Trump pounces and Scranton Joe shows signs of fight in 2024 preview

Sitting president threatens to do push-ups in East Room as former president rants on Fox

President Joe Biden answers questions during a news conference in the East Room of the White House on January 19, 2022 in Washington, DC. With his approval rating hovering around 42-percent, Biden is approaching the end of his first year in the Oval Office with inflation rising, COVID-19 surging and his legislative agenda stalled on Capitol Hill.  (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
President Joe Biden answers questions during a news conference in the East Room of the White House on January 19, 2022 in Washington, DC. With his approval rating hovering around 42-percent, Biden is approaching the end of his first year in the Oval Office with inflation rising, COVID-19 surging and his legislative agenda stalled on Capitol Hill. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Posted January 24, 2022 at 6:00am

ANALYSIS — President Joe Biden and Democrats have spent weeks stubbing their own toes and Donald Trump has repeatedly pounced — providing the frame for an evolving 2024 presidential campaign.

Sure, the former president has stubbed his own, most recently with a racially tinged rally in Arizona and by contradicting his own false “stolen” election claims. But it is Biden and Democrats, prolonging their own legislative defeats and general political pain, who have played right into the hands of the front-runner for the next Republican presidential nomination.

On Thursday night, Biden and Trump appeared in preferred friendly territory: Biden delivered remarks to a virtual Democratic National Committee event and Trump appeared on “Hannity” on Fox News, a cable network with which he claims to have a beef but still has the kind of national reach that Trump knows can help him.

Biden headlined the event on the one-year anniversary of being sworn into office, quipping to Vice President Kamala Harris that “sometimes it seems longer, doesn’t it, Kamala?” He called his up-and-down first trip around the sun as commander in chief a “year of challenges” but still touted what he called “enormous progress.”

Meanwhile, during an interview with Fox personality Sean Hannity that featured few probing follow-up questions, Trump offered a much different assessment of his successor’s performance.

“I feel ashamed at what’s happened in the last year with our country,” the former president said.

Trump tore into Biden over the chaotic and deadly U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan — conveniently leaving out that the sitting chief executive merely delayed, then executed, the plan to leave the troubled country that Trump set in motion in 2020.

“When you look at that horrible situation in Afghanistan, the way they got out, getting out was good. But the way they got out, we could have gotten that with strength and with dignity,” Trump contended.

Early troubles

Biden’s messy Afghanistan exit was not the start of his first-year slide. It began on May 13, when Biden walked out on a sunny spring afternoon to announce that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had lifted its previous guidance and fully vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks.

“Today is a great day for America in our long battle with the coronavirus,” the president said during a Rose Garden event that had the feel of the kind of premature jocularity often exhibited by his former reality television host predecessor. “This recommendation holds true whether you are inside or outside. I think it’s a great milestone.”

Biden’s job approval rating that day was 54 percent, according to Gallup. Forty percent of those polled disapproved of how he was handling his job. Since? Very few “great” days for “46” and his Democratic mates.

Democrats formed a circular firing squad and were unable to reach an agreement on a version of Biden’s Build Back Better domestic spending package. Next, rather than push legislation to address inflation and the supply chain, Biden and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer pushed a voting rights bill for which they had no plan to advance it in the Senate.

Not satisfied with one failed high-profile vote, they insisted on another toe stub moment by trying to alter the chamber’s rules to pass the voting rights bill with a simple majority. One catch: Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona were not on board. Another failed vote.

Political observers are scratching their heads as Trump uses the Democratic dysfunction to cast them as unable to govern and deliver on promises like defeating COVID-19. Biden told reporters Thursday at just his second solo news conference on U.S. soil that he underestimated just how much congressional Republicans would resist his agenda — even though he was Barack Obama’s vice president while they did the same to him for eight years. 

“Over the past year, the lack of a coordinated strategy and comprehensive plan among Democrats, with really little room to maneuver, has been a mystery to me,” said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in North Carolina.

