times poll of registered voters—conducted over the weekend and weighted demographically—has similar figures: 58 percent disapproval to 38 percent approval of Trump’s response to the pandemic.

Biden’s ad campaign virtually writes itself. In October 2019—well before the coronavirus—he tweeted:

By late January Biden was writing about Trump’s incapacity to deal with COVID-19:

The possibility of a pandemic is a challenge Donald Trump is unqualified to handle as president. . . . Trump’s demonstrated failures of judgment and his repeated rejection of science make him the worst possible person to lead our country through a global health challenge. . . . The outbreak of a new coronavirus, which has already infected more than 2,700 people and killed over 80 in China, will get worse before it gets better.

Since then it has, indeed, gotten worse—much worse. Less than five months after Biden’s admonition, we have lost over 120,000 Americans and counting. The damage to Trump is spreading: In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of registered voters from the start of the month, 77 percent said they view the state of the economy as “only fair” or “poor,” compared to 44 percent last December. Little wonder: We are officially in a recession.

Moreover, COVID-19 exacerbates a critical and persistent area of weakness for Trump—healthcare. The massive unemployment caused by the pandemic has left medical care unaffordable for all too many. Trump has no answer.

His greatest hope, that the economy rebounds before November, requires a pandemic in retreat. But his own derelictions reduce the likelihood of such national good fortune. Instead of providing proactive presidential leadership, he has supported mindless protests against the very public health measures his own administration promulgated. As the daily number of new COVID-19 cases and deaths reach new highs in several parts of the country, he urges governors to reopen the economy. Like a frightened child pulling a blanket over his head, Trump is wishing the pandemic away.

Dr. Anthony Fauci knows better. “We are still in the first wave,” he warned last week. Indeed, in the last week three states whose governors responded to Trump’s prompting—Texas, Florida, and Arizona—have set records for the daily number of new coronavirus cases.

No matter to Trump. Hungry for ego gratification, he insisted on staging a big indoor rally in Tulsa so that frenzied loyalists could slake his inexhaustible hunger for adulation. Instead he presented a spectacle at once frightening and pathetic: a fear-mongering, race-baiting, self-pitying jeremiad, delivered to a disappointing crowd, in which he blamed our world-record coronavirus rates on excessive testing; decried the removal of Confederate monuments; spent fifteen minutes explaining his halting gait at West Point; and informed his audience that they were lucky to have him.

In truth, they will be lucky to escape infection. Prior to the event, Fauci warned that it created a dangerous risk of transmission, and local health officials wished aloud for a postponement. Instead, Trump’s campaign required attendees to execute a waiver of liability to protect it from lawsuits. Trump, it seems, is where irony goes to die.

People too. The pandemic has hit African Americans particularly hard. “Disproportionately,” writes Adam Serwer in the Atlantic, “black and brown workers are being sacrificed to fuel the engine of a faltering economy, by a president who disdains them.”

It is, therefore, cruelly congruent that the second crisis facing Trump stems from the sickening murder of a black man by a white cop—rendered indelible by videotape. Thomas Edsall described the potentially seismic impact on our politics:

The nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd will test two competing notions of how voters respond to crises that provoke both anger and grief. Could the demonstrations that have devolved into mayhem, looting and assault lead to victory for President Trump? . . . Or could Trump’s authoritarian reaction, both rhetorically (“You have to dominate,” “I am your president of law and order”) and actual (ordering military units and equipment to the nation’s capital) enrage and energize the knowledge class, white liberals and the young to more tightly ally with African-Americans, Hispanics and other minorities to produce a Democratic surge?

For once the answer may foretell progress. In a demographically weighted CNN survey conducted in early June, 84 percent of the respondents said they believed that the peaceful protests concerning police violence against African Americans are “justified”; two-thirds labeled racism “a big problem.” And the New York Times documented a rapid shift in public opinion: Americans increasingly report positive rather than negative associations with the slogan “black lives matter.”

For now, this hurts Trump. As Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said earlier this month, “The [presidential] race continues to be largely a referendum on the incumbent. The initial reaction to ongoing racial unrest in the country suggests that most voters feel Trump is not handling the situation all that well.” Observed Rick Perlstein in Mother Jones: “When disorder is all around them, voters tend to blame the person in charge for the disorder—and, sometimes, punish those who exploit it for political gain.”

So it seems. In a nationwide Marist/NPR/PBS poll conducted in early June, 67 percent of the respondents said that Trump’s actions have “mostly increased tensions” in America; among independents, that figure was even higher—73 percent. Other polls, by Emerson College and Reuters/Ipsos, indicate that a substantial majority disapproves of Trump’s response to the death of George Floyd death, and the protests which ensued.

