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From the New York Times, I'm Sabrina Tavernisi, and this is The Daily. Yesterday on the show, we went inside Donald Trump's campaign for President to understand how he's trying to turn a mountain of legal trouble into a political advantage. Today, we turn to the re-election campaign of President Biden. I spoke with my colleague, Reid Epstein, about why what looks like a record of accomplishment on paper is turning out to be so difficult to campaign on. It's Wednesday, January third. Reid, hi.


Sabrina, hi.


Reid, yesterday, our esteemed colleague, Maggie Haberman, was on the show, and she was talking about Donald Trump's 2024 campaign strategy. Fittingly, we come to you to talk about what Joe Biden's 2024 strategy will be like. Biden, of course, has presided over a relatively strong economy. He's passed a bunch of legislation, some of it very sweeping, some of it even bipartisan, despite historic levels of partisanship. The presumptive nominee on the other side is facing 91 felony counts. Yet, I know it's early, but I have to be honest, so far it's been a little hard to figure out what Biden's message actually is. So, Reid, what is Biden running on?


Well, part of Biden's problem is that a lot of these things that you articulated that should be strengths for him, frankly, are not. There are political weaknesses. He's been trying to sell his record and trying to explain to people that their lives are better under him. But the thing that you're seeing is that a A lot of these things that Biden accomplished, he's not able to talk about because voters don't think that they're selling points.


Can you give me an example?


Well, the economy is really the biggest one. All of the indicators that we have on the economy would tell you that the economy is booming, that things are going great. But if you ask people about how they feel about the economy, they don't feel good about it. People see that prices are still up. They see that they can't buy a house because the interest rates are high. And so none of that is great for Joe Biden. Joe Biden is determined to reward hard work. They spent about $40 million in battleground states. Over 12 million jobs have been created. Trying to sell the President's economic record.






We're investing in places and people that have been forgotten.


And the net effect of that so far has not been any great change in the polls. In fact, the polls for Joe Biden have gotten worse. And it seems pretty clear.


I'm Joe Biden, and I approve this message.


The advertising that they've done has not really worked.


Basically, bottom line, the economy, despite all of the economists telling us it should add up to a strength for Joe Biden in his campaign, has not.




What are the other accomplishments, aside from the economy, that he could be running on that would potentially be a strength?


Well, he did pass a bunch of pretty significant pieces of legislation on infrastructure, on Climate Investments, the Chips Act. All of these laws are spending exorbitant amounts of money all around the country for projects that will build new bridges, that will build solar factories, all things that pull very well individually. People say that they want, but you can't snap your fingers and have a new bridge. Some of these things take years and years to happen. In the meantime, what people see on infrastructure, frankly, is road construction.




In a lot of these states, you have local officials that are taking credit for projects that federal legislation is subsidizing that Joe Biden signed. A lot of federal money has flowed to Georgia, and you have the Republican governor, Brian Kemp, who's running around taking credit for it. There's a bridge between Cincinnati and Kentucky that the governor of Kentucky and Mitch McDonald have taken a lot of credit for. Not only are these projects It's not immediate. People don't see immediate results on it, but he's competing with local officials to take credit for it.


Reid, you mentioned big legislation. I know that part of what passed in the legislation that our colleagues were writing about a lot last year, the Inflation Reduction Act, had to do with climate and climate change and alleviating some of the effects of it. I would imagine that would play pretty well with his base. Can he campaign on that?


He has campaigned on that. I traveled with him summer to a factory in Milwaukee that was making charging stations for electric vehicles. But again, a lot of these projects are just getting off the ground. It's going to take a while for those things to have an impact on people's lived experiences.


Right. Okay, so, Reid, you're saying essentially that the typical strategy of an incumbent president, where you point to the things you've accomplished over your time in office, is not exactly working for Biden for a variety of reasons. But what about pointing to the thing that Biden would argue his presidency represents? The larger idea of democracy, upholding democratic norms and protecting them. That seems like a clear way to draw a contrast between himself and former President Trump that would be something his campaign would latch onto.


Right. I mean, if you remember when he ran in 2020, he talked about restoring the soul of America, and that after January sixth, It just became imbued with the idea of protecting democracy. But there wasn't anything really for Biden to do on that front other than talk about it. Even though the President has talked about democracy and talked about himself as the person upholding it. We haven't seen that voters are racing to back him because of that issue.


