Joe Biden’s Weird Perception Problem

Everything about Joe Biden’s reëlection effort tends to be pretty quiet, and so it was with a characteristic mutedness that the campaign greeted its best week in a long time. Much of the good news had to do with the economy, as the stock market broke rec­ords and prices have come under control. “The war on inflation is over. We won,” Paul Krugman, the Nobel economics laureate, had declared. Donald Trump has been attacking the economy’s performance since his reluctant departure from office, and so, when he tried to take credit for it last week, it seemed a good gauge of how much the wind is shifting. “this is the trump stock market,” he wrote on Truth Social, “because my polls against biden are so good that investors are projecting that i will win, and that will drive the market up.”

Election campaigns are competitive enterprises, not just consumer-sentiment thermometers, so the more important developments for Team Biden concern Trump himself (and maybe his comeuppance for other poorly thought-through things he’s written on Truth Social). Just three days after he won the New Hampshire primary, a New York jury ordered him to pay eighty-three million dollars for defaming E. Jean Carroll, whom he had previously been found liable for sexually abusing. Criminal trials await, and nearly a quarter of Trump supporters say they won’t vote for him if he is convicted. (“Reason #50,000,000 Trump Won’t Beat Biden: His PAC Spent $50M on Legal Fees,” as the Nikki Haley campaign put it.) Trump wasted his victory speech in New Hampshire with a sour rant about Haley, after which she dug in deeper. In his courtroom appearances and in his efforts to persuade the anti-Trump holdouts in the G.O.P. to give up the Haley dream, he now finds himself in environments where his demeanor works against him. So do his supporters, who last week declared war on Taylor Swift.

Run the numbers, as the election year begins, and life in this country looks to be getting less bleak, more studded with possibility. In 2022, the U.S. recovered all the jobs lost during the pandemic. In the year since, unemployment has stayed below four per cent, and the economy is now performing more strongly than that of every other wealthy nation, including China. Gaps that had seemed permanently wide began to close. The post-pandemic recovery reversed about a quarter of the growth in wage inequality that had taken place in the previous four decades, and the wealth of Black and Hispanic families grew by sixty-one per cent and forty-seven per cent, respectively, between 2019 and 2022, significantly outpacing the thirty-­one-per-cent increase for white families. Major, unprecedented bills became law—the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS and Science Act—committing the country to an expansive building program, much of it in beleaguered regions, designed to accelerate the green transition. The progress isn’t all linear—we are producing an immense amount of gas and oil. But scan the country and you will catch glimpses of what might be an extraordinary transformation. In South Dakota, of all places, eighty-four per cent of in-state electricity is now generated by renewable resources.

Poll Americans, though, and the dissatisfaction with the current regime is profound. A few polls have shown Biden ahead of Trump (last week, Quinni­piac had him up fifty per cent to forty-­four nationally), but many align with Bloomberg’s latest, which shows that voters prefer Trump in every swing state and trust him to better handle the economy by a wide margin. Only twenty-nine per cent in the same survey say that the country is on the right track. How can this be? Theories abound. Even if inflation is in retreat, prices for gas, groceries, and rent are still much higher than they’ve been in recent memory, and so it may be some time before people believe that the economy is as strong as the numbers indicate. The news has focussed on the flood of migrants at the southern border, and on the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, which can suggest instability and unease. And some who think that the country is on the wrong track are liberals, who see in Trump’s continued strength, and in the Supreme Court’s reversal of reproductive rights, strong evidence that America is still defined by its reactionary turn. The country has been rife with inequality for a long time, and many may doubt that general gains will do much for them. People have earned their cynicism.

For Biden and his campaign staff, the problem is tactical. How can he pull this off? There is no shortage of advice. The easiest path might be to run as Democrats have done successfully in every election after 2016: against Trump’s assault on democracy and social values, and against his movement’s extremism on gender and abortion, which has given Biden’s party a huge advantage among women. The strategist Simon Rosenberg advised keeping it simple: “Democrats are going to save the country. Republicans are dangerous.” He added, “Since Trump unveiled himself as maga in the 2017-2018 cycle, we just keep winning elections. We won the 2018 cycle. We won the 2020 cycle. We won in ways that people never thought we would in 2022.”

That’s true, mostly: the Democrats lost the House in 2022, and 2020 was a nail-biter. Joel Benenson, who helped steer both Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s Presidential bids, recently suggested taking the opposite approach. He said, “One thing Mr. Biden should stop talking about: Mr. Trump”—adding that the charges Trump faces are, by themselves, cause for alarm among the general public. Elections are about the future rather than the past, he noted, and urged Biden to make this one “a forward-looking choice built on a contrast of economic vision and values.”

Yet a funny feature of this campaign is that, since both candidates are unpopular, Biden is hoping (as his aides have told reporters) to let Trump have center stage, so that voters might be reminded how much they despise him. A seeming consequence, though, is that it has left Biden saying how essential this election is, but saying so quietly. His democracy-themed kickoff speech near Valley Forge drew respectful but limited coverage, relative to the spectacle of Trump’s feud with Haley. On one level, the choice that Biden faces seems profound: make this election about the nation’s continuing progress under his Administration, or about the destructive potential of a second Trump term. But he probably needs to do both—a little bit about the future, a little bit about the past. That will require turning up the volume. ♦

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