For more than a year, Joe Biden and his White House aides had been laying the political groundwork for launching his long-anticipated 2024 re-election campaign. But just three weeks after Biden’s anti-climactic formal announcement of his candidacy, in a slickly produced 3-minute launch video, some Democrats are privately expressing their anxiety about the leisurely pace and lack of intensity of the president’s re-election operation. They fear that the campaign’s slow start, with few public appearances and no unscripted encounters with the media, as well as his very light daily White House work schedule, is reinforcing the public’s impression that at the age of 80, Biden lacks the physical stamina and cognitive ability to conduct a successful national presidential campaign, followed by four more years as president.
Democrats had also been confidently predicting that Biden would be their strongest 2024 candidate if Donald Trump again emerges the GOP’s nominee, which appears to be increasingly likely. But now some of those Democrats are having second thoughts, because, during the past three weeks, the political momentum in the 2024 race has clearly shifted in former President Donald Trump’s favor.
The first warning sign of Trump’s unexpectedly strong political comeback, that Democrats could no longer ignore, was a Washington Post-ABC News opinion poll showing Biden’s job approval rating at an all-time low of 36 percent, and Trump leading Biden in a head-to-head match-up by 6 points. In addition, 68% of those surveyed, including a sizable percentage of Democrats, said that they think that Biden, who has been increasingly showing the effects of his age at 80, is too old to run for a second term as president.
The initial reaction of the Biden team to the bad news in the Washington Post-ABC News poll was to dismiss it as an outlier. But its message has been reinforced by a Harvard-Harris poll which gave Trump a 5-point lead and a Wall Street Journal poll which had Trump 3 points ahead of Biden.
Democrats were also surprised and disappointed by the public’s reaction to Trump’s recent indictment on criminal charges by a Manhattan grand jury for paying hush money through his lawyer to avoid a scandal during the 2016 presidential campaign, and a $5 million civil judgment handed down last week in a lawsuit filed by a woman over a disputed incident that she claims took place almost 30 years ago. Trump’s popularity numbers have actually improved due to the widespread perception that the charges against him are politically motivated, and that he is the victim of an unfair double standard, both in the mainstream media news coverage and in the courts.
TRUMP DOMINATES CNN’S TOWN HALL
Trump’s campaign also benefitted greatly from his domination of a CNN Presidential Town Hall, broadcast during evening prime time on Wednesday, May 10. From the outset, Trump seized full control of the program. To the cheers of the live audience in New Hampshire, made up of Republican and independent voters, Trump left CNN’s host interviewer, Kaitlan Collins, sputtering in frustration at her failed attempts to contradict Trump’s renewed claims that he was robbed of a victory in the 2020 election, that he was not responsible for the riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, and that he is the innocent victim of politically motivated criminal charges and civil lawsuits.
It was a vintage Trump performance, filled with his characteristic bombast and occasional touches of humor. When it quickly became clear that the CNN host would be unable to stop Trump from sticking to his main talking points, the town hall effectively turned into an unpaid, 70-minute-long Trump campaign infomercial.
UNDERESTIMATING TRUMP’S MEDIA ABILITIES
Washington Post columnist Perry Bacon wrote that CNN’s biggest mistake was in trying to “treat Trump like any other presidential candidate,” given Trump’s unique talent for manipulating the media.
Bacon noted that “In 2016, the media not only played down Trump’s chances of winning but also suggested Trump would not pursue the outlandish and far-right ideas that he was running on if he won. This attitude was summed up by an Atlantic article titled Taking Trump Seriously, Not Literally. This perspective was entirely wrongheaded.”
He also suggested that CNN should have realized that Trump would not allow its reporter, Kaitlan Collins, to force him to follow the established norms for broadcast interviews. During the town hall, Collins acted more like a debater challenging his positions than a neutral interviewer, but Trump had no trouble getting his points across to the audience, despite her repeated interruptions.
Meanwhile, the Biden campaign seemed happy to cede the national media spotlight to Trump, by waiting almost two weeks after launching his candidacy before staging Biden’s first television interview on the ultra-liberal MSNBC news channel, at 10 p.m. on a Friday night.
BIDEN’S UNINSPIRED MSNBC INTERVIEW
In contrast to the hostile attitude of Trump’s CNN interviewer, the friendly MSNBC reporter gave Biden ample opportunity to repeat his familiar political talking points, warning against the “MAGA” Republicans and defending the innocence of his son, Hunter Biden against corruption charges by congressional Republicans.
Biden also claimed that his age was actually an advantage in his bid for a second term as president. He boasted that it gave him “a lot of wisdom and [enabled him to] know more than the vast majority of people. I’m more experienced than anybody that’s ever run for the office, and I think I’ve proven myself to be honorable as well as also effective.”
Biden’s performance during the MSNBC interview held no surprises and broke no new ground. It also had nothing that would change voters’ minds in his favor, and left some Democrat strategists frustrated. “It would be unfortunate if they [Democrats] let the Republican nominee govern the conversation on a day-to-day basis,” said Faiz Shakir, the campaign manager for Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential bid. “It feels like too much of a wild card to sit back. You’ve got to figure out a way to excite and energize people about your own conversation and to drive Donald Trump into that one.”
