STATESIDE: Biden should be wary of underestimating Trump

US President Joe Biden. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

US President Joe Biden. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)


“Wow. What a weekend. Too many more like this one and we’re finished.”

The speaker was a liberal friend, a Democratic loyalist and a Joe Biden apologist. These things often go together nowadays. And it was indeed a rough several days for the Dems and their embattled old president. But there’s hope. It was provided as usual by his opponent.

The biggest anxiety-producing development came with the release of an investigation of Biden’s possible mishandling of classified documents during his lengthy government service. The investigation was led by a little-known lawyer named Robert Hur.

Hur, 51, is a graduate of Harvard, Cambridge and Stanford Universities, has been a partner in the Washington offices of two national US law firms and clerked for former Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist. He was born in New York city to parents from South Korea. Now he’s a headline-maker all over the country.

Hur was also the Trump-appointed US Attorney for Maryland. He took over when Rod Rosenstein moved to the US Department of Justice under Trump’s first attorney general Jeff Sessions. Remember him?

He was the former Alabama senator who recused himself from the investigation of Trump’s Russian influence scandal instead of killing it on behalf of Trump, as the president preferred. For this offence, he was relentlessly emasculated by Trump, then ultimately fired.

Trump also sabotaged Sessions’ subsequent bid to return to the Senate, favoring instead former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville, a man with no prior policy or political experience who was of course elected. Alabama really loves Trump.

Tuberville is the same senator who became a household word by holding up promotions affecting 450 senior US military officers and their families for nine months in protest of a Pentagon abortion policy, which remained nonetheless unchanged when he finally gave up his holds in December.

Anyhow, Hur has been known as a moderate Republican in Washington. So it was a bit of a surprise when he concluded his investigation of Biden with the conclusion that the president should face no charges because “we have also considered that, at trial, Mr Biden would likely present himself to a jury, as he did during our interview of him, as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory”.

Ouch. That conclusion echoes the most reliable attack line Trump and his associates have been able to develop against Biden. Using dogged persistence that has previously proven successful, the GOP has long picked at the president’s gaffes and verbal missteps and hesitations as evidence of senescence and unsuitability for reelection.

Hur, appointed by attorney general Merrick Garland, reinforced exactly that line of criticism. Hur’s report provoked a wave of reaction from all over the political spectrum.

“Because of his public appearances and interviews and speeches, people already have the sense that he is what he seems to be — he’s an old man and he’s struggling,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist speaking with reporters. “When you already have that sense, and then an official government investigator comes along and says, ‘Let me just confirm everything you thought,’ it’s devastating.”

An ABC News poll last month found that 28 percent of Americans said Biden has the mental acuity necessary to serve effectively as president, while 47 percent said Trump does. Another poll taken late last year in Wisconsin found that 57 percent of registered voters said the phrase “too old to be president” describes Biden very well, while 23 percent said the same for Trump.

So this problem for Biden intensifies. Even his staunchest media supporters are worried. The editorial board of the Washington Post, always mindful of trying to be fair, said “voter concerns about Mr. Biden’s age and mental acuity are not only widespread but also perfectly legitimate. Those concerns will keep dogging his candidacy. It’s up to the president to convince the people that he is still up to the job.”

The Post has, however, not forgotten Biden’s greatest asset – his opponent. “It’s also up to everyone to consider Mr Biden’s flaws not in the abstract, but relative to those of his opponent. The Hur report did not change that basic reality, either.”

The editorial board of the New York Times flayed Biden for his hesitant, reclusive public posture. “As it stands, Biden has had less substantive, unscripted interaction with the public and the press than any other president in recent memory. In the 100 years since Calvin Coolidge took office, only Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan held as few news conferences each year as the current occupant of the Oval Office.

“As of late January, Biden had also given fewer interviews than the last six presidents - only 86. Mr. Trump gave 300, and Barack Obama gave 422.”

The current uproar has reminded pundits that the 2020 presidential election campaign, conducted while the country faced the active threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, perfectly enabled Biden to appear only infrequently in public. Trump and the Republicans bashed him for “running from his basement in Delaware”. They weren’t altogether wrong, even though Biden did ultimately defeat Trump by a pretty healthy margin overall.

Now, though, the pandemic has passed. It certainly looks like in order to win in November, Biden will need to start campaigning with voters and subject himself to many more unrehearsed interactions. Town halls and more press conferences and interviews are also prescribed to revive his campaign.

Back in 2016, Hillary Clinton essentially bet that Trump was such an outrageous, undisciplined buffoon that simply the fact of not being him would suffice to ensure her election. We know how that turned out. She forgot that during the course of eight years in her husband’s White House and subsequent service in the Senate, she had generated widespread voter dislike.

In 2020, Trump ran as a president who lived both up and down to his campaign promises, demeanor and behaviour. In response, Biden made the same bet as Hillary – that since he was not Trump, he would prevail. Four years ago, that bet paid off.

Now, Democrats and their allies all over the country are pressing Biden not to repeat Hillary’s mistake. Trump has defiantly continued being Trump, so there seems to be ample conventional evidence to support Biden in his belief. But still, the polls do suggest that the incumbent will have to do more than just his job to ensure reelection.

Biden and GOP primary contender Nikki Haley have been sharpening their criticisms of the much-indicted and now at least thrice-convicted Trump. Both Biden and Haley are picking away at Trump’s fragile vanity, at least partly in the hope of provoking him into increasingly damaging and “unhinged” responses.

It seems that one of the most effective insults to use in this context is a simple one: Both of Trump’s rivals are starting to call him a “loser”. While the naturally refined and genteel Haley is slower to hurl insults, that is changing. Trump has succeeded in inciting her.

Campaigning in the GOP primary in Haley’s home state of South Carolina over the weekend, Trump asked “where’s Haley’s husband? Oh, he’s away, he’s away. What happened to her husband? What happened to her husband? Where is he? He’s gone.”

Addressing an angry response to Trump, Haley said on Twitter that “Michael (her husband) is deployed serving our country, something you know nothing about.” She added: “Someone (like Trump) who continually disrespects the sacrifices of military families has no business being commander in chief.”

Haley’s army reservist husband Michael is deployed overseas in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, as a member of South Carolina’s national guard.

But Trump’s outrageousness is not news. Nor is his admiration for Russian president Vladimir Putin. Still, he managed to elicit new outrage with his latest witless comments about Russia and NATO.

Trump said Saturday he would encourage Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” if it attacked a NATO country that didn’t allot as much for defense and overall military preparation and preparedness as the US does.

His comments drew fierce backlash from some Republicans, the White House and leading Western officials, with the head of NATO even suggesting they could put the lives of American and European soldiers at greater risk. Such outspokenness in European public statements about American politics is highly unusual. But so is Trump.


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