Which president is seeking re-election? The Donald, political streetfighter-in-chief? Or Low-Energy Don?
It can be hard to tell lately.
Is it the Donald Trump who last Friday roared allegations and insults at his Democratic rivals during a mini-campaign rally at a Florida airport, which also is the one who on Thursday morning claimed Democrats aim to outlaw “all kinds of animals” and pressured his top law enforcement officials to help him win re-election?
Or is it the one who spoke for over a half hour on Wednesday evening in a flat monotone while making misleading statement after misleading statement, which also is the one who appeared unprepared and even unwilling to issue a forceful response to sharp criticisms of his presidency uttered just hours earlier by his Democratic general election foes?
The president’s re-election campaign has become as up and down as it is void of many new ideas to help voters or rebuild the economy once – or if – the country moves beyond the coronavirus pandemic after election day.
One day, Trump is making bold – and possibly unconstitutional – claims about undoing Congress’ will on tax policy in a second term.
“At the end of the year, on the assumption that I win, I’m going to terminate the payroll tax, which is another thing that some of the great economists would like to see done,” he said Wednesday evening. “We’ll be paying into social security through the General Fund. And it works out very nicely.”
(Only other economists and both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill say it would not.)
The next, he is back to doing something The Donald typically avoids: Publicly suggesting all that “winning” he promised back in 2016 could come to a sudden end on 3 November.