BIDEN FOLLOWING HIS 2020 CAMPAIGN FORMULA
The president’s re-election campaign appears to be following the same pattern set in 2020, when Biden spent most of the general election campaign hiding out in the basement of his Delaware home, instead of traveling around the country to meet with voters and respond spontaneously to questions from reporters. His public campaign appearances were few and far between, but his coverage in the mainstream news media was uniformly positive and superficial, with reporters accepting Biden campaign press handouts without question, while concentrating instead on mercilessly criticizing his opponent, Donald Trump.
But that formula may not work, because Biden no longer enjoys the same advantages he did in the 2020 campaign, including a wave of media-fueled anti-Trump sentiment, and dissatisfaction with Trump’s handling of the Covid pandemic. Many Democrats are quietly worried that the lack of enthusiasm for a Biden second term reflected in the current polls, voter anger at his failed economic policies, as well as widespread concerns about his age and vitality, may translate into fewer of Biden’s 2020 supporters turning out next year to vote for him again.
“There is a concern from a lot of people like me, for sure,” one prominent Democrat strategist who didn’t want his name mentioned told a reporter for The Hill. “There’s a disconnect between the consultant class of our party and the voters. They think they can just run a bunch of ads talking about how crazy Donald Trump is [and] that will be enough. That’s just not the case.”
Terrance Woodbury, CEO of HIT Strategies, a progressive and labor-affiliated public opinion firm, worries that the political strategists in the Biden White House have grown overconfident because of the president’s strong record of accomplishment during his first two years in office. He notes that President Biden “is a creature of the legislature and he believes that passing legislation is good governing and he’s passed some [great] legislation. But that ain’t always good politics.” Woodbury also considers Biden’s poor showing in the Washington Post-ABC News poll, to be a wake-up signal and warning that most voters don’t share the same high regard for Biden’s accomplishments as president as his White House team.
The complacency of the Biden campaign team is also a concern of former Stephanie Murphy, a former House Democrat. “After 60 years in politics, he’s surrounded by people who are insular by nature. And so it’s not a huge surprise that the White House doesn’t feel receptive to messages other than the ones that they want to believe in,” Murphy said. “It’s easy to blame the media but what is important is being able to listen to what the American people are saying to you. I mean, it’s not that every poll is wrong.”
WHITE HOUSE DENIES THAT IT IS OVERCONFIDENT
But Biden campaign spokesman Kevin Munoz said that his team had every right to be confident. “The Biden-Harris reelection campaign is building on the work of a historically strong DNC [Democrat National Committee] and state party operation, unified after the best midterm performance of a sitting president since FDR, and on the offense against a deeply unpopular MAGA agenda. . . We are meeting all of the goals and metrics we’ve set for ourselves to assemble another winning coalition in 2024,” he said.
With respect to the criticism of the campaign coming from fellow Democrats, the spokesman added, “The pundits and Beltway media have always underestimated Joe Biden, and he’s proven the doubters wrong every time.”
Those closest to Biden also believe that most voters no longer see Trump as a necessary agent of change, but rather as a disruptive political force whose behavior has been an embarrassment for the country and a threat to democracy. Bradley Beychok, the president and co-founder of the pro-Biden American Bridge 21st Century super-PAC said, “Fear is a good motivator and Trump rightfully scares the majority of Americans,” said Bradley Beychok, president and co-founder for the Biden-supportive Super PAC American Bridge 21st Century. “When Americans are reminded of the danger Trump poses to our democracy, that fear translates into more enthusiasm for Biden and the Democrats.”
Jim Messina, the campaign manager for President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, also believes that the criticism of Biden’s team is unjustified. “It is fair to say that Team Biden has been the most underestimated political operation in the country.” and that what some Democrats read as overconfidence is actually, “a very small team of people the president trusts in who are calm and realize they’re going to go through 100 storms between now and November 2024.”
Some Democrats still find it hard to believe that after winning control of the House in the 2018 midterm, beating Trump in 2020, and keeping the expected Republican gains in 2022 midterm to a minimum, voters would return to support Trump in 2024, despite all of their determined efforts to discredit and demonize him over the past six years.
Veteran Democrat political strategist Simon Rosenberg said, “You’ve now had three consecutive elections where Democrats’ performance has been at the upper end of what’s been possible for us. Anyone who thinks that this anti-MAGA majority that did so well for us these last three elections is all of a sudden going to not show up, well, I have a red wave to sell you,” he said.
LIBERAL FURY UNLEASHED AT CNN
But instead of heeding the disturbing message from the latest polls, as well as the positive reaction to Trump’s masterful performance during the CNN town hall, Democrats and Biden supporters have attacked CNN for giving Trump the kind of public forum that used to be routine for a front-running presidential candidate, but which the mainstream media has routinely denied to Trump, even while he was still the sitting president.
