The Reporter (Lansdale, PA)

Hope is the better bet over fear


Starting his State of the Union address, President Biden congratula­ted two top Republican­s, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

He also thanked Republican lawmakers who had backed his infrastruc­ture bill last year and struck a note of optimism: “Jobs are coming back, pride is coming back because of the choices we made in the last two years.”

Republican­s in his audience were having none of it, breaking with a long tradition of decorum by booing him often and crying out “liar” at key moments. In her party’s reply to the president, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas called Biden a “failure” and darkly warned GOP voters, “We are under attack in a left-wing culture war.” Donald Trump took a similar foreboding tone, telling a campaign crowd, “I’m more angry now.”

This contrast is not really surprising. There are only two slogans in American politics: “You never had it so good” and “It’s time for a change.” All incumbents run on the first adage, and Biden predictabl­y stresses the progress he’s made. Challenger­s always adopt the second theme, focusing on unmet needs, unsolved problems and unkept promises.

There is plenty of data to support Republican criticisms. In the latest ABC/Washington Post poll, Biden’s overall approval rating was stuck at 42%, and a mere 36% said he has accomplish­ed “a great deal” or “a good amount.” Only 37% of Democrats told the Associated Press that they want him to run again.

A larger picture is starting to emerge, however, and the battle lines now forming seem more favorable to the Democrats. Biden is following a strategy of inclusion, of expanding his party’s base.

Republican­s are focusing on intensity, not inclusion. Their aim is to energize their base, not expand it. But since politics is always about addition, not subtractio­n, the GOP strategy is a risky one, especially since the party has lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidenti­al elections.

There is a related contrast as well: Biden’s optimism versus Trumpian outrage. This is not 1984, and Biden is not Ronald Reagan, cruising to a second term on the glistening promise of “morning in America.” Still, belief in a brighter tomorrow is part of America’s political DNA, and the sunnier candidate almost always has an advantage.

Biden is shrewdly following another path as well. His speech contained clear echoes of Trump’s approach in 2016, when the Republican nominee appealed to blue-collar workers whose lives and communitie­s had been crushed by the loss of manufactur­ing jobs. In 2020, exit polls showed Biden winning college-educated white voters by 3 points, but losing whites who lack diplomas by an astonishin­g 67 to 32. Those are the voters he was targeting with arguably the most important passage in his speech:

“My economic plan is about investing in places and people that have been forgotten. Amid the economic upheaval of the past four decades, too many people have been left behind or treated like they’re invisible. Maybe that’s you, watching at home. You remember the jobs that went away. And you wonder whether a path even exists anymore for you and your children to get ahead without moving away. I get it.”

Biden reinforced his appeal to “forgotten” workers with an unabashed embrace of economic nationalis­m, promising, “all constructi­on materials used in federal infrastruc­ture projects (will) be made in America.” And he mirrored Trump’s assaults on elitist institutio­ns by attacking big corporatio­ns that “rip off” consumers by charging hidden fee and amassing huge profits.

“Biden’s 2024 reelection campaign looks to be about co-opting Trumpism, with its angry but compelling pitch to the voters of Middle America about the unfairness of it all,” writes Susan Glasser in the New Yorker. “Unlike Trump, Biden wasn’t offering them anger; he was selling them on a President who might actually do something about their problems.”

Biden has many weaknesses and vulnerabil­ities, starting with his age. Inflation has improved since last June, but still rose 6.4% in the last year and continues to bedevil many American families. A recent New York Times headline proclaimed “Education Issues Vault to Top of the G.O.P.’s Presidenti­al Race,” and with many parents of school-age children still suffering post-COVID-19 hangovers, the “parental rights” issue could pose a serious problem for Biden and the Democrats.

The next presidenti­al election is more than 20 months away. Many uncertaint­ies loom ahead. But in a choice between hope and fear, hope is the better bet.

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