Reid, what does the polling say?


The polling says that people who are interested in democracy as an issue, they're interested in other issues more, usually. I think it's instructive to look at the midterm elections in Wisconsin, how Democrats attacked this issue when they were running against Ron Johnson, who was a senator who has been a fount of misinformation, who questioned the results of the election, cast doubts on what happened on January sixth. They did not run against him as an election denier or someone who was amplifying misinformation. Because every which way they tested it in polls and focus groups, they found that the most effective way of getting people to not vote for him was to talk about his economic record and not about his stance on democracy or misinformation. They ultimately, Ron Johnson won, and so they can have a debate about whether the strategy was right or not. But they had spent a lot of time and had a vested interest in defeating him and concluded that democracy was not the best way to do it.


That's really interesting. That democracy, I guess, is just this abstract thing that doesn't necessarily, on its own as a word, mean much to people.


Well, and what they found in Wisconsin was that any voter who cared about democracy as an issue was already going to vote for the Democratic candidate.


Okay, so democracy, not really a thing for swing voters, not an arrow he can put in his quiver. What about the fact that Trump is facing multiple indictments? I mean, come March, he's scheduled to be on trial in federal court, right? Is that a strength for Biden? I mean, something he'd want to sell on the campaign trail?


This is the trickiest issue for Joe Biden as he's running for re-election. Joe Biden has said from the beginning that he will not interfere or discuss Donald Trump's legal issues because he ran for President on the idea of restoring the independence of the Justice Department, and he does not want to back off of that in any way. Despite what Trump says on a daily basis, where he is blaming Biden for the prosecution of him, Biden does not want to give that any credence. So he doesn't talk about it. He has instructed his campaign not to talk about it. He's instructed the Democratic National Committee not to talk about it. And so the The biggest organizations that are devoted to re-electing Joe Biden President and his White House have taken a collective vow of silence on the biggest thing concerning Donald Trump in the next year.


In other words, he doesn't want to be seen as having put his thumb on the scale with his Justice Department in these federal prosecutions of Trump. Right. Okay, so you've laid out this list of would-be strengths that are functioning really at this point as weaknesses for Biden, things he wants to talk about but really can't, which leads me to wonder if his strengths are this weak. What about his actual weaknesses? Tell me about those.


Well, if you ask voters about it, and we've done polls, I've gone door to door with candidates, and you ask people, What do you think of Joe Biden? Inevitably, the first response is, I can't believe he's so old. Every poll has suggested that it's a big problem, and it's the one thing that they can't change. In theory, they could fix their economic messaging, the economy could get better. But there's nothing they can do about Joe Biden being 81 years old and the way that people view him. Certainly Normally, the Trump campaign and Republicans will do everything they can to take advantage of when he tripped during a graduation ceremony or fell on the stairs going up to Air Force One. I know that people who work for Biden live in fear of that happening on a regular basis.


So what's his campaign doing to combat this age problem he has?


I know I'm 198 years old.


Well, he has started to make some jokes about it.


I know I don't look that old. I know. I'm a little under 103. I believe in the First Amendment, not just because my good friend Jimmy Madison wrote it.


He has made jokes about being around with the founding fathers.


That's funny.


That's not too much to ask. You okay? I want the press to know that wasn't me.


But he hasn't fully leaned into the age question in a way that that experience is what the country needs, which frankly leaves him vulnerable when he does have of senior moments. Everybody has dealt with aging relatives, grandparents, parents, and seen how people slow down when they get older. The real danger is that people start to see that in him and wonder whether he's up for the job.


What are they doing instead then? What's the strategy? Just not have him out there so he won't potentially trip? What's going to happen?


Well, he He doesn't do as many events, certainly as Barack Obama did when he was running for re-election. His days are shorter than other presidents. He doesn't do a lot of one-on-one interviews with mainstream straight news reporters. Instead, they have tried to package him in a way online and have people vouch for him in the press. I'm here to tell the truth about the Biden-Harris record and also- Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, did a debate against Ron DeSantis on Fox News, where Newsom spent much of the debate defending the Biden record. Biden administration, the last three years, has been a master of the job. Joe Biden paying you tonight.


