The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Thanks to Biden, Trump remains in the game

President Biden during a CNN town hall in Baltimore on Oct. 21. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
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President Donald Trump’s grip on most Republicans remained firm even after the events of Jan. 6, but his standing with the general population cratered, as reflected by a Gallup approval rating of 34 percent as he left office. Just 4 percent of Democrats and 30 percent of independents approved of Trump as he departed.

During his presidency, Trump had made little effort to expand his base, gambling unsuccessfully that the enthusiasm of his die-hard supporters would deliver another win. According to Pew Research Center analysis, Trump indeed increased his support in rural America. But independent voters who were evenly divided in 2016 between Trump (43 percent) and Hillary Clinton (42 percent) made the difference, swinging to Joe Biden by a margin of 52 percent to 43 percent.

It’s likely that independents left Trump not because of policy disagreements as much as fatigue. As Republican strategist Liz Mair said shortly before the election, “Every day there is something that the president is going off about on Twitter or in a news conference or in a speech or what have you. Nobody ever gets a break, and he never takes a break. It’s just constant information overload, and eventually people get sick of that.”

It’s difficult to believe that, once shed of Trump, Americans outside his devoted base would invite him back. Any slim chance of a comeback was surely squandered by Trump’s refusal to accept the election results and his contribution to the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Is there anything that could rehabilitate Trump in the eyes of independents who deserted him in 2020?

In fact, there may be: President Biden.

For most voters, the 2020 election was not about policy promises. It was a referendum on Trump. To present an alternative palatable to the largest pool of voters, Democrats settled on their most inoffensive candidate. During the campaign, Biden promised support for parts of the far-left agenda, but voters understood he had to pay lip service to that wing. They didn’t elect Biden to do big, historic things. They elected him to restore a sense of calm.

In its recent annual survey on governance, Gallup found that the top two items of public concern, by a wide margin, were coronavirus (21 percent) and poor government leadership (19 percent). All other topics were in single digits, including climate change (4 percent) and health care (2 percent).

So what did Biden focus on? Originally, a $3.5 trillion spending plan that, as the New York Times put it, “delivers on a decades-long campaign by Democrats to expand the federal government to combat social problems and spread the gains of a growing economy to workers, striking a fatal blow to the government-limiting philosophy of President Ronald Reagan that has largely defined American politics since the 1980s.” Biden has been forced to scale back his ambitions, but what’s left remains gargantuan.

Shortly after taking office, momentum may have been with Biden to go bigger than expected. But that’s when voters thought his vaunted skills and experience would be in evidence. Instead, gas prices are skyrocketing, inflation is climbing, the supply chain is in shambles, the southern border is a mess, and covid-19 remains a threat. The Afghanistan pullout was disastrous, the fatal drone strike on an innocent Afghan family was appallingly incompetent, and France took the unprecedented step of temporarily recalling its U.S. ambassador over a mishandled submarine deal.

Additionally, Biden’s personal appearances are unsettling. His recent town hall on CNN included a disturbing moment in which the 78-year-old president stood rigid, fists clenched, as Anderson Cooper posed a question. His rambling and disjointed statements can’t forever be blamed on a stuttering problem that for decades seemed conquered.

Next year, voters will offer a midterm report card on Biden and his failing agenda, and there are several indicators justifying Republican optimism. When the 2024 election rolls around, Biden will be a couple of weeks shy of 82. Does anyone predict a miraculous rejuvenation? At 78, Trump — likely the GOP nominee barring a drastic change in health or legal developments — might seem like a spring chicken by comparison.

The partisans will stay true to their respective nominees, but whom will the independents prefer? Will they return to the guy who thumbed his nose at a democratic election but oversaw a great pre-covid economy, made America more energy independent, passed a criminal justice reform bill that won praise from liberals and brokered new trade deals and Middle East peace agreements? Or will they stay with someone who unexpectedly turned a capitalist country over to democratic socialists to spend trillions expanding government’s reach, all while displaying an unsettling level of incompetence in day-to-day governing?

Shockingly, thanks to Biden, Trump remains in the game.