The Washington Post quoted Norman Ornstein, formerly a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, condemning CNN for “legitimizing” Trump’s 2024 candidacy, ignoring the fact that he is, at this point, the prohibitive favorite to win the GOP nomination. Former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann tweeted that by giving Trump a forum, CNN was “committing journalistic suicide,” while popular MSNBC program host and political commentator Joe Scarborough condemned the town hall as “just disgraceful on every level.”
In response, the morning after Trump’s appearance, CNN chief executive officer, Chris Licht, speaking to the network’s staff at a news conference, refused to apologize, citing its obligation to its viewers to fully cover the presidential race, saying, “You do not have to like the former president’s answers, but you can’t say that we didn’t get them.”
Similarly, Licht’s boss, David Zaslav, the CEO of CNN’s parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, said of Trump: “He’s the front-runner. He has to be on our network.”
IS THIS A RETURN TO THE STANDARDS OF IMPARTIAL JOURNALISM?
That traditional journalistic point of view was also endorsed by New York Times editorial board member Michelle Cottle. She notes that despite “the threat he poses to American democracy. . . nothing that Mr. Trump has done so far legally prevents him from pursuing, or serving, another term in the White House. Yes, many voters consider his double impeachments, his role in the January 6 riot, and his glut of legal troubles to be disqualifying. But many others do not.”
She cites the recent polls as “a reminder of Mr. Trump’s enduring appeal for millions of Americans. He is a serious contender for the White House — even, heaven help us, a formidable one. To treat him otherwise would be a breach of duty by the news media, democratic institutions, and voters.”
At the same time, Cottle notes that in putting on the town hall program in prime time, both Trump and CNN “are using each other. Under new leadership, the network is looking to rebuild its reputation, and ratings, as a less crusading, more balanced news source. . . As for the former president, Mr. Trump has always been a media creation.”
Longtime former ABC News host Ted Koppel argued that just because leading national politicians can be nasty and tell lies doesn’t give news networks the right to boycott them. “I’m not sure that news organizations should necessarily be in the business of making ideological judgments. Is he a legitimate object of news attention? You bet,” Koppel said.
Similarly, veteran former CBS Evening News anchorman Bob Schieffer, who was widely praised for his performance moderating presidential debates in 2004, 2008, and 2012, said that by broadcasting the town hall, CNN was carrying out the basic mission of the news media. “We’re in the business of telling people who’s running for what and what they stand for,” Schieffer declared.
CNN’s in-house media reporter, Oliver Darcy, who was highly critical of CNN CEO Licht’s decision to schedule the program, Darcy said, “It felt like 2016 all over again. It was Trump’s unhinged social media feed brought to life on stage,” and on national TV. But Darcy also conceded that, “In all fairness, nobody had any problems with what he [Licht] wanted to do until after the show started, when they quickly realized that Collins was not exactly [as talented as legendary female reporter] Barbara Walters, or even close.”
According to Breitbart commentator John Nolte, CNN host Collins’ game plan was to get under the former president’s skin, but it backfired badly. While she sputtered and constantly interrupted the former president, Trump looked cool, calm, prepared, and unflappable as he effectively delivered his message to the friendly live and television audience, presenting a vision for the future of America “filled with promise and prosperity. . . The [live] audience was cheering him on and laughing at the host.”
CNN ALIENATED ITS OWN AUDIENCE
Nolte said, “The real reason [the Trump town hall] was a catastrophe for CNN [is that] by handing Trump a forum and allowing Trump to look as good as he did — and he’s never been better — CNN alienated and infuriated its [liberal viewer] base.”
The day after the town hall, Anderson Cooper, one of CNN’s most popular on-screen personalities, issued an on-the-air apology to the CNN audience, saying, “You have every right to be outraged today and angry and never watch this network again.”
However, Cooper also said, “But do you think staying in your silo and only listening to people you agree with is going to make that person go away? If we all only listen to those we agree with, it may actually do the opposite. . .
“Now many of you think CNN shouldn’t have given him any platform to speak. And I understand the anger about that. . . [But] the man you were so disturbed to hear from last night, that man is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president. And according to polling, no other Republican is even close. . . He may be president of the United States in less than two years. . .
“After last night, none of us can say I didn’t know what’s out there. I didn’t know what’s coming,” Cooper concluded.
CHALLENGES FACING BOTH CAMPAIGNS
While the 2024 presidential campaign is just getting started, it is already shaping up as a surprisingly close duel between the two most popular politicians in the country.
The Biden campaign is still struggling to find a winning message that addresses voters’ well-founded concerns over the president’s failed economic policies, his extreme “woke” liberal agenda, and his questionable physical and mental fitness to run for a second term at the age of 80. On the other side, Trump needs to stop obsessively looking back at his disputed 2020 electoral loss and find more ways to use his extraordinary media talents to address the complaints of frustrated traditional and working-class voters, promote the reinstatement of his successful past presidential policies, and project his optimistic vision for America’s future.