3.9 I thought this was state versus state.


But it's about the United States of America. I thought this guy was running for president of the United States. It almost sounded like he thought that it was on the rest of the party to pull Joe Biden over the line as opposed to Biden doing it himself. Usually in a presidential election, it is on the candidate to do that, not necessarily on his surrogates. But because of Joe Biden's age, because his own popularity is so low and the popularity of many of his surrogates are so high, Newsom and others have come to the conclusion that they have to be the ones to convince voters to vote for Joe Biden almost more than Joe Biden doing it.


So we're taking all of this together. What path does that leave Biden in his campaign?


Well, Joe Biden, as we talked about, is not very popular. Voters think he's very old. But the upside for him is that he appears to have the good fortune of running against Donald Trump, who's even less popular than he is. In politics, like in everything else, you have to play to your strengths. It's left him to try to make the case to voters that he's better than Donald Trump.


We'll be right back. Reid, you just explained to me all of the things Biden wants to talk about but can't, and then this thing he doesn't want to talk about, his age, but has to. That's a pretty tough needle to thread. How is Biden going to handle this? What's campaign actually going to focus on?


Well, the biggest issue for Democrats in this moment is abortion. It is the issue that energizes more Democrats to vote than any other issue, and it is the issue that turns more Republicans and swing voters to vote for Democrats than any other issue. They have seen the success of running on abortion from the midterms to the Wisconsin Supreme Court election in April, to the governor's race in Kentucky in November and a referendum on abortion rights in Ohio that won 57% of the vote in a deeply red state. One of the big challenges for the Biden campaign, frankly, and for Democrats running for Congress and the Senate, will be to make it clear to voters that abortion rights are on the ballot next November. We have started to see this from candidates for the House and Senate. It's a little more complicated for Joe Biden because he has a long and tortured history with abortion rights. He doesn't say the word abortion with much frequency when he says it at all.


Being an 80-year-old Catholic, it's difficult.


Being an 81-year-old Catholic who, for much of his career in politics, was not a staunch proponent of abortion rights. Up until his last presidential campaign. One thing that we have seen from his supporters when they offer him unsolicited advice is that he needs to say the word abortion more often. They see the power of this issue in their constituencies, in their states, and they are pressing the White House in public and private to have Biden say the word abortion and make his campaign a referendum on abortion rights.


Okay, so his campaign wants him to say the word abortion more, wants abortion to be a part of his campaign. But what would he actually say about it? Because I get how Democrats at the state level would want to talk about it because abortion is playing out at the state level right now. But what's the point of someone running for president talking about it? I mean, it's not being decided at a federal level.


Well, not yet, but it could be. One thing that we have heard from Democrats is that they would like to pass federal legislation codifying the right to an abortion, whether that's some row standard that they could pass into law at a federal level. But at the very least, what they have is scaring people about what Republicans would do if they had the White House in control of both chambers of Congress. Because that seems pretty clear, at least what they have said they would do. Some of that has played out in the Republican presidential debates. Lindsay Graham has talked about a 15-week ban The new House Speaker has talked about a total ban on abortion. If Trump were to win and have control of Congress, it's not unreasonable to think that they would enact an abortion ban. That is what the Biden campaign and Biden himself have to run against. It's not really difficult to imagine that Trump will give them more father on that front. He is not terribly disciplined in how he talks about a lot of these issues. He is the guy who appointed three of the Supreme Court justices who overturned the right to abortion.


There's this quite interesting new political reality we have now with abortion, where it's no longer a liability It's actually an asset, and it's been helping Democrats a lot up and down the ballot and could potentially even help President Biden in his campaign. But you also mentioned Trump here, and this contrast with Trump. Talk to me a little bit about that, Reid. How is that playing into Biden's campaign?


Well, the thing that the Biden camp believes it needs to do is convince voters that this election is not a referendum on whether you like Joe Biden, but that it's a choice between Joe Biden and a return to Donald Trump and everything that went along with it.


The theory is what there?


The theory is that voters may be dissatisfied with Joe Biden, and they may not be in love with Joe Biden, and they may not like that he's 81 years old. But they elected him in the first place because they really didn't like Donald Trump, and they didn't like the idea of having a chaotic presence in the White House that was in their lives on a daily basis in their Facebook feeds and on the news. If you remember when Trump was in the White House, he was the topic of conversations at Little E. Games and PTA meetings, and it was just everywhere.


Completely. It's like the metaphor was there's a horse in the hospital. Where's it going to be next? The horse is in the elevator. What? It's like everybody was off guard with this idea that there was chaos erupting literally everywhere at every time.


