One obstacle is that Trump is up against a candidate who will never be quite the same foil he found in Hillary Clinton. Over decades in public life, she was a magnet for critics, who rehashed her role in assorted controversies with obsessive attention. Shadowing her throughout the 2016 race were inquiries into her use of a private email account as secretary of state during Barack Obama’s first term.
Biden just doesn’t inspire the same sort of animus. No one is screaming “Lock him up!” at the mention of Biden’s name. “Meh” is more like it. Biden’s negative rating was 38 percent in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey this month. At the same point in the 2016 race, 55 percent held a negative view of Clinton.
Trump has tried to draw distinctions between himself and Biden, but his attacks thus far have fallen flat or boomeranged. His focus on Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine resulted in his own impeachment. Trump has sought to portray the former vice president as a stooge of China, while also accusing him of botching the Obama administration’s response to the H1N1 swine flu years ago. (Joe Biden’s role was small, and after-action reports showed that the administration’s handling of the crisis was largely effective.) Neither argument seems to have caught on. Lately, he’s been trying to cast Biden as befuddled and feeble. A new Facebook ad released by the Trump campaign calls Biden “clearly diminished” and says that he, at 77 years old, lacks the “strength, stamina, and mental fortitude” that the presidency demands.
Yet that line of attack exposes Trump, 74, to criticism that he suffers from the same disqualifying infirmities he’s hung on Biden. (One of Trump’s habits, as I’ve written, is that he projects his own vulnerabilities onto rivals.) At the Tulsa rally, he said Biden often botches the name of the state he’s in. Minutes later, he mispronounced Minneapolis. He called the 2020 election the “220” election. Though he says Biden doesn’t have the needed vigor for the job, he complained that he was hot and worn out from saluting hundreds of cadets during the ceremony at West Point. “He’s exhausted from saluting 600 guys who are going to war for us? Whew,” the Trump political adviser told me, incredulous.
Read: The end of the imperial presidency
No one will ever mistake Trump for a wonk. But there were moments during his 2016 race when he did spend time laying out concrete policy ideas. He said he would drain the swamp, unveiling a five-point plan for ethics reform in two campaign speeches; circulated a list of judges he’d consider for the Supreme Court; and pledged to restore manufacturing jobs by reworking foreign-trade deals. Whether he stuck to them is another issue, but at least he set a benchmark for evaluating his first-term record.
On Thursday night, Fox News aired an interview in which Sean Hannity asked the president what his “top priorities” would be in a second term. Hannity teed up the question in helpful fashion, inviting Trump to explicitly distinguish himself from Biden and define the choice voters face in November. Instead, Trump talked vaguely about “experience” and how he now knows many people in Washington (the same could be said of Biden), before segueing into an attack on former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who wrote a tell-all book depicting Trump as incompetent.