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The Biden-Trump rerun: A nation craving change gets more of the same

WorldThe Biden-Trump rerun: A nation craving change gets more of the same

The promise of change has been a powerful force in presidential campaigns for decades, a reliable appeal to a fundamental yearning in the American electorate. It was central to the candidacies of John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

“Change vs. more of the same” read a hand-scrawled placard posted on a wall in the campaign war room for Bill Clinton when he captured the White House in 1992.

Yet this year, Americans, who by nearly every measure are hungering for a new direction, are confronted with the choice between a continuation or a restoration.

The contest between President Joe Biden and Trump is the rare election without a major party candidate who can be presented as a fresh face and a new tomorrow. Neither man is poised to tap into all of the enthusiasm and excitement that comes with unknown possibilities. Instead, Americans are getting a rerun, a race between a president and a former president, both older than 90% of Americans — Biden is 81 and Trump is 77 — and viewed unfavorably by a majority of them.

Whoever better navigates a contest that is, in so many ways, a mismatch with the moment could well prove to have the upper hand over the next eight months.

“There are only two choices: stay the course or time for a change,” said Paul Begala, a senior strategist for Clinton’s presidential campaigns, describing the dominant dynamic in American politics. “We want change,” Begala said of the nation. “We are revolutionary. We are built for change.”

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This dynamic is likely to be particularly challenging for Biden, notwithstanding the fact that the former president is one of the most well-known figures in American political history. Incumbent presidents are almost invariably forced to run on their records, a restraint Biden has accepted by promising to “finish the job” in a second term. But he has also tried to shift the focus. In his State of the Union speech Thursday, Biden spoke nearly as much about Trump’s agenda as his own.

Promising a new chapter has been a recurrent and often decisive theme of American campaigns at least since a youthful Kennedy was elected to the White House in 1960. Jimmy Carter won election in the post-Watergate era by presenting himself as “a leader, for a change” in 1976. Four years later, Reagan ousted Carter amid a stagnating economy, with a promise of “Let’s make America great again.”

Obama’s entire campaign — T-shirts, posters, hats and signature speeches — was built around the theme “Change we can believe in.” Trump used Reagan’s slogan and made it his own.

But this election is in many ways an anomaly. The last time a president and a former president were on the same ballot was in 1912, and the last rematch in a presidential race was in 1956.

At the same time, there has rarely been a presidential election with such an undercurrent of dissatisfaction — both with the country and the major party candidates seeking to lead it.

It has been 20 years, dating to the invasion of Iraq, since more Americans thought the nation was headed in the right direction than the wrong direction. The most recent NBC News poll found that 73% of voters thought the nation was on the wrong track — and displeasure over the nation’s direction has topped 70% almost continuously for the past three years. Never before in the poll’s history have so many voters been so unhappy for so long.

More than four times as many voters in the recent New York Times/Siena College poll said they were angry, scared, disappointed, resigned, apprehensive or disappointed about this election as said they were happy, excited or hopeful about it.

That so many Americans want the country to move in a different direction has stirred concern among many Democrats as they watch Biden in these early days of his reelection campaign.

“In this environment of dissatisfaction, which is two decades long, change is a powerful force,” said Douglas Sosnik, a former senior adviser to Clinton. “If the choice is, would you rather be stay-the-course or change, I would always take change in this world we are in.”

Pete Giangreco, a campaign adviser to Obama, agreed, noting that the American mood has turned even bleaker since the coronavirus pandemic. Appealing to restive Americans should be central to Biden and Trump as they plan the campaigns ahead, he said.

“When 30% or less think the country is headed in the right direction, then you better be the change agent,” he said. “You better lay out comparatively who’s going to be the better change, or you’re not going to get to 50% anywhere.”

Trump will have his own challenges when presenting himself as a change candidate. It has been less than four years since he served, and he has dominated American politics since. That can pose a challenge to Trump supporters trying to present him as a candidate of change.

“We have to go back to that future — 2017 to 2020,” Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said recently on Fox News. “We want those four years one more time.”

Yet Trump has throughout his years in national politics presented himself as an outsider; his 2016 run for the White House is, along with Obama’s campaign, one of the best examples in modern history of a change candidate. His advisers and allies have made clear that he will again seek to claim the change mantle.

“He’s not an incumbent,” said Kellyanne Conway, a Republican consultant who was Trump’s campaign manager in 2016. “He’s an insurgent.”

Biden’s campaign is pushing back on that assertion, warning that the former president is the face not of change, but of chaos.

In the latest Times/Siena poll, 47% of respondents said they strongly disapproved of how Biden was handling his job. The president’s approval rating in the latest NBC poll is at 37%, by far the lowest for an incumbent president in four decades of polling. But the same poll suggested voters would make their decision as much on the challenger as on the incumbent. That is potentially good news for the Biden camp, which has signaled it intends to make the election a referendum on Trump.

There is precedent for what Biden is hoping to do. In 2012, when Obama was seeking a second term, his campaign reviewed polling data that showed voters unhappy with the state of the economy, and responded with economic policy proposals designed to address anxiety among the middle class. The new message helped turn the focus of the race to Mitt Romney, his rival, by presenting him as elite, wealthy and out of touch with the concerns of working Americans.

“If we had run that campaign as a referendum on the presidency,” Giangreco said, “we would have lost it.”

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