Miami Herald

A lesson from Biden and Trump – new normal is nonstop crises

- BY DOYLE MCMANUS Los Angeles Times Opinion content from syndicated sources may be trimmed from the original length to fit available space.

A poll published by the Economist this month included a finding that was striking yet unsurprisi­ng: Almost 7 in 10 Americans believe things in the U.S. have spun out of control.

That’s a problem for President Joe Biden, who campaigned in 2020 offering a return to normalcy after four years of chaos under Donald Trump.

Biden promised, in effect, to Make America Normal Again, but “normal” never quite returned. The COVID-19 restrictio­ns ended, but the ensuing recovery brought high prices and rising mortgage rates. Wars broke out in Ukraine and Gaza; protests erupted on college campuses. And domestic politics remained bitterly polarized; the bipartisan unity Biden promised to engineer remained out of reach.

“People are reeling from the sense that we can’t get going in the right direction,” said Celinda Lake, one of Biden’s top pollsters, relating sentiments from voters in focus groups. “They’ve been shocked by events they never expected: Afghanista­n, the war in Ukraine,

Gaza, even the wildfires in Maui and the collapse of the bridge in Baltimore.”

Unsurprisi­ngly, Trump has responded by blaming Biden for everything and anything that goes wrong, from surges in illegal immigratio­n to wars overseas.

“If I was president, [the Oct. 7] Hamas attack on Israel would never have happened, the war in Ukraine would never have happened, and we would right now have peace throughout the world,” Trump wrote on his social media account, an alternativ­e history that – lucky for him – can neither be proved nor disproved.

The combinatio­n of adverse events and Republican attacks has taken a predictabl­e toll on Biden’s image. The Economist poll found that 58% of Americans consider Trump a strong leader, but only 36% see Biden as strong. Biden scores higher on other qualities; most voters see him as more honest and more likable than Trump. But those attributes may not be as important to voters in an era of instabilit­y.

“When people feel uncertaint­y or anxiety, they are looking for strong leaders,” said Doug Sosnik, a political aide to

President Clinton during his 1996 reelection campaign. “Trump’s narrative, plain and simple, is … to portray Biden as weak. If that’s what the election is about, Trump will win.”

The pro-Palestinia­n protests on college campuses, Sosnik added, “are reinforcin­g Trump’s existing narrative.”

Despite Trump’s claims, Biden can’t really be blamed for the wars in Ukraine or Gaza, much less wildfires or bridge disasters. Whether he should be blamed for inflation is up for debate, although inflation in the U.S. has been lower than in most other countries.

Still, in an era of economic and political volatility, the new normal is that there is no normal. And that makes every incumbent vulnerable to bad news on his watch.

Case in point: Donald Trump in 2020.

Four years ago, amid a pandemic, a recession and the discord that followed George Floyd’s murder by police, many voters blamed Trump – if not for causing the crises, at least for mismanagin­g them.

In a July 2020 Economist poll, 80% of Americans said they thought things in the country had spun out of control.

That’s why many voters swung to Biden, hoping he could restore order.

Some scholars have concluded that incumbency, once considered an advantage for a president seeking reelection, has become a burden – mainly because in an era of polarized politics, presidents get less deference from voters on the other side.

Despite voters’ sour mood, Biden and Trump appear evenly matched in most recent national polls. But two factors could move those numbers before election day.

One is the focus of the campaign. So far, it has largely been a referendum on Biden’s record. But the president and his campaign are trying to shift the lens toward Trump, turning the election into a “dual referendum” on both candidates.

The other factor, of course, is events. A ceasefire in Gaza, a continuing decline in illegal immigratio­n, a Federal Reserve decision to cut interest rates or a conviction of Trump in any of his four pending criminal cases could help Biden. A new spike in inflation, an upsurge of migrants, or riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago could boost Trump.

But neither candidate can credibly promise to deliver “normalcy” anymore.

 ?? POOL Getty Images/TNS, file ?? Then-U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the first presidenti­al debate against former Vice President and Democratic presidenti­al nominee Joe Biden on Sept. 29, 2020, in Cleveland, Ohio.
POOL Getty Images/TNS, file Then-U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the first presidenti­al debate against former Vice President and Democratic presidenti­al nominee Joe Biden on Sept. 29, 2020, in Cleveland, Ohio.

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