How Biden Can Win the Debate

Until Thursday’s verdict in Donald Trump’s hush-money trial, whose effect on the presidential campaign remains to be seen, virtually nothing had changed in the race for months: Poll after poll has shown President Joe Biden behind—down slightly in the “blue wall” states of the industrial Midwest, and more substantially in the Sun Belt. His approval rating has been stuck not at just under 50 percent—the historic marker of whether incumbents get reelected—but at about 40 percent, occasionally even less. It’s been that way for nearly a year and a half. And the age issue is still very real.

Trump is not meaningfully more popular, nor are Americans unaware of his failings. But believing that Trump’s problems alone will bail out Biden is a fantasy. “Voters clearly recognize the huge steps backward a Trump presidency might bring—they are pessimistic about what he could do to abortion rights, progress on climate change, and even failing to protect Medicare and Social Security,” Lindsay Vermeyen, a pollster involved in the independent polling-research Swing State Project, told the Cook Political Report With Amy Walter. “And yet, their economic frustrations are enough to override all that.”

Voters’ negativity is overwhelmingly about high costs: about the price of gas and groceries, but also about house payments, car payments, the ability to save for the future and provide a nest egg for their kids.

Until the conclusion of the Manhattan trial, the only material movement in May was Biden’s decision to do a June debate, the earliest general-election face-off in American history. This is a gamble for Biden—but absolutely the right choice. He must try to redefine the race and encourage voters to take a second look. His age isn’t changing, but he can change some of the arguments he makes. And to influence voters who are still persuadable, he will have no better platform.

Ever since televised presidential debates began, they have had the capacity to move voters like few other events. Nothing comes close to the audience and attention these 90-minute matchups receive. They not only are watched by astounding numbers of viewers—even in this fragmented media landscape, the lower-rated 2020 debate drew 63 million viewers—but also dominate headlines for days after, influencing even more voters.

In 1960, Richard Nixon narrowly led John F. Kennedy until Nixon withered under the studio lights—appearing sweaty and tentative compared with the cool, confident Democrat. In 1976, Gerald Ford’s momentum stalled after he insisted in a debate with Jimmy Carter that there was “no Soviet domination” of manifestly Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe.

Ronald Reagan used his mastery of the medium to lay to rest voter concerns about his conservatism in 1980, and about his age in 1984. In 1988, Michael Dukakis, the Democratic challenger to George H. W. Bush, buried his chances by bloodlessly responding to a hypothetical about his wife being raped and murdered. And in 1992, Bush himself fell short when he reinforced the idea that he was out of touch by repeatedly checking his watch.

In 2000, Al Gore’s lead in the polls melted away after a debate performance that his opponent, George W. Bush, sold to the press as “sighs and lies.” In 2012, Barack Obama, then the incumbent president, blew his first debate, throwing his challenger a lifeline. In 2020, Trump’s overheated, COVID-infected performance expanded Biden’s lead—which he held throughout that campaign.

This time is different: Biden is now the incumbent who’s behind. And to turn things around onstage, he has to address the economy as voters experience it. Barely more than one-fifth of those surveyed in a recent New York Times poll rated the economy as excellent or good; a majority said it is poor. In a Guardian/Harris poll, more than half (56 percent) believed we are in a recession, and nearly three in five (58 percent) said Biden is responsible. The economic data may show that they’re mistaken—but good luck winning votes by telling Americans that they’re wrong.

In this context, Biden’s current message is a disaster. When he was asked in a TV interview last month about voters’ greater trust in Trump on the economy, Biden responded by saying, “We’ve already turned it around.” He cited a survey about people’s personal finances and went on to claim, as he typically does, “We have the strongest economy in the world.” That may be technically true, but for a politician whose superpower is supposed to be empathy, Biden didn’t show much understanding of the gap between the official statistics and people’s day-to-day experience. He failed to provide a compelling story about his administration’s efforts that would resonate with middle-class families struggling to afford the basics.

“It is concerning to me when I keep seeing press come out of the White House where they keep saying the economy is good,” one former Biden voter told the Times. “That’s really weird because I’m paying more on taxes and more on groceries and more on housing and more on fuel. So that doesn’t feel good.”

