Opinion | To Beat Trump, Joe Biden Needs a New Narrative


For months, battered by President Biden’s dismal 2024 re-election polls, Democrats have been undergoing a kind of collective nervous breakdown over Mr. Biden’s re-election prospects against Donald Trump.

Following Mr. Trump’s victory in New Hampshire and with the unofficial start of the general election campaign, there is no reason for the Biden team to panic. Polls at this stage of the race are almost always a referendum on the incumbent instead of a clear choice. Still, the president’s bad polls and a stubbornly low approval rating are, or should be, more than just grist for Mr. Biden’s critics. They’re proof that his campaign needs to overhaul its message.

Joe Biden has yet to explain clearly why he’s running for a second term. I’ve reached this conclusion after speaking with more than a dozen ex-presidential campaign managers and top political strategists — indeed, I spent two years writing a book about the Biden presidency.

To articulate his vision for America, and his case for re-election, the president — whom, I should note, I am rooting for — must campaign in both poetry and prose. The poetry will be in his pledge to preserve the integrity of the Constitution and safeguard democracy, and the prose in his promise to deliver on kitchen table issues where many voters believe he’s fallen short.

As the incumbent, Mr. Biden cannot run as an outsider. But he has a strong populist case to make for a future in which ordinary Americans, and the ideals embodied in our Constitution, can prosper. This case would offer a stark and optimistic contrast to Mr. Trump, whose only allegiance is to himself and to retribution for his imagined grievances.

A recovery narrative

The top issue for many voters is the economy, and to overcome Americans’ gloomy outlook on this front, Mr. Biden needs a new narrative.

Bidenomics, a wonky recitation of his achievements (jobs created, unemployment lowered, prescription drug costs capped, etc.) has failed to resonate with voters. Nor has his slogan “finish the job” — because he has failed to define the nature of the challenges Americans face.

The president should state the obvious — that prices for many things are higher than they used to be — and then he should explain why that’s the case, admitting that his stimulus under the American Rescue Plan, though necessary at the time to rescue the economy, might have been a factor. And he should tell people what he’s going to do about it.

As a former Democratic presidential campaign manager told me, voters can deal with higher prices if they think Mr. Biden has a plan to bring them down.

There is a model for this kind of recovery narrative that fits Mr. Biden’s predicament like a glove. He may be a flawed messenger, but Bill Clinton’s memorable speech to the 2012 Democratic convention hit the marks of a Democratic president cleaning up a mess left by his predecessor. Too many Democrats have lost a skill that Mr. Clinton excelled at: understanding the economic struggles of ordinary Americans and explaining how he’ll get them to a better place.

As Barack Obama’s “secretary of explaining stuff,” at the 2012 convention, Mr. Clinton spoke plainly to voters about Mr. Obama’s record in the wake of the Great Recession: “He inherited a deeply damaged economy,” Mr. Clinton said. “He put a floor under the crash. He began the long, hard road to recovery and laid the foundation for a modern, more well-balanced economy that will produce millions of good new jobs, vibrant new businesses and lots of new wealth for innovators.”

“Now, look, here’s the challenge he faces,” Mr. Clinton told his rapt audience. “A lot of Americans are still angry and frustrated about this economy. If you look at the numbers, you know employment is growing, banks are beginning to lend again.”

Here he leaned in: “But too many people do not feel it yet.”

This empathetic note, mastered by Mr. Clinton, is oddly missing so far from Mr. Biden’s campaign repertoire.

“No president — no president, not me, not any of my predecessors — no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years,” Mr. Clinton continued. “But he has laid the foundation for a new, modern, successful economy of shared prosperity.” The convention hall erupted in applause. And, not incidentally, Mr. Obama cruised to re-election.

Mr. Biden doesn’t need to recruit Mr. Clinton as a surrogate; indeed, while the president may not have his predecessors’ oratorical gifts, few people are better at speaking homespun truths.

Successful presidential campaigns seldom focus on the past. (A rare exception was Mr. Trump’s 2016 race, when he promised to “Make America Great Again.”) “The last thing I said to the president before I left the White House,” says Ron Klain, Mr. Biden’s former White House chief of staff, “is that he had to remember that campaigns are about the future. They’re not rewards for good behavior.”

Let Biden be Biden

The president can’t run effectively if he’s kept under wraps by overprotective advisers. Despite his age and occasional verbal stumbles, he often rises to the occasion in unscripted moments. Think of the 2023 State of the Union address, when he outwitted G.O.P. hecklers. Or more recently, when he appeared in the White House’s Roosevelt Room and blasted the Republican Congress for failing to pass funds for Ukraine and Israel.

