Even on Biden’s big day, he’s still in Trump’s long shadow
By Peter Baker
Moments before President Joe Biden signed a legacy-defining package of initiatives into law earlier this week one of his congressional allies lamented that the president’s accomplishments are “often away from public view” while another contrasted him with a former president who “relished creating chaos.”
No one mentioned Donald Trump’s name during the ceremony in the State Dining Room of the White House, but his presence was felt nonetheless as Biden enacted major climate, health care and corporate tax policies. One major reason Biden’s achievements often seem eclipsed in public view is because Trump is still creating chaos from his post-presidential exile.
No other sitting president has lived with the shadow of his defeated predecessor in quite the way that Biden has over the past year and a half. Regardless of what the current president does, he often finds himself struggling to break through the all-consuming circus that keeps Trump in the public eye. Even the bully pulpit of the White House has proved no match for the Trump reality show.
That may not be a bad thing for Biden in every respect. The news about Trump lately is nothing to be jealous of — the FBI searching his home to retrieve secret documents improperly removed from the White House, his chief lawyer targeted by a criminal investigation, his longtime financial officer nearing a plea deal that will send him to prison and the former president pleading the Fifth Amendment more than 400 times to avoid incriminating himself in an investigation of his business activities. “Will He Be Indicted?” is not a chyron that Biden covets.
But it has become a frustrating and inescapable fact of life in the White House that Biden often has a hard time matching the man he beat when it comes to driving the national conversation. Until recently, Biden had enough trouble on his own communicating his agenda and successes, and now he finds himself in a frenzied news cycle dominated by multiple investigations in multiple jurisdictions involving Trump and his allies.
“Biden can’t reinvent himself in a way that out-Trumps Trump. It’s just not in his nature and would backfire,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican political consultant. “The best opportunity he has to offer the starkest contrast with Trump is to focus relentlessly on the issues giving the widest range of voters the most acute anxiety: inflation, housing, jobs and financial security. These are all issues where, if Biden can reset the trend lines, he can regain political capital.”
That is the strategy Biden’s aides hope to employ, making the argument that the domestic policy package he signed Tuesday, along with falling gas prices and investments in the semiconductor industry and veterans’ health care, will appeal to voters more concerned about their own pocketbooks than Trump’s legal travails.
“The American people want President Biden to be focused on the things that impact their lives, and what he’s going to do today is sign a bill that’s going to bring down their costs, the single biggest concern that they raise,” Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director, said before the signing ceremony.
Biden’s team recognized in advance that after carrying Tuesday’s ceremony, cable news outlets would quickly turn back to the latest developments involving Trump, so it opted to amplify the president’s message by enlisting Cabinet officers to give interviews to local and regional media organizations. The White House posted online a video of the signing and drafted an opinion article in the president’s name that was published by Yahoo News.
Biden, who lately has been less in the public eye because of COVID-19 and now his summer vacation, will hold a rally in Maryland on Aug. 25 to kick off a series of events aimed at showcasing his accomplishments heading into the fall midterm campaign, when Democrats face an uphill battle to hold onto Congress. He plans another White House ceremony Sept. 6 to celebrate the climate-health-tax bill, dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act by Democrats to appeal to public concerns even though it will likely not reduce inflation much in the short term.
With Democrats anxious over Biden’s dismal approval ratings in polls, the White House released a memo this week outlining plans to spread the word about the recent spate of action. “Our goal for the next few weeks is simple: Take our message — one that we know resonates with key groups — and reach the American people where they are,” the memo said.
The challenge for Biden is acute. Only 41% of Americans said they were even familiar with the legislation signed Tuesday, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll. But its major elements enjoy strong support among voters when informed, with 62% to 71% in favor of provisions like allowing Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices and expanding incentives for clean energy.
Biden is relying on what Madden called “the analog approach in a digitized world,” which has made it hard to compete with Trump even when the former president is less in the news. Unlike the former president, Biden does not engage in the kind of 24-hour, seven-day bombardment of the public, nor does he throw out political bombs on a whim to draw attention. He gives far fewer interviews and is content to let aides speak for him much of the time.
He is not the first president to face competition from a predecessor or vanquished foe, but none of them did so in the age of omnipresent media.
The prospect of being haunted by a predecessor drove Gerald R. Ford to pardon Richard M. Nixon after Watergate drove the 37th president out of office. Ford did not want his entire administration absorbed by the spectacle of a former president being investigated and put on trial. But Biden made clear early on that he would not similarly grant clemency to Trump even if it meant a distracting narrative during his own presidency.
Biden’s aides said they hope to use the distracting narrative as a contrast to make a point. To win back disaffected Democrats and left-leaning independents concerned that Biden was not following through on his campaign promises, the White House plans to make the case that the legislation and other actions of recent weeks demonstrate that he is, even if belatedly, achieving priorities that matter to them.
Bedingfield said Biden will argue that democracy can work. “The president’s going to continue laying out the choice people have,” she said, “between an agenda that’s about getting things done for the American people and an agenda that’s about tearing down the guardrails of our democracy.”