Joe Biden versus Donald Trump is not the choice America wants. But it is the choice we need to face.
Yes, both men are unpopular, remarkably so. Only a third of Americans view President Biden favorably, and two-thirds of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters want to nominate someone else for the presidency (no one in particular, just someone else, please). Trump is the overwhelming favorite to become the Republican nominee for the third consecutive time, but his overall approval rating is lower than Biden’s. And while 60 percent of voters don’t want to put Trump back in the White House, 65 percent don’t want to hand Biden a second term, either. The one thing on which Americans seem to agree is that we find a Biden-Trump 2024 rematch entirely disagreeable.
This disdain may reflect the standard gripes about the candidates. (One is too old, the other too Trump.) But it also may signal an underlying reluctance to acknowledge the meaning of their standoff and the inescapability of our decision. A contest between Biden and Trump would compel Americans to either reaffirm or discard basic democratic and governing principles. More so than any other pairing, Biden versus Trump forces us to decide, or at least to clarify, who we think we are and what we strive to be.
Trump is running as an overtly authoritarian candidate — the illusion of pivots, of adults in the room, of a man molded by the office, is long gone. He is dismissive of the law, except when he can harness it for his benefit; of open expression, except when it fawns all over him; and of free elections, except when they produce victories he likes. He has called for the “termination” of the Constitution based on his persistent claims of 2020 electoral fraud, and according to The Washington Post, in a new term he would use the Justice Department as an instrument of vengeance against political opponents. We know who Trump is and what he offers.
Biden’s case to the electorate — for 2020, 2022 and 2024 — has been premised on the preservation of American democratic traditions. In the video announcing his 2020 campaign, he asserted that “our very democracy” was at stake in the race against Trump. In a speech two months before the midterm vote last year, he asserted that Trump and his allies “represent an extremism that threatens the very foundation of our Republic.” And the video kicking off his 2024 re-election bid featured multiple scenes of the assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. “The question we are facing,” Biden said, “is whether in the years ahead we have more freedom or less freedom.” That is our choice in 2024.
Like so many others, I also wish we could avoid that choice or at least defer it. As the journalist Amy Walter has put it, “Swing voters would rather eat a bowl of glass than have to choose between Trump and Biden again.” Well, it may be time to grab a spoon and unroll the gauze. When half the country believes democracy isn’t working well, when calls for political violence have become commonplace, when the speaker of the House is an election denier, it is time to face what we risk becoming and to accept or reject it. We have no choice but to choose.
Even if some combination of poor health and legal proceedings somehow pushed Biden and Trump aside — and some blandly likable generic candidates took their places — we could not simply rewind the past eight years and return to our regularly scheduled programming. America would still face the choices and temptations that Biden and Trump have come to represent; the choice would not change, even if the faces did.
A recent New York Times/Siena College poll that shows Trump leading Biden in five battleground states also asked registered voters which candidate they trust on key questions. Trump won on the economy, immigration and national security; Biden received higher marks on just two issues. The first was abortion, a core priority among Democratic voters and one that proved powerful in last year’s midterms and the off-year elections and ballot initiatives last Tuesday in states like Ohio, Kentucky and Virginia.
The second issue on which Biden commands greater trust? By a slim margin, it is democracy. This advantage is pronounced among Black voters, who trust Biden over Trump by 77 to 16 percent on democracy, and Hispanic voters, who prefer Biden by 53 to 38 percent. (White voters, by contrast, sided with Trump 50 to 44 percent on that issue.) The protection of American democracy offers a potentially resonant message for Biden, precisely among parts of the Democratic coalition that he can ill afford to lose.
Oddly, even as the electorate seems to want little to do with either of these two candidates — let alone with both at the same time — Biden and Trump seem to need each other. Biden’s case for saving American democracy loses some urgency if Trump is not in the race; I can’t imagine, say, a Nikki Haley nomination eliciting as much soul-of-America drama from the president. Similarly, Trump’s persecution complex, always robust, is strengthened with Biden as his opponent; the former president can make the case that his indictments and trials represent the efforts of the incumbent administration — and Trump’s political rival — to keep him down. After all, neither Gretchen Whitmer nor Gavin Newsom runs the Department of Justice.
Of course, we already faced this choice — and made it — in 2020. Why insist on a do-over? Because a country approaching its 250th birthday does not have the luxury of calling itself an experiment forever; this is the moment to assess the results of that experiment. Because Jan. 6 was not the final offensive by those who would overrun the will of voters. Because a lone Trump victory in 2016 could conceivably be remembered as an aberration if it were followed by two consecutive defeats, but a Trump restoration in 2024 would confirm America’s slide toward authoritarian rule and would render Biden’s lone term an interregnum, a blip in history’s turn. And we must choose again because the fever did not break; instead, it threatens to break us.
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