Donald Trump’s Amnesia Advantage

It used to be an enormous advantage—or, at least, an enormous perceived advantage—to run as an incumbent in American politics. Presidents who ran for reëlection in the modern era were rarely defeated. With the notable exceptions of Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush, a string of two-term Presidents—Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama—shaped much of the past several decades of American political life. But as the country’s post-millennial mood has soured its politics have turned increasingly toxic for Presidents seeking reëlection. As Doug Sosnik, Clinton’s former White House political director, recently noted, the electorate has voted against the party in power in eight of the past nine national elections, a result fully consistent with more than two decades of polls finding that a majority of the country thinks the U.S. is headed in the wrong direction. This is a global trend, too; as 2024 began, not a single leader in twenty major democracies had an approval rating above fifty per cent.

Four years after ejecting Donald Trump from the White House, Joe Biden is battling his own bad case of toxic incumbency. A recent Gallup poll shows that, since winning the Presidency, Biden has suffered an across-the-board drop in ratings on everything from his likability (down nine points) and his good judgment in a crisis (also down nine points) to his ability to manage the government effectively (down thirteen points). While some of this decline might be attributed to concerns about his advancing age or qualms about individual policy decisions, it’s hard to see how either would affect views of his personality or honesty (down six points). Much of the problem, it seems, is the thankless job itself. The American Presidency is the ultimate easy target. Whether high gas prices due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine or post-pandemic inflation at the grocery store, Biden absorbed the outrage while the mitigating steps taken by his Administration have not redounded to his credit.

A particularly acute example of Biden’s damned-whatever-he-does plight is the current U.S. political uproar over Israel’s war in Gaza. Biden has followed America’s long-standing bipartisan policy of support for Israel, despite his fraught relations with Israel’s right-wing Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. But it has led him right into a political trap. As Netanyahu has prosecuted a war of retribution in Gaza since the October 7th Hamas attack, the American President has been blamed for supplying weapons and political cover to Israel and, yet, has been unable to use his leverage with Netanyahu to avert the high number of civilian casualties and unfolding humanitarian disaster that the war has produced.

As a matter of domestic political timing, this could not have happened at a worse moment for Biden. Hundreds of thousands of Democrats, including in important battleground states such as Michigan and Wisconsin, have registered their dismay with the President by voting “uncommitted” or the like in otherwise uncontested primaries. The younger, progressive Democratic left is done with Israel, and fed up with Biden for enabling Netanyahu. Biden appears to have received the message. In the wake of Israeli air strikes that killed seven aid workers from the Washington-based charity World Central Kitchen in Gaza this week, Biden signalled a sharp change in approach, telling Netanyahu in a phone call on Thursday that future U.S. aid would be contingent on Israel taking “specific, concrete, and measurable steps” to address the crisis among Gaza’s civilian population. But it’s by no means clear that this will be enough to assuage concerns among his own party; so long as the war goes on, and Netanyahu remains in power, the political risks to Biden not only remain but are likely to grow. If the past six painful months have revealed anything, it is that Biden cannot win Israel’s war, but he definitely stands to lose from it.

Republicans, meanwhile, are free to blast away at the President without having to do anything to fix the problem—perhaps the greatest perk of being out of power. In recent days, Trump has publicly bashed both Biden and Netanyahu, and urged Israel to “get it done” and wrap up the war as soon as possible. “They’re losing the P.R. war,” he told the radio host Hugh Hewitt on Thursday. “They’re losing it big.” Last week, he told a conservative Israeli media outlet that Biden was “dumb” for how he’d responded. On Thursday, he broadened his critique. “The whole world is blowing up with this idiot President we have,” Trump said. In neither interview did he specify meaningful steps he’d take that are different from what Biden has done, never mind recall much of what he actually did do when he was in office.

The incumbency bind is a real problem for Biden in 2024. So, too, is the political amnesia powering the increasingly absurd arguments from Trump and his enablers about how he’d better handle everything from Israel and Ukraine to the border. Forgetting—Trump’s own memory lapses, and those of the broader electorate—is one of the former President’s political superpowers.

On Israel, Trump spent four years essentially outsourcing American policy to Netanyahu. He bought into Netanyahu’s theory of the case—that peace could be achieved with other Arab nations while essentially ignoring the Palestinians’ plight within Israel. He cut off funding for the U.N. agency charged with aiding the Palestinians, and he did nothing when Netanyahu further expanded Israeli settlements in the West Bank. In the current conflict, both his son-in-law Jared Kushner and his former ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, have suggested that expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza may be needed to finish the war against Hamas.

Yet, for many on the American left, it’s Biden, not Trump, who seems to be the subject of their most intense rage. “Biden’s legacy is genocide,” one placard read at a protest of the President’s State of the Union address, in March. One of the protest’s organizers told reporters that Democrats “have lost the moral standing to use Trump as a fear tactic.” I’ve seen similar arguments advanced about Biden in the wake of his recent decision to talk tougher about the need to “shut down” the U.S. border to stop unchecked immigration. Talk about false equivalence. Trump—he of the border wall and family separation—is now campaigning in 2024 on a promise to undertake mass arrests and deportations on a scale never before seen in the U.S. He calls undocumented immigrants “animals” who are “poisoning the blood of our country.” He claims Biden has unleashed a “border bloodbath.”

As for his own Presidential record, doesn’t anyone remember Trump’s “Muslim ban” anymore? His (incomplete) border wall with Mexico? His threats to end birthright citizenship? Or the sheer idiocy of a President who essentially sat in front of the television all day long, tweeting insults and plotting how to stay in power whether he won or lost?

Remarkably, the same Gallup poll that showed Americans losing confidence in Biden’s leadership qualities in the past four years also found its respondents more favorably inclined toward Trump on a variety of indicators, including his likability, good judgment in a crisis, ability to manage the government effectively, and capacity to be a strong and decisive leader. Apparently, the country is suffering from collective memory loss on an epic scale.

Call it Trump’s amnesia advantage. Headed into the fall campaign, it’s becoming more and more apparent that what Biden needs is nothing less than a triumph of memory over forgetting. ♦

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