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It’s still a Biden referendum. That’s not good for him

Democrats hope polls will turn when people focus on Trump, but change will not be easy

President Joe Biden addresses reporters on the South Lawn of the White House before boarding Marine One for a trip to Los Angeles for a campaign reception on Feb. 20.
President Joe Biden addresses reporters on the South Lawn of the White House before boarding Marine One for a trip to Los Angeles for a campaign reception on Feb. 20. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Joe Biden has often repeated the advice his father gave him: “Joey, don’t compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative.”

At this point, however, whether the 2024 presidential race is a referendum on Biden’s performance or a choice between Biden and Donald Trump, polls show voters have little interest in another four years of Biden.

Biden’s job approval sits at an unimpressive 38 percent among adults in Gallup polling and 37 percent among registered voters in NBC polling. His job approval ratings on five “key issues,” according to the Gallup Poll’s Megan Brenan, are as bad or worse.

Biden’s approval on the economy stands at 36 percent, while his handling of the Ukraine situation is at 40 percent. Only 28 percent approve of his handling of immigration, 33 percent approve of his handling of foreign affairs and 30 percent approve of his handling of the Middle East.

Independents, a crucial swing group he needs to win in the fall, give Biden lower scores on overall job approval and on key issues.

Only 3 of 10 independents approved of Biden’s handling of the economy, while just 23 percent approve of his handling of the Middle East.

Not surprisingly given Biden’s job performance numbers, many national and key state polls show him trailing Trump in hypothetical ballot tests.

Democrats want focus on Trump

And yet, even with Biden’s weak poll numbers, many Democratic strategists think the current president can fundamentally change the trajectory of the campaign. Once voters start focusing on the general election and comparing Biden to Trump, they predict, the entire race will change.

That’s possible, but it’s not self-evident how or why the current shape of the presidential contest would change.

After all, both Trump and Biden have nearly universal name identification, and both have been in the public’s spotlight for weeks, months and years. We know about them because we have seen them day after day.

It’s not as if the current president and the former commander in chief will say something to change our opinions of them. Americans know the two men very well, which is why they are so unhappy with the choice they have for 2024.

According to Gallup polling on overall opinion about the two men, Trump’s 42 percent favorable/57 percent unfavorable ratings are almost identical to Biden’s 41 percent favorable/58 percent unfavorable ratings.

Often, voters change their minds during a campaign after they learn new information about candidates, or after circumstances change.

But Trump has survived the kind of outrageous comments and behavior that would have destroyed any other candidate, and Biden gets little credit for his accomplishments.

Inflation drags down economy

The nation’s economy — measured by economic growth, unemployment, and the stock market — is quite strong even though Americans tell pollsters they’re worried about inflation and give Biden poor grades for his handling of the economy.

Similarly, the White House is trying to deal with problems at the southern border, but Republicans on Capitol Hill appear unwilling to negotiate a deal, preferring to keep immigration as a campaign issue they can use to clobber Biden and his party repeatedly.

Of course, Biden’s prospects would brighten if voters started giving him credit for the economy. But so far, that hasn’t happened, and the only issue on which Democrats have a strong advantage is abortion.

Does this mean that Donald Trump has the presidential election locked up? Of course not. But critics of Trump should not kid themselves that it will be easy to change the shape of this year’s election.

Nor should Democrats believe that they can easily turn the 2024 election from a referendum on Biden’s presidency into a choice between Biden and Trump. Even if they do, it’s not yet clear that Biden benefits enough from that choice to remake the contest.

The fundamental problem for both parties is that conservatives and Republicans distrust Biden while liberals and Democrats distrust Trump. They view events through those partisan and ideological lenses, which makes it difficult for voters to change their minds about who they support. As the South Carolina exit poll showed, most voters made their minds up very early.

For the moment, if the election is either a referendum on Biden or a choice between the two nominees, Biden finds himself in deep trouble. He needs November to be about Trump — and specifically about Trump’s most outrageous comments and most dangerous beliefs.

That may be the only way for Biden to change the trajectory of the race and turn out the Democratic demographic groups and swing voters he needs to win.

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