Without question, the talk of the political world this week is going to be Sunday’s New York Times poll that shows bleak news for Joe Biden any way you slice it. It has Donald Trump beating Biden in five out of six major swing states, in some cases outside the margin of error; within various demographic groups, the news was uniformly terrible. Just one example: Trump, the only openly racist president since probably Woodrow Wilson, is pulling 22 percent of the Black vote, an unheard-of number for a Republican.
It’s highly unlikely that African Americans, or young people or any other group, have suddenly warmed to Trump. They just pretty clearly don’t want Biden to be president for another four years. The quotes in the main article from survey participants are … not good. “I don’t think he’s the right guy to go toe to toe with these other world leaders that don’t respect him or fear him,” said one Arizona voter who backed Biden in 2020 but now says he’s for Trump.
This is going to set off panic in Democratic circles. But should it? People will overreact, as people are wont to do. But to be honest, this poll should cause alarm and force some tough conversations at the White House and in high-level Democratic circles.
The problem in sum is this: We are staring down the business end of a massive chasm between the way high-information liberal voters and lower-information swing voters see Biden, like nothing we’ve ever seen in modern politics. I’ve been aware of this chasm but have been assuming and hoping that it would narrow. And maybe it still will—as I type these words Sunday morning, the election is exactly a year away. There’s a lot of time. But right now, the chasm is widening, and it may be widening beyond a point at which it can be reversed.
For my part? I think Biden has been a great president. All—and I mean all—of my good friends agree. They all might not use the word “great,” but they’d concur that his accomplishments have been beyond expectations. He passed bipartisan bills on which Republicans agreed to spend money on public investments. He stood with autoworkers as they got their best contract in recent history. He’s been stalwart on abortion rights since Dobbs. His leadership on Ukraine has been, at times, nothing short of inspiring. My friends and I are more mixed on his handling of the current Middle East crisis, but that’s an almost impossible situation that isn’t his fault, and at least his current position in support of a two-state solution and for Israel to abandon the status quo in Gaza (or make it worse) is the right one. But overall, the assessments of him are very positive.
Swing voters, it seems, have an almost violently different view. That Arizona voter above: What exactly, we might ask him, about Biden’s comportment in the foreign policy realm suggests he can’t go toe to toe with Vladimir Putin? He has done so, and the result has been that Ukraine has held onto its territory for far longer than it would have if the United States had kept its hands clean of the affair.
But the disgruntlement obviously isn’t limited to foreign affairs. Of course, it’s partly inflation. The inflation rate is way down. And those of us who read economic reports know that when it was bad, it was worse in the EU, and it largely wasn’t Biden’s fault (it was pandemic-related supply chain issues). But most people don’t understand that; they just know that their kids’ cereal went from $4.89 to $6.19.
And mainly, it’s Biden’s age. Actually, you know what I think it is most specifically? His voice. He sounds old. Trump doesn’t sound old. He may not know which Midwestern city or state he’s in or which country Viktor Orbán runs, but he doesn’t sound old. And Democrats need to face the simple fact that 80 is a psychological marker, one that Americans intuit from lived experience. When my mother was 75, she was still playing tennis twice a week. When she was 80, there were days she had trouble getting out of bed (in fairness, that was because of terrible back pain, which Biden apparently doesn’t have).
Then there’s the border. And crime. Those two issues really lead us into a discussion about the media, because what we have in this country, as I’ve written repeatedly, are two medias—a mainstream media and a right-wing media—and they are not remotely balanced. That is, the mainstream media report on Biden’s victories and setbacks in the traditional way of Western journalism, while the right-wing media savage him every single day over every single thing.
They, not the mainstream media, set the tone now. Ask yourself: Why does that Arizona voter want a president whom other leaders will “fear”? That’s not an American value. Respect, yes, of course. Democratic societies want to be respected. Authoritarian societies want to be feared. It says something about how Fox News and Trump values have inveigled their way into our collective consciousness that this man thinks we need a leader who is feared.
Look—there’s a long way to go. Trump will likely be a federal felon within the year. He’ll also probably campaign in such a way as to remind most swing voters of why they turned against him. Biden might play a role in ending the war in the Middle East and getting the parties to agree to some kind of international intervention. A lot of things could tumble Biden’s way. But that cereal will still be $6.19, Fox will still be Fox, and he’ll be one year older.
Democrats need to have some tough conversations. They either need to bridge that chasm—figure out ways to explain to voters that Biden has been better than they think and that he’s fit to serve another term—or they need to start thinking about whether they have to change captains before it becomes unbridgeable.