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The Biden-Trump rematch, in many ways, has already begun

Biden and Trump appear to be nudging each other into a rare face-off between a sitting president and the predecessor he unseated

President Biden and former president Donald Trump have faced early pushback from their respective parties and voters on potential 2024 reelection campaigns. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)
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President Biden was at a Democratic reception in Maryland a few weeks ago when his rhetoric turned toward an increasingly frequent topic — “what Trump is doing and the Trumpers are doing.” An audience member called out, “Lock him up!” and Biden went on to cite “the new polls showing me beating Trump by six or eight points.”

A few days earlier, former president Donald Trump was at a rally in Pennsylvania when he, too, turned toward a frequent topic: “We’re leading Biden … by record numbers in the polls.” He said three times, with growing enthusiasm, “So I may just have to do it again!”

The country seems to be barreling toward a rematch that few voters actually want, but that two presidents — one current, one former — cannot stop talking about. Biden and Trump both say they are planning to make their decisions in the coming months, but with a lingering codependency between them, they each appear to be nudging the other into what would be a rare faceoff between the same two candidates four years apart.

In some sense, given the growing attacks, a 2024 grudge match is already underway. But it is less a heavyweight rematch that the country is eager to see and more of a rerun that few seem to be looking forward to. Neither Biden nor Trump is enthusiastically embraced by his own party, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sunday.

Some 56 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said they want the party to nominate “someone other than Biden” in 2024, and 35 percent want him to run for a second term. Among those under age 40, a resounding 75 percent want the party to pick someone other than Biden, despite his recent action on climate change and student loan forgiveness, two issues thought to appeal to younger voters.

“I don’t think Biden has done a bad job by any means,” said Adam Kane, a 48-year-old museum director from Peacham, Vt., adding that he likes and respects Biden. “But it’s just time for some fresh leadership. He’s just too old, is what it comes down to. It’s time to pass the torch to the next generation.”

Biden, 79, will be celebrating his 80th birthday this November and is already the nation’s oldest president. Trump turned 76 in June.

Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are divided over Trump, with 47 percent saying the party should nominate him and 46 percent preferring someone else. It is a stronger showing than Biden’s, but it also reflects a marked drop in support from when Trump was in office; a 2019 Post-ABC poll found 67 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners wanted the party to nominate Trump for a second term.

If they were to run against each other, registered voters were split almost down the middle, with 48 percent supporting Trump and 46 percent supporting Biden, the Post-ABC poll showed, within the margin of error. In 2020, Biden won the national popular vote by 4.5 percentage points.

“Trump is too much, and Biden is too little,” said Howard Walker, a 54-year-old Democrat from New York. He voted for Biden in 2020, thinks Trump has turned the Republican Party into a cult and says a Trump victory in 2024 would mean the end of democracy. But he no longer views Biden as the best candidate.

“Sometimes he’s there, sometimes he’s not,” Walker said. “Sometimes he tells long grandma stories that go nowhere, which is what old people do. And that’s okay, but that’s not what we need in a president.”

Many Republican voters, similarly, say they would support Trump if that were their only option, but they are yearning for a new leader.

“It would be best if someone else is running,” said Karin Cabell, a 58-year-old Republican from Hazelton, Pa. “It would be nice to just have fresh blood on both sides.”

Biden and Trump, though, are in a sense each other’s nemesis, and both may have trouble walking away from a rematch.

Trump views Biden as having unfairly taken the presidency from him, creating elaborate explanations for why he lost that have no basis in reality. Biden views Trump as an existential threat to the country’s founding principles, and sees himself as uniquely positioned to prevent Trump from regaining power. Unseating Trump in 2020 remains one of Biden’s proudest accomplishments.

“Why would I not run against Donald Trump if he’s the nominee?” he asked in an ABC News interview in December.

The White House has recently seen an advantage in returning to a familiar foil, particularly heading into the midterm elections, and Biden has increasingly had Trump on his mind, or at least on his lips. “The only reason I ran is because Donald Trump was running,” he said at a June 10 fundraiser in Los Angeles.

At a Maryland fundraiser in late August, Biden called Trump’s “extreme MAGA philosophy” something that is “almost like semi-fascism.” It was a line that aides said later was unplanned, but unsurprising given Biden’s views. He also said “Trump and the extreme MAGA Republicans have made their choice: to go backwards, full of anger, violence, hate, and division.”