Badgered by a reporter about allegations of corrupt foreign deals with his son Hunter, he called them “a bunch of lies.” Asked if any other Democrat could beat Mr. Trump, the president parried: “Probably 50 of them,” then added, “but I will defeat him.” It was a robust, combative performance.

The campaign will be more successful if it lets “Joe be Joe” and talk the way he actually talks.

In recent days, Mr. Biden has moved key advisers from the White House to strengthen his re-election team: Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, the hard-charging, battle-tested manager of Mr. Biden’s winning 2020 race, and Mike Donilon, the president’s chief strategist, have joined the campaign. This move comes not a moment too soon.

Attacking Trump

Their challenge, and Mr. Biden’s, is to define Mr. Trump as a threat to the economy, the Constitution and much else.

As Jim Messina, who managed Mr. Obama’s winning campaign against Mitt Romney, points out: “Voters think about politics a few minutes a week and hold down multiple jobs. So if you’re a swing voter in Wisconsin, you just don’t have time to focus on this [expletive].”

Voters will need to be reminded that Mr. Trump lost more jobs than any president in history; that he enacted tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefited the ultrawealthy over the working class and exploded the deficit; that, other than his support for developing a vaccine, he was oblivious or worse (peddling bleach as a quack cure) when a once-in-a-century pandemic killed hundreds of thousands of Americans; that he wrenched children from their parents at the border; that he denounced fallen soldiers as suckers; and that he incited a bloody insurrection to overturn an election and still peddles the “Big Lie.”

Perhaps most important, Mr. Biden needs to drive home the MAGA threat to women’s reproductive rights. There’s plenty of fresh material to work with on the still potent issue of abortion. The Biden-Harris campaign recently put out an ad featuring a young mother who was forced to flee Texas to have an abortion. This should be just the first salvo in a relentless barrage, juxtaposing women victimized by draconian abortion laws with brags from the former president that he “got rid of Roe v. Wade.”

Even more important is underscoring what Mr. Trump has said he’ll do if given a second chance: from prosecuting his political enemies to deporting millions of people, to constructing concentration camps, to invoking the Insurrection Act to further radicalizing a deeply conservative Supreme Court that threatens to curtail American freedoms.

As for his economic agenda, what Mr. Trump promises is magic dust and the gauzy notion that he can rewind the clock to a golden age when interest rates were near zero and prices were at prepandemic lows. That economy, incidentally, was the one he inherited from Mr. Obama and then ran into the ditch.

Oh, and on another potent issue — health care — Mr. Trump has renewed his vow to repeal Obamacare without a realistic plan to replace it.

Indeed, the Biden team can’t emphasize strongly or often enough that the MAGA-dominated Republican Party has no answers or realistic plans to deal with the problems of our day. Name the challenge — reducing inflation, cutting the price of housing, providing affordable health care, ending mass shootings, stopping Vladimir Putin, slowing global warming — and the G.O.P. toolbox is empty. Even on the issue of the southern border, the MAGA-controlled House appears willing, on Mr. Trump’s command, to scuttle a potential bipartisan deal — at least in part because it would deny the former president a campaign issue. The party stands for nothing except membership in a cult of personality.

A populist for all Americans

No doubt Mr. Biden has some weak spots. For example, the impact of Israel’s war against Hamas on many progressive Democrats and young voters. Having had Israel’s back on Oct. 7, Mr. Biden should now publicly denounce its near-indiscriminate bombing of Gaza.

But consider this: While the president will get little political benefit for being sure-footed on the international stage, rallying NATO in the face of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been vital to Western democracy.

And he remains the best advocate for many issues young voters care about — like student-loan relief, reforming gun laws and mitigating climate change.

Running for re-election while simultaneously managing world crises is a herculean task. But as one senior White House adviser told me (on condition of anonymity to speak freely about White House conversations): “I keep saying to the president and to the team, yes, Ukraine is really important. Yes, the economy is really important. Yes, Israel is really important. But at the end of the day, when we think about the future of this country and the world, it’s about the president being re-elected. And so we have to put that at the top of the list, right?”

It’s time for Joe Biden to get out of the Rose Garden, shake off his script doctors and recapture the plain-spoken persona that got him elected three years ago by a margin of seven million votes.

Mr. Biden has an overwhelming populist case for re-election, and he can and should win a second term — but only if the president and his team explain what he intends to do with it, and why returning Mr. Trump to power would be a calamity for our democracy and America’s leadership role in the world.


Chris Whipple is the author of “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency” and “The Fight of His Life: Inside Joe Biden’s White House.” He is writing a book about presidential campaign managers.



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