Pulpit offers Biden his comeback opportunity - Hindustan Times

Pulpit offers Biden his comeback opportunity

Jun 25, 2024 08:55 PM IST

Donald Trump has the clear edge but the presidential debate offers Joe Biden a big chance to address an image deficit. Like in India, the final lap of the campaign will shape the outcome

In January, this column suggested that there was a hawa in favour of Donald Trump in the American presidential election. Since then, Trump has swept aside all his rivals in the Republican presidential primaries and become the unchallenged leader of the party that had come close to disowning him after the January 6 attack on the United States (US) Capitol. Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, is the co-chair of the Republican National Committee. Mike Johnson, the House Speaker, owes his job to Trump. Mitch McConnell, the last remaining pillar of the old anti-Trump Republican establishment, has decided to retire. And Nikki Haley, the last woman standing against Trump, will now vote for him.

FILE - President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden participate in the final presidential debate at Belmont University, Oct. 22, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) (AP)
FILE - President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden participate in the final presidential debate at Belmont University, Oct. 22, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) (AP)

Having consolidated his own position, Trump has maintained an edge over Joe Biden in the polls, including in swing states and made inroads among Black and Hispanic voters. Despite being a convicted felon — Trump was held guilty in a New York business fraud-campaign finance case and will be sentenced four days before the Republican convention; he also faces three other criminal cases — his approval ratings haven’t been affected. In fact, the charges have allowed him to play the victim of an establishment widely viewed with suspicion.

Till last month, Biden was raising more money than Trump. But the criminal conviction helped Trump race ahead even on that metric. There is a discernible shift of American capital towards Trump, with both the Wall Street finance types and Silicon Valley tech types lining up to applaud him. The Economist’s polling model now suggests that Trump has a two-thirds chance of winning the November elections.

Five factors are helping him. One, there is a surge in illegal immigration, which Trump has, often in racist terms, depicted as an invasion. But the issue resonates widely, including among legal migrants and in blue cities that have seen an increase in migrant presence. Two, inflation persists. And America’s robust job creation record, which Biden takes credit for, doesn’t take away from the lived reality of voters experiencing this gap between wages and expenses every day in grocery stores.

Three, voters are exasperated with America’s entanglement with wars. Biden withdrew from Afghanistan. Those who wanted the US to get out rightly slammed Biden for doing so badly; those who didn’t want the US to withdraw never forgave him for it. Biden backed Ukraine against Russia. Those who wanted US involvement believe Biden didn’t do enough, early on, to support Kyiv and that’s why Russia has an advantage; those who didn’t want US involvement blame Biden for doing anything at all, see it as a waste of resources, and believe the partition of Ukraine is worth the price of peace with Russia. Biden backed Israel’s invasion of Gaza after Hamas’s terror attacks. Israel’s champions in the US think Biden isn’t backing Benjamin Netanyahu enough; those who are horrified at Israel’s crimes in Gaza hold Biden complicit. And then there are voters who see both Ukraine and Israel as proof that Biden is too externally involved at a time of internal distress.

Four, a strong White, Christian, ultra conservative agenda finds home in Trump’s rhetoric and policy world on abortion, rights of sexual minorities, pedagogy around race and sexuality and immigration. And finally, there are those who believe that Biden is too frail, including within his own support base that’s low on morale even as Trump’s team is emotionally charged.

And yet, at a juncture when the Trump hawa is arguably stronger than it has ever been, while Biden’s base appears fragmented, here is a proposition: This election isn’t over. It remains competitive and close. And Biden will defy expectations at the first presidential debate on Thursday. Here is why.

Biden is old. But, contrary to what edited clips of occasional physical fumbles and repetitions and tangents during his speeches suggest, he is mentally sharp. All those who have interacted with him, including Indian interlocutors, have come back with the impression of a clear and coherent leader capable of exercising sober judgment. He has deep political experience and an unerring instinct which first made him a Senator back in 1973 and has ensured he hasn’t lost a national election since. Biden wanted this debate early in the race. On style, he is prone to repetitions and gaffes, but he will aim to project sharpness; on substance, he will aim to expose Trump’s hollowness and showcase his reasonably good record. But Biden’s primary aim is to show he knows what he is doing, an admittedly low bar but that’s a result of the Republican messaging around his age. If he succeeds, Biden will kick off campaign season addressing a big perceptional disadvantage.

Then there is the actual agenda. Biden’s message is three-fold.

One, Trump is a threat to democracy and he will be worse in term two than he was the first time around. In a close election, where a very limited set of voters in six to seven states will determine the outcome, this message can be persuasive. Trump’s personal conduct and political behaviour appeal to some, but not to many others.

Two, Biden will point out that Trump’s judicial appointees took away national protection to abortion and his return will lead to more control over women’s bodies, assault on personal and sexual freedom, and an even more conservative judiciary that may attack minority rights. Don’t underestimate the power of the women vote or the fear among people of colour about what’s at stake.

And finally, Biden will showcase an impressive set of accomplishments on infrastructure, health care costs, jobs, domestic manufacturing, climate, and personal freedoms. He will tailor it for the Democratic base and moderate Republicans. And over the next few months, he will relentlessly focus on Arizona, Nevada, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, with a well-oiled campaign machinery down to the grassroots.

None of this means one or the other candidate will win. It only means that like the elections in India, the final three to four months, and the final lap of the political campaign, will determine the outcome. Watch the debate, but don’t bet on a winner just yet.

The views expressed are personal

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