Thus far, advantage Biden. Monmouth shows Biden with a significant advantage over Trump in improving race relations. In a Morning Consult survey of registered voters conducted May 31-June 1, 34 percent of self-identified independents said Floyd’s death and the subsequent protests made them more likely vote for Biden, compared to 22 percent who said it became more likely they would vote for Trump.

So what can go wrong? How about the most dimwitted slogan launched by the left since “abolish ICE”: “defund the police.” Polling shows that a decisive majority of respondents, including independents, oppose the concept. The elaborate efforts of proponents to explain what these words truly mean defies a classic dictum of politics: If you’re explaining, you’re losing.

Trump understands that well: He and his party have turned this inflammatory phrase on Biden and the Democrats. Concurrently, a collection of progressive groups effectively joined Trump in a pincer movement by demanding that Biden drop his plan to invest $300 million in community policing programs in favor of defunding police forces—demonstrating, yet again, the penchant of ideologues on the left to embrace political suicide as a virtue.

Biden isn’t playing. “I don’t support defunding the police,” he told Norah O’Donnell. James Clyburn, the African-American congressman whose endorsement helped Biden clinch South Carolina, said flatly: “Nobody is going to defund the police.”

Instead, congressional Democrats have proposed legislation that would, among other measures, limit legal protections for police, create a national database for incidents of excessive force, and ban chokeholds. These popular proposals contrast with a weaker Republican bill that seeks to incentivize, rather than mandate, reforms while doing nothing to limit qualified immunity.

Biden gets the politics—and the moment. He is acutely aware that, but for the African-American vote, he would not be the presumptive nominee. But he also understands the anxiety stirred in many whites by news footage of looters and burning buildings—and Trump’s eagerness to exploit them.

Speaking in Philadelphia about Floyd’s murder and its aftermath, Biden drew a line: “There’s no place for violence, no place for looting, or destroying property, or burning churches or destroying businesses. . . . Nor is it acceptable for our police, sworn to protect and serve all people, to escalate tension, resort to excessive violence.”

But he also delivered what Franklin Foer described as “perhaps the most thorough-going and hard-hitting critique of American racial inequities ever uttered by a major presidential nominee.” Said Biden, “I wish I could say that hate began with Donald Trump and will end with him. It didn’t and it won’t. American history isn’t a fairytale with a guaranteed happy ending.”

Nonetheless, he singled out Trump’s white identity politics: “Donald Trump has turned this country into a battlefield riven by old resentments and fresh fears. . . . Is this who we are? Is this who we want to be? Is this what we want to pass on to our children and our grandchildren? Fear, anger, finger-pointing, rather than the pursuit of happiness? Incompetence and anxiety, self-absorption, selfishness?”

Biden acknowledged that the presidency is a “very big job” which defies perfection. “But I promise you this,” he added. “I won’t traffic in fear and division. I won’t fan the flames of hate. I’ll seek to heal the racial wounds that have long plagued our country—not use them for political gain.”

For now Biden is well positioned on issues of race—politically and morally. The looming question is whether he will select an African-American woman to be his running mate. The right answer is yes; the right choice may turn out to be Congresswoman Val Demings of Florida.

In this moment, her biography resonates. She rose from poverty in the segregated South to earn a master’s degree, do social work, join the Orlando police force, and become the city’s first female chief of police.

A devout churchgoer, she’s been married for 32 years and has three kids; her husband is a former police chief and current mayor of a Florida municipality. Her law enforcement background gives her broad credibility across the political spectrum on issues of policing and race; her recent opinion piece in the Washington Post called for sweeping reforms of police practices.

Her career suggests a penchant for leadership. After coming to Congress in 2016, she was selected to serve as a manager in Trump’s impeachment trial. On critical issues, she’s a mainstream Democrat; by virtue of her selection, she would symbolize for progressives Biden’s commitment to racial progress. Finally, she’s the only obvious non-white contender from a crucial battleground state.

We’ll know who Biden chooses in August. Regardless of whether he picks Demings, there is widespread sentiment within the party for an African-American running mate. Likely he will answer it: A judicious choice could help unify the party, uplift the country, and assure African Americans that, among Democrats, their voice truly matters.

In the meantime, the minimalist campaign thrust on Biden by COVID-19 is serving him just fine. He has avoided the serious gaffes which could further Trump’s accusations of senescence. His few public appearances have been well chosen and effective. His compassion and sobriety in troubled times are an effective contrast to Trump’s angry and feckless bluster.

