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Rough Days for Biden, Rougher Days for Trump
One man wants to govern. The other wants to dodge prosecution.
WAS LAST WEEK “hellish” for President Joe Biden? Is he in for a cruel summer, filled with setbacks, scandal and calls for him to step aside because he’s too old? On the contrary. The cruel, hellish summer of setbacks and scandal is coming for Donald Trump. (And he’s no youngster, either.)
The blockbuster feature of the season showcases, on one side, a serious president focused on democracy, national security, and building up American manufacturing and competitiveness, and on the other side, a circus ringmaster dodging indictments and eleven primary opponents. There will never be a starker, more compelling contrast than what’s before our eyes right now.
Take this week. Biden is in Europe for a NATO summit just after having made a controversial decision to arm Ukraine with cluster bombs in its counteroffensive against Russian invaders. On Monday, in a sudden turnabout in line with Biden’s wishes, the news came that Sweden is joining the alliance. Member states at the summit are also discussing a longer-term path for Ukraine to qualify for entry.
Vice President Kamala Harris will discuss clean-energy projects Friday in Maryland, concluding the summer leg of the administration’s “Investing in America” tour that kicked off with Biden announcing a $42 billion initiative to connect every U.S. household to high-speed broadband by 2030. In the bigger picture, job creation and the low unemployment rate are setting records, while inflation is slowing as it heads toward normal levels. The Treasury Department, meanwhile, reports that the U.S. pandemic recovery has been the fastest “among comparable advanced economies,” and that “despite higher growth, U.S. core inflation is now lower than in many other major advanced economies.”
And what’s new in Trumpworld? Fulton County prosecutor Fani Willis in Atlanta has said she will make charging decisions in her investigation into whether Trump criminally interfered in the 2020 election during a grand jury session set to run through September 1. Jurors were sworn in Tuesday and Willis has said evidence from the election investigation could be presented next week. In May she told court officials that most of her office will be working remotely from July 31 to August 18—a strong indicator of her anticipated timeline.
In addition, CNN reports that Special Counsel Jack Smith is moving closer to charging decisions in his investigation of Trump’s role in 2020 election interference and the deadly Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021.
Trump has already been criminally indicted twice since April—once by Smith, who charged him with 37 felony counts in connection with classified documents recovered from Mar-a-Lago, and once by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who charged him with 34 counts of falsifying business records to conceal damaging information from voters in 2016. Trump was also found liable in May in a civil case for defaming and sexually abusing writer E. Jean Carroll, and ordered to pay her $5 million. She’s asking for $10 million in a separate ongoing defamation suit.
It has escaped no one’s notice that with each indictment and verdict Trump reinforces his dominance in the Republican nomination race and leaves his many rivals floundering.
AND WHAT IS THE POLITICAL OUTLOOK for Biden? All the economic and diplomatic progress is doing little to lift his anemic job approval ratings, and he’s taking plenty of tabloid-ready incoming, particularly about his son, Hunter.
For instance, as Biden wound up his announcement of historic broadband investments, a reporter shouted: “Mr. President, did you—did you lie about never speaking with Hunter about his business deals? Did you lie about never speaking with Hunter about his business deals, sir?” “No,” Biden replied.
A few days later, Hunter settled a child-support suit with the mother of his youngest daughter. The New York Times ran a front-page story about the child and Maureen Dowd wrote a column reproaching the president for repeatedly insisting he has six grandchildren when he has seven. Oh, and Hunter agreed to plead guilty to two misdemeanor charges of failing to pay taxes on time and to participate in a pre-trial diversion program on a felony gun charge.
Also, a small bag of cocaine was found at the White House, which led to widespread prattle about Hunter Biden because of his history of drug problems. The plethora of gossipy Biden “news” continued with Biden hitting the beach last weekend, complete with visuals of the 80-year-old commander in chief in his bathing suit, and an Axios semi-exposé of Biden’s temper and prodigious use of the f-word in “angry interrogations” of aides who fall short of his demands for details or conversational language.
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Trump, at 77, is not much younger than Biden. We have never seen a photo of him in a bathing suit and I doubt we ever will. I also doubt that Trump diehards could ever get excited about national, state, and local leaders who came together to accomplish in twelve days the repair and reopening of a collapsed Philadelphia section of Interstate 95. Trump supporters may not care about rural broadband plans that will take seven years to complete, or the jobs, private investment and federal money coming to their red states due to new laws investing in infrastructure, clean-energy manufacturing and the semiconductor supply chain. They’re not interested in government or governing.