Biden's rhetoric signals newly aggressive tack

Biden has been road-testing several phrases to brand the Republicans who follow Trump. He has called them “The Trumpies” and “ultra-MAGA” and “MAGA Republicans,” and he has declared that “this is not your father’s Republican Party.” He says there are still mainstream Republicans he can work with, but “there is no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven, and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans, and that is a threat to this country.”

Biden has sharpened his focus on Trump and escalated his rhetorical attacks, to the point that his central political message is now the importance of keeping Trump and his followers from power.

“Folks, you can’t be pro-insurrection and pro-democracy. Not a joke. I’m being deadly earnest now. You can’t be pro-insurrection and pro-democracy,” he said in Maryland. “You can’t support law enforcement and call the mob that attacked the police on January 6th in the United States Capitol ‘patriots.’ ”

During remarks on Friday, he warned, “It’s become a litmus test in their party to pledge loyalty to Donald Trump by buying into the ‘big lie.’ ”

Similarly, Trump, in his recent rallies, can mention Biden nearly two dozen times in a single event, asserting that Biden is doing a much worse job as president than he did and boasting that he would easily win a rematch.

“A poll just came out. Did you see it?” he said at a Sept. 17 rally in Ohio. “I’m 18 points up on Biden. Who the hell wouldn’t be? Who wouldn’t be?”

Behind the soundtrack of Trump's Ohio rally

He criticized Biden over gas prices — both for allowing them to rise in the first place and for using petroleum reserves to lower them. And he insisted the reduced prices would not last: “Right after the election, it’s going to double up and go higher than anybody ever believed.”

“Trump was right on everything,” Trump continued. “And I believe I was. I was right on everything. Including Afghanistan and Ukraine. The Biden administration is outrageous.”

He also responded to Biden’s Sept. 1 speech in Philadelphia, where the president warned that Trump was seeking to tear apart the fabric of democracy, saying those remarks amounted to “the most vicious, hateful, and divisive speech ever delivered by an American president.”

He said Biden was in effect branding Trump supporters as “enemies of the state.” He added, “He’s an enemy of the state, you want to know the truth. The enemy of the state is him and the group that control him, which is circling around him: ‘Do this, do that, Joe, you’re going to do this, Joe.’ ”

One factor complicating Trump’s potential presidential run is the growing series of investigations and lawsuits against him, which appear to be picking up steam. Some analysts believe his legal troubles will make it harder for him to run, since he will need to devote time and resources to his legal defense. Others argue that Trump is even more likely to seek the White House now, as a form of protection against the legal challenges.

Trump faces growing legal trouble ahead of 2024

The United States has a rich history of presidential rematches, dating as far back as John Adams, who defeated Thomas Jefferson in 1796 only to lose to him four years later. But there are few direct parallels to what could transpire between Biden and Trump in 2024.

It is highly unusual for a sitting president to be unseated, then run against his successor. Most defeated presidents — George H.W. Bush was the last one — head into a quiet retirement from politics. In this, as in so much else, Trump is an anomaly, choosing instead to barnstorm the country to claim falsely that he was cheated.

The closest parallel to a potential Biden-Trump rerun may be the 1892 race between Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison. Cleveland served one term as president before being unseated by Harrison, then he tried to get his old job back, and ultimately succeeded.

Their second campaign focused largely on the same issues that had dominated the first, such as tariff rates, and it hardly electrified the nation. “No one showed much interest in the result,” historian Henry Adams wrote.

“The 1892 election was one of the quieter ones in American history,” said Troy Senik, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and author of “A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland.” “Because Cleveland spent much of it plagued by gout and Harrison was preoccupied with the health of his wife, who was fighting an ultimately fatal case of tuberculosis.”

Despite lively political cartoons — some referring to an out-of-wedlock child that Cleveland had allegedly fathered — the candidates lacked the mutual loathing of Biden and Trump. “Between the two candidates themselves, there didn’t appear to be animosity,” said Charles Hyde, president and CEO of the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site.

In fact, when Harrison was sworn into office in 1889, photos show the recently ousted Cleveland holding an umbrella over his head as the new president took the oath of office. A few years later — after Harrison defeated Cleveland, and Cleveland in turn defeated Harrison — some encouraged Harrison to run yet again in 1896, for a third head-to-head match.

“Harrison gave it some brief consideration, and then dispelled any notion he’d run again,” Hyde said. “After he lost the election of 1892, he said he felt like a man released from prison.”

Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.