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Biden’s Strategy to Make the Race About Trump Is Suddenly in Doubt

Biden’s Strategy to Make the Race About Trump Is Suddenly in Doubt

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From the outset of President Biden’s re-election campaign, the plan for winning was to make former President Donald J. Trump so unpalatable that voters uneasy with the incumbent would vote for him anyway.

But now Mr. Biden is stuck in a political tailspin, with an abysmal debate performance highlighting his inability to make a case against Mr. Trump and prompting a collective national hand-wringing about his ability to do his job while an increasing number of House Democrats say he should leave the race. To get voters to focus on the threats posed by a second Trump administration, Mr. Biden’s own allies say he first must escape his current doom loop and convince voters — even and especially fellow Democrats — that he is up to the job himself.

“The focus has to shift back to Trump and what rights we lose if he’s president,” said Representative Eric Swalwell of California, who ran against Mr. Biden for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. “The last three elections have shown us if you’re the focus, you lose.”

Indeed, the Biden campaign has long sought to make Mr. Trump its focus.

That’s why Mr. Biden kicked off this year with a blistering speech about Mr. Trump’s attempt to overthrow the last election, why his allies spent millions to block the No Labels effort and why the president has tried to highlight the anniversaries of news regarding abortion rights.

And it is why Mr. Biden’s top aides thought it was a good idea to move the first debate from September to June — to give voters the one-on-one look at Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump that the president’s team thought would recalibrate the race, lift Mr. Biden’s sagging poll numbers and remind voters what would change if Mr. Trump takes office again in January.

A pre-debate memo from Jen O’Malley Dillon, Mr. Biden’s campaign chair, mentioned Mr. Trump 18 times and Mr. Biden just five. Of Mr. Trump’s record, Ms. O’Malley Dillon wrote that the president “will hold Donald Trump accountable for all of it on the debate stage — and he’s raring to go.”

That didn’t happen.

Before it can, Mr. Biden now must first assuage doubts about himself, a task that his team waited more than a week after the debate to mount a full-throated attempt at doing. When it did, during Friday’s interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, Mr. Biden drew a television audience one-sixth the size of the debate’s and spent nearly the entire 22 minutes parrying questions about his fitness for office.

“Trump is a profoundly flawed candidate,” said David Axelrod, a longtime skeptic of Mr. Biden’s ability to mount a presidential campaign at age 81. “It is going to be very difficult now for the Biden campaign to put the focus on him.”

There is no doubt in Democratic circles that Mr. Biden must make the election about Mr. Trump, as he did in 2020, when his winning coalition stretched from progressive Democrats to moderate Republicans.

Then, as Mr. Biden won support from Republicans and other voters who sought a return to normalcy in Washington, he ran as a transitional candidate. He said he saw himself “as a bridge, not as anything else” while standing beside Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, giving the distinct impression he was a vessel to help the country move on from its Trump period.

Four years later, polls show 74 percent of voters think Mr. Biden is too old to be president again.

“It is settled in people’s minds that this is not going to work for him, and I don’t see how there’s any coming back from it,” said John R. Kasich, the former Ohio governor who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 and crossed party lines to back Mr. Biden in 2020. “To run a campaign against Trump, people are like, ‘We’ve got to move on.’”

Democrats who braved the Sunday political talk shows faced a barrage of questions about Mr. Biden’s fitness for office.

Representative Debbie Dingell, the Michigan Democrat whose warning calls about Hillary Clinton’s weakness with blue-collar voters in her state went unheeded in 2016, appeared exasperated on CNN.

“We’ve got to stop talking about this,” Ms. Dingell said. “We need to get back to talking about Donald Trump.”

Senator Chris Murphy, in his own CNN appearance, suggested Mr. Biden was short on time.

“They need to see more from the president,” he said. “I hope that we see that this week.”

There is some evidence that the Black voters who propelled Mr. Biden to his primary victory in 2020 have not yet abandoned him. Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, said her group’s post-debate polling found that support for Mr. Biden among Black voters who watched the debate had increased. But among Black voters who did not watch the debate and consumed coverage of it, there was a dip in support.

Mr. Biden on Sunday visited one of Philadelphia’s largest Black churches in an effort to reassure voters there that he’s up for the job.

“The joy cometh in the morning,” Mr. Biden told churchgoers. “You’ve never given up. In my life, and as your president, I’ve tried to walk my faith.”

Even Mr. Biden’s most stalwart supporters say Democrats will lose the election if it remains a referendum on Mr. Biden’s ability to serve.

“My goal is to defeat Trump,” said Representative Jasmine Crockett of Texas, who was one of the Biden campaign’s spin room surrogates after the debate. “Those calling for him to step down and those wanting him to stay in are on the same page about the fear of MAGA.”

As questions swirled about Mr. Biden’s acuity and elected Democrats began calling for him to step aside, the president’s campaign has highlighted Mr. Trump’s own debate remark about “Black jobs” and the Supreme Court’s decision granting him some immunity from prosecution for his actions leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

On Friday, the Biden campaign sought to amplify Mr. Trump’s attempt to distance himself from Project 2025, the effort by Trump allies and the Heritage Foundation to write policy to be put in place should Mr. Trump take office again.

“Trump wants to rip away more fundamental freedoms, ban abortion, rule as a dictator, round up and deport Latinos and use his new power from the Supreme Court to punish, harm and potentially imprison his enemies,” said Ammar Moussa, a spokesman for the Biden campaign. “Joe Biden does not. This election will be about Donald Trump and the threat he poses to the United States of America.”

And yet, to get voters to focus on the threats posed by a Trump victory, Mr. Biden and his team must clear what for most candidates is a low bar: proving a basic physical fitness for office.

“From the beginning, it’s been clear that Biden and the Democrats must make this election a choice, not a referendum on the president,” said Matt Bennett, a co-founder of Third Way, the Democratic think tank that has led efforts to stop independent and third-party candidates from siphoning votes from Mr. Biden. “That means focusing voter attention on Trump’s criminality, chaos and cruelty. Once we emerge from this period of uncertainty, the party must get back to prosecuting that case full-time.”



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