In reality, Trump is doing himself more damage than Biden ever could. “The more he talks,” Biden remarked at a fundraiser last month, “the more we go up.” As Rahm Emanuel observes, “This is a race of Trump versus Trump, and Trump is losing.”

Trump’s ultimate problem is that, as president, his noxious persona accentuates his incapacity to cope with crises that have riveted public attention. “These have been disastrous weeks for Trump,” former Obama adviser David Axelrod told the New Yorker’s David Remnick, adding:

The cost of his divisiveness has become apparent for people who just want domestic tranquility. The combination of the incompetence they sensed in Trump around the coronavirus combined with the divisiveness that they’ve seen on this issue has really crystallized concerns about him.

Beyond doubt Trump has become a potentially dispositive turnout machine for Democrats. But Biden cannot count on stasis from now until November. Trump, deprived of his chief talking point—the economy—can be expected to run the most toxic, divisive, dishonest, and brutally negative presidential campaign in American history.

Since 2016, Trump has done nothing to broaden his support. Of necessity, his entire strategy will rest on maximizing turnout among his base while dampening enthusiasm for Biden just enough to squeak out another Electoral College victory. The problem for Biden, Axelrod warns, is that Trump, “is absolutely untethered to any norms and is willing to do anything to win. You’re in a race that resembles asymmetric warfare.”

To that end, Trump’s version of Joe Biden will be a corrupt and senile socialist allied with black radicals, job-stealing immigrants, godless libertines, and the villainous Chinese who have screwed American workers and dispatched a deadly pandemic to our shores—and who, therefore, is wholly unsuited to lead America out of the economic trough China diabolically created. Concurrently, Trump’s financially inexhaustible digital disinformation campaign will focus on microtargeting susceptible suburbanites and rallying his base, while persuading a critical slice of progressives and minorities who might otherwise vote for Biden to stay home.

Add voter suppression—including discouraging mail-in ballots at a time when millions of people harbor pandemic-related fears of voting in person—and you have Donald Trump’s version of American democracy.

Like Trump, Biden’s path to victory runs through six battleground states: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona. While Biden’s position is more promising, his task is more complex. In Vox, Ella Nilsen explains:

The Biden campaign strategy will take a series of carefully executed plays. Cut into Trump’s margins with rural and exurban voters in states from the Upper Midwest to Florida. Make sure African American, Latino, and Asian American turnout is strong in Sun Belt and Rust Belt states alike. Appeal to a subset of voters where Democrats have been racking up big wins lately: suburban voters (especially women) who may have voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 but are wary of Trump.

And—maybe the biggest play of all—see if the campaign can win or at least significantly cut into the president’s margins with older voters, a traditionally more conservative and reliable bloc that suddenly seems to be turning away from the president.

A further complication, Nilsen notes, is that the demographic imperatives in each state vary. To win the Rust Belt battleground states—Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—Biden needs to turn out African-American and suburban voters while cutting into Trump’s working-class support. Victory in Arizona requires turning out Hispanics—often progressive—and suburbanites; in Florida, retirees and more conservative Hispanics; in North Carolina, African Americans and moderate suburbanites.

Sweeping them all would require considerable dexterity. But should Biden win Michigan and Pennsylvania—where he currently leads in the polls—he will likely need but one more state.

While all this argues against the ideological purity that left-progressives are demanding, Biden’s agenda can no longer rest on a “return to normalcy” which was always illusory and now has been foreclosed by two converging crises. Instead of considering himself a transitional leader, Emmanuel argues, Biden must now “think policy-wise as a transformational president.”

Biden seems to understand this—and that attacking Trump, in itself, is not enough for an electorate desperate for leadership which points a way forward. In the Washington Post, Matt Viser reports that he is comprehensively reimagining his presidency. Moving ahead, he intends to emphasize spurring economic recovery, combating income inequality, strengthening worker protections, increasing the minimum wage, attacking systemic racism, providing universal healthcare coverage, and making substantial new investments in rebuilding infrastructure and curbing climate change.

It is significant, then, that Biden has taken to citing Franklin Roosevelt, whose optimism and proactivity guided America through a depression and a global conflict against tyranny. This is a salutary reminder that America has seen dark days before—including a Civil War, economic collapse, the McCarthy era, the social divisions of the ’60s, and, during Watergate, a president who broke our laws, dishonored our Constitution, and abused the powers of his office. In the end, Americans chose hope over despair, decency over dishonor, renewal over regression.

In 2020, that’s the only bet worth making.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.