Why? It’s true that Trump didn’t get much done beyond tax cuts weighted toward the wealthy and a costly trade war with China, and many of his own supporters rejected his main accomplishment: facilitating a life-saving COVID vaccine in record time. But Trump and MAGA were never about policy. They’re about grievance and entertainment.
As David French illuminated last week in his New York Times column, MAGA is suffused not only with rage but also with fun and a sense of belonging. “Their own joy and camaraderie insulate them against external critiques that focus on their anger and cruelty,” he wrote. They think the rest of us are horrible people, he added, and many of them don’t know about the death threats and harassment endured by “the movement’s ever-widening circle of enemies.”
Yet for the MAGA types in thrall to the bread and circuses, Trump can only get them so far: Republicans, led by Trump, flunked the 2020 and 2022 elections, and there’s little indication 2024 will be different if he wins the nomination.
A REVEALING NEW MORNING CONSULT POLL shows the right is strikingly out of step with what most voters care about, and often most Republicans as well. Asked what should be a “top priority” for Congress to investigate, only fentanyl trafficking drew a majority of all voters. Most Republicans also said Congress should investigate U.S.-Mexican border operations and impeaching Biden, but like Democrats and independents, relatively few wanted to investigate Afghanistan, the 2020 election or COVID, and only a quarter said Congress should look into transgender athletes’ participation in sports.
Nevertheless, the party persists—from the focus on culture-war issues in the nomination race to the House GOP’s full-on offensive to investigate and impeach everything and everyone it can think of, despite its narrow majority and eighteen members who won districts Biden carried. The latest wrinkle: trying to reduce or eliminate the salaries of their top targets, such as Attorney General Merrick Garland. All of this overreach is risky, as the House GOP showed by impeaching Bill Clinton then losing seats in the 1998 midterms.
Democrats’ top issues are abortion, economics, and democracy, party strategist Doug Sosnik told me recently. “It’s the first time in my political life that the issue of democracy is a driver of votes,” he added.
That’s the Trump effect. So is this: Most voters understand that a presidential nominee indicted multiple times and tied up in or looking ahead to multiple trials is not an ideal nominee. The question is whether and when most Republicans will understand that. “I don’t think he’ll be convicted before the election,” Sosnik said of Trump. “Which raises the stakes, of course. His legal strategy is to win”—both the GOP nomination and the White House.
There are likely not enough MAGA voters to put Trump back in the White House, and enough Democrats and independents will vote for Biden despite the misgivings reflected in his approval ratings. There are concerns about Vice President Kamala Harris’s capabilities. And there are concerns about Biden’s age. I have expressed reservations about both of them. In fact I wrote my own “don’t run again, Joe” piece, not unlike the one the Atlantic published last week by Eliot Cohen, a writer in his late sixties, under the headline: “Step Aside, Joe Biden. The president has no business running for office at age 80.”
The headline on mine was only slightly gentler: “Joe Biden shouldn’t run for reelection in 2024, for the good of the nation and his party.” The difference is, I wrote it a year ago. At this point, a free-for-all Democratic primary would wreak tremendous damage on the party and its odds of success. And judged purely on the merits, Biden, his team, and their achievements stand up well or better against any recent president’s record. To appreciate what he brings to the job, one only needs to imagine Trump handing Ukraine to Vladimir Putin, still struggling to pass an infrastructure bill, showing off top secret Iran war plans to guests, and triggering fears of nuclear war with North Korea.
While Biden has occasional memory lapses, there’s no sign of the “senile Biden” peddled by some on the right (and some Russians). The “Old Yeller” headline on the Axios f-word story is clever, but the piece itself conveys a highly engaged president with a lot of questions he wants answered. Biden gave solid responses to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria last week on Ukraine, NATO, and, yes, on age. People aren’t right or wrong to have concerns, Biden said, but made clear what’s top of mind for him. “I think we’re putting the world together in a way that is going to make things significantly—how can I say it—more secure for people,” he said. “I just want to finish the job. And I think we can do that in the next six years.”
I guess you could say I’ve made my peace with Biden and his age. It didn’t hurt that John Williams, the 91-year-old composer of scores for the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, was onstage for three nights last weekend at the Hollywood Bowl, where he conducted the second half of the concert and engaged in a playful lightsaber duel with Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel.
It was a timely reminder of what’s possible at any age.