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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden drawing up a 2024 playbook that looks a lot like 2020’s

President Joe Biden walks back into the Oval Office with Steve Ricchetti, assistant and counselor to the President, center, and Senior Advisor Mike Donilon, in the White House, Washington, on Jan. 13, 2022.

By Peter Baker, Reid J. Epstein and Lisa Lerer

Forget the Wilmington, Delaware, basement. This time, he will have a Rose Garden. And Air Force One and a big white mansion and all the other advantages of incumbency in a year when he is not forced by a pandemic to stick to streaming from downstairs.

But as President Joe Biden prepares to run for a second term, his team is mapping out a strategy for 2024 that in many other ways resembles that of 2020. Whether he ultimately faces Donald Trump again or another Republican trying to be like Trump, the president plans a campaign message that still boils down to three words: Competent beats crazy.

Whether he can sell that theme again represents a singular challenge given surveys showing that the public has not exactly rallied behind him and harbors deep doubts about his age. When Biden kicks off his reelection campaign this spring, as is widely expected, he will be the oldest president in history but one of the lowest-rated in the modern period, presiding over an economy that is improving but unsettled and leading a party publicly behind him but privately angst-ridden. And rather than Trump, he may yet face a Republican challenger closer to the age of his son.

The goal, according to interviews with White House officials, outside advisers, key allies and party strategists, is to frame the race as a contest, not a referendum on Biden. On one side, in this narrative, will be a mature, seasoned leader with a raft of legislation on his record aimed at winning back working-class Democrats. On the other will be an ideologically driven, conspiracy-minded opposition consumed by its own internal power struggles and tethered to a leader facing multiple investigations for trying to overturn a democratic election.

“It’s incumbent on the president and his team to make sure the election is a choice,” said Lis Smith, a senior adviser to Pete Buttigieg during the 2020 Democratic primary campaign. “It’s not going to be Joe Biden versus some mythical Democratic candidate. It’s going to be between Joe Biden and whoever the Republican nominee is.”

Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster, said a rematch between Biden and Trump would be the best scenario for the president. “At this point, President Biden just needs to seem like he is still very much with it and able to do the job, and at that point, his fate is largely out of his hands,” Ayres said. “He’s got to pray the Republicans blow themselves up again.”

Biden previewed his approach in his State of the Union address this month when he baited Republicans into a debate over Social Security and Medicare, then pressed his argument during appearances in Wisconsin and Florida. He used the nationally televised speech before Congress to highlight his legislative successes while focusing on pocketbook issues to reach out to voters upset at him over inflation.

The trips that followed illustrated one important difference from 2020. No longer tied to the basement of his home in Delaware, the way he was by COVID-19 in 2020, Biden will travel frequently this year to deliver his message, aides said. As projects from the 2021 infrastructure package break ground, the president intends to cut a lot of ribbons around the country to take credit.

Republican strategists are gambling that the physical toll of a full-scale, nonpandemic campaign effort will wear on an 80-year-old president. They plan to portray him as an aging, failed leader and a big-spending captive of the political left who drove up inflation and did little to defend the border against a record wave of illegal immigration.

“Joe Biden’s campaign team doesn’t have a strategic problem; they have a candidate problem,” said Chris LaCivita, a Trump campaign consultant. “Americans have now watched Joe Biden wreck our economy, and he’ll have to answer for it. Biden won’t be able to hide in his basement like last time.”

Although Biden seems eager for a rematch, it is hardly certain that he can replicate the 2020 outcome. Not only is his approval rating hovering at an anemic 43%, but two recent surveys, the Washington Post-ABC News poll and the Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll, found Trump leading by several points. Moreover, despite Biden’s legislative victories, 62% told the Post and ABC that he had accomplished “not very much” or “little or nothing.”

In seeking a second term, Biden is pushing history where it has never gone before, asking voters to keep him in power until he is 86. Surveys and focus groups have consistently identified that as a major concern of voters, and even a majority of Democrats tell pollsters they would prefer the party nominate someone else.

Biden responds to such concerns by pointing to his record of rebuilding roads and bridges, expanding health care, curbing the cost of prescription drugs for Medicare beneficiaries, investing in climate change projects, forgiving student debt and treating veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. His aides argue that voters will still prefer a president who delivers regardless to the divisive and unpopular policies of Trump’s Republican Party. And Trump, if he wins the nomination, would be 82 at the end of a second term.

A focus group of swing voters convened after the State of the Union by Sarah Longwell, a Republican pollster and vocal critic of Trump’s, found that Biden still had residual goodwill among some of those who took a chance on him. The voters who participated, all of whom voted for Trump in 2016 and switched to Biden in 2020, used phrases such as “family man” and “he cares” to describe Biden. They remained viscerally disaffected from Trump, calling him “demonstrably unfit for office” and “an embarrassment to our country.”

Still, another challenger would pose more of a generational threat. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is 44; Nikki Haley, a former United Nations ambassador, is 51; and former Vice President Mike Pence is 63. “If the Republicans nominate a younger, vigorous person, male or female, who seems up to the job, I think he’s in trouble,” Ayres said of Biden.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., an ally of Biden’s, noted how House Republicans devolved into chaos simply trying to pick a new speaker, a process that deadlocked until the 15th ballot, while Biden appeared recently with politicians from both parties at an Ohio River bridge set to be upgraded as part of the infrastructure package he signed.

“That was a pretty sharp contrast,” Coons said, “and I think you’re going to see that contrast every week this year.”

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