“When one party claims both the legislative and executive branches following a presidential election, in today’s polarized environment and with history as a guide, they have to realize the natural swing against them in the first midterm,” Bitzer added. “But coordinating efforts and getting ‘everyone on board’ seems a constant missed opportunity to shore themselves up for the foreseen tide against them in the midterm.”

‘Such a disaster’

Since the mask-ripping-off celebration, Biden’s job approval has flipped: Just 40 percent approve of his performance in Gallup’s latest poll, conducted Jan. 3-16. Fifty-six percent disapprove.

Trump is a lot of things, including a political opportunist. Seeing a weakened Biden, he’s pouncing.

“So we all knew that Joe Biden would be not so good, but few could have imagined that he would be such a disaster for this country,” he said at his Jan. 15 rally in Arizona.

Trump is increasingly focusing not just on his false “stolen” 2020 election claims but also kitchen-table issues like inflation that matter most to blocs of voters who helped push Biden past him in 2020 and into the Oval Office, including independents.

They are fleeing from the Biden camp in droves, at least for now, according to polling data. Just 33 percent of independents in Gallup’s latest poll approve of the president’s job performance. Also troubling for Biden and Democrats: 56 percent of independents believe the country is moving in the wrong direction, according to an Ipsos-Reuters poll completed on Jan. 20.

Democrats surveyed for the same poll are even split on the state of the union, with 44 percent saying the country is heading in the wrong direction. Just 43 percent of Biden’s fellow Democrats see the country going down a positive path. 

It gets worse: Only 29 percent of Americans — and less than half of Democrats, 48 percent — want the president to seek a second term in 2024, according to a poll released this week by The Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Asked Wednesday about his dismal standing with the people, Biden offered a curious and dismissive assessment: “I don’t believe the polls.”

But some Democrats see reasons to worry, and they want Biden and other party leaders to change their approach.

“Democrats need to change the narrative. Our message should be about the 50 GOP Senate obstructionists and not the two Democratic mavericks,” Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said, referring to Manchin and Sinema. “Instead of eating our own, we should go after the Republicans in Congress who have blocked President Biden’s efforts to rescue the nation from the disastrous policies of Donald Trump.”

Bannon advised Democrats to focus on a “fight” to finally end the pandemic, calling that “the key to a vibrant economy, which in turn is the road to victory for Democrats.”

‘Stupid question’

Notably, Biden showed signs this week that he is ready to do just that.

He was curt with questioners from right-leaning media outlets in the East Room and mocked conservative critics who say, at 78, he is too “senile” and fragile to be the de facto leader of the free world.

“You mean, I can still stand? It’s amazing,” he said with a noticeable Scranton Joe tone he has rarely flashed since the campaign trail. As he stepped to the side of his presidential seal-adorned lectern, he even suggested he might do some push-ups. 

The president also was more pointed than usual in calling out Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other Republicans. “I think that the fundamental question is: What’s Mitch for? What’s he for on immigration? What’s he for? What’s he proposing to make anything better?  What’s he for dealing with Russia that’s different than I’m proposing?” Biden asked rhetorically. “What’s he for on these things? What are they for?”

Scranton Joe was back on Thursday afternoon when a Fox News reporter shouted a question about the situation in Ukraine after a science and technology event: “Why are you waiting on [Russian President Vladimir Putin] to make the first move, sir?”

“What a stupid question,” the president replied.

Fight as they may, Democrats are more likely than not to lose the House and Senate in November. Then Biden, who says he intends to run again despite his age, likely will have to begin planning for a rematch with Trump. It would be the final political fight of Scranton Joe’s long career. 

“These dark clouds are the prelude to the potential storm that has been clearly on the horizon for some time,” Bitzer said, “and Democrats may just have to buckle down and ride it out through November and into the 2024 cycle that will begin the day after this fall’s general election.”

But in many ways, what portends to be a brutal 2024 fight already has begun.