What Biden was, was a promise to not be chaotic, that you could live your life and go through many days at a time without thinking about Joe Biden and without thinking about the President.


Right. They're betting that this chaotic presence is going to come roaring back onto the political scene, and suddenly everybody But he's going to remember who this guy is.


Right. But their problem is that Trump is much easier to ignore now than he was when he was in the White House. The cable networks don't carry his rallies live. He's not active on the major social media platforms. News of him is a little more siloed than it was before. And so part of the challenge for the Biden campaign, frankly, is putting Trump back in those people's lives.


Donald Trump often says, We're now, quote, We're now a failing nation. We're a nation in decline.


And so we've seen a conscious shift from the Biden campaign. And even from Biden himself, in turning their campaign into a not Trump apparatus.


We always believe diversity is our strength as a nation. I don't believe, as the former President said again yesterday, that immigrants are polluting polluting our blood.


Because their bet is that if people can hear Trump saying things that are outrageous, but not so out of character for Donald Trump.


Trump says the Constitution gave him, The right to do But everything he wants as President.


It will remind people of the chaos they did not like when he was the President.


Just remember how the pandemic hit Black business especially hard. How my on his watch, women and minority-owned small businesses found themselves last in line accessing emergency relief.


And scare people into voting for Joe Biden and against Donald Trump.


That's pretty interesting, right? They're actually trying to give more oxygen to this guy that the oxygen was taken away from after January sixth when he lost the election. I mean, trying to put him smack dab back into the middle of the political landscape is an interesting strategy.


Right. I mean, they have concluded that every day that's a news is about Donald Trump is a good day for Joe Biden.


So, Reid, it really seems like a lot of Biden's campaign strategy is just wait and see. It doesn't feel like he's really in the driver's seat steering the bus. He's just waiting for things to break his way. Like he's playing defense, not offense. It's puzzling because he's an incumbent with a good economy. He's managed to get some major legislation passed, and he's running against a potential convicted felon. But he's still performing very poorly. Has the Biden campaign been dealt a particularly tough hand, or is it just uniquely bad at messaging?


Well, Joe Biden himself is not great at messaging. He's not Barack Obama. He doesn't draw huge crowds. He doesn't draw this intense loyalty of a Bernie Sanders, even. Even when he was running for President in 2020, there weren't crowds of many thousands of people coming out to see Joe Biden. He was a consensus candidate because people thought he could beat Donald Trump.


The Trump voters I was interviewing a lot at the time were always talking about that. Look at the stadiums. No one's there. No one shows up for him.


Right. But a vote from somebody who is super excited about a candidate counts the same as a vote from somebody who is meh, but thinks he's better than the other guy. The Biden campaign needs a lot of those ladder type of people to come out and vote for him and to stop Donald Trump. I think what you're going to see over the course of the year is an intense amount of messaging to tell people that the stakes of the election are to stop Donald Trump. And all that that entails. And so things like abortion and health care and democracy and all these other issues will get folded under that umbrella of stopping Donald Trump. And that is what they're going to push and try to impress upon people that that's the choice in this election. It's between a return to Donald Trump and the chaos that he brought and the relative stability, even if people are deeply unhappy about it that they have with Joe Biden.


Reid, thank you.


Thank you, Sabrina.


We'll be right back. Here's what else you should know today. On Tuesday, the President of Harvard University, Claudine Gay, announced her resignation after a series of accusations of plagiarism in her scholarly work. Her tenure, which began in July, was the shortest of any president in the history of the university. Support for her new presidency eroded in December, after Gay gave what critics saw as lawyerly evasive answers at a Congressional hearing about anti-Semitism on college campuses. Gay was Harvard's first Black President and the second woman to lead the institution. And at least 55 people were killed in a powerful earthquake that struck Western Japan on New Year's Day. The quake, which registered 7.6 on the Japanese Seismic Intensity Scale, left widespread destruction. Nearly 60,000 people fled their homes. And on Tuesday, the authorities were continuing to search for people under the rubble. Today's episode was produced by Mary Wilson and Eric Krupke. It was edited by Devon Taylor with help from Rachel Quester and Paige Cawet. Contains original music by Marion Lozano, Ron Nemistow, Diane Wong, and Will Reid, and was engineered by Alyssa Moxley. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Lansberg of WNDYRLE.


That's it for The Daily. I'm Sabrina Taverny-Cee. See you tomorrow.