Biden’s first move at the debate podium should be to deliver his economic message with empathy—and a frank admission that inflation is still too high and prices on everyday goods are hurting millions of Americans. He should talk about his own family’s past hard times. That would give him more credibility to offer a narrative about the economic mess he inherited from Trump, the millions of good jobs he’s helped create, and the programs he’s put in place—such as the CHIPS Act and the bipartisan infrastructure law—to create an even better economy in the years ahead.

That brings us to the second debate imperative for Biden: He needs to talk about the future more than the past. As Gore has said, elections are “not an award for past performance.” This campaign has to be about the next four years. Currently, only one of dozens of Biden campaign ads outlines a second-term agenda. The platform it laid out is popular and compelling—making child care and elder care affordable, protecting Social Security and Medicare, passing a “minimum tax for billionaires,” establishing Roe v. Wade as the law of the land, banning assault weapons, and preserving the right to vote—but that ad is more than a year old, and I haven’t seen anything comparable since.

At a time when high costs are squeezing Americans’ budgets, Biden’s budget seems to get it. When it was released earlier this year, the accompanying White House report said “lowering costs” for consumers—reducing prices for health care, housing, groceries—is the president’s “top domestic priority.” But few Americans have received that message. Much of the president’s first-term accomplishments, and second-term agenda, should be framed as a fight to lower costs against Republicans who oppose both what he’s done and what he hopes to do.

The third piece of Biden’s message that must change is his attack on Trump. Sounding the alarm against authoritarian threats to be a “dictator on day one,” cancel the Constitution, and take revenge on his “deep state” enemies is a vital, valid mission. Those hits are one reason Biden’s support among college-educated white voters is still about where it was four years ago. But the democracy agenda is either insufficient or ineffective to stanch Biden’s bleeding among working-class voters, including Latinos and Blacks.

Part of that failure goes back to the economy. These voters are simply more sensitive to higher prices than upscale suburbanites. Crucially, they are also overrepresented in swing states. This Republican advantage in the Electoral College is a relatively new phenomenon: As recently as 2012, Obama polled about two points better in the swing states than he did nationally. A dozen years later, the reverse is true: Biden is underperforming his national numbers by about two points in the seven states that will decide the election.

To win working-class Americans back to his coalition, Biden cannot simply tout his administration’s achievements in reducing crime and bringing down prices. That will just make him seem out of touch, as the longtime Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg has argued. The metaphorical sign behind Biden should say A Good Beginning, not Mission Accomplished. He should explicitly acknowledge that he isn’t satisfied and has more work to do—but then Biden should go on the offensive against Trump.

In attack mode, Biden will look more vigorous. And he can win arguments about the way Trump’s budgets defund the police as well as environmental protection; how Trump’s policies undo gun-safety laws, caps on insulin prices, and protections for preexisting conditions; and why a Trump presidency would reward big companies and billionaires at the expense of working families.

Biden should remind the debate audience that the only major legislation Trump passed was a huge tax cut for corporations and the wealthy—a measure that remains highly unpopular. And Biden can warn viewers that Trump is proposing more of those benefits for his buddies—tax cuts that will raise prices still higher. The threat isn’t just Trump’s vindictive personality or his antidemocratic instincts; it is his actual policies.

This election will be a fundamental test of American democracy. It will also be the greatest electoral challenge the Democratic Party has faced this century. Four years ago, Biden won the popular vote by more than 7 million votes, but if some 45,000 votes in three swing states had gone in the other direction, Trump would have tied him the Electoral College—and then won the election in the House of Representatives. And that election took place after the economy had crashed, the pandemic had been mismanaged, and Biden—whose favorability rating never fell below 50 percent—had heavily outspent Trump.

In the same interview in which Biden argued that he’d turned the economy around, he said something equally perilous: “The polling data has been wrong all along.” Loyal Democrats who want to wishcast a better electoral environment, and who dismiss the scale of Biden’s challenge, should know that today’s grim polling cannot be excused or dismissed. The truth is, as 538 has reported, polls were “more accurate in 2022 than in any cycle since at least 1998, with almost no bias toward either party.” Ominously, in 2016 and 2020, Trump actually overperformed his polling.

Biden’s challenge is real. His campaign clearly sees it—why else take the risk on such an early debate? But if the first step in dealing with a problem is acknowledging it, his next step must be directly addressing it. Biden should use this extraordinary platform to make new arguments to voters: that he gets what they’re going through, that his plans will produce a better future, and that Trump isn’t just a risk for American institutions—he’s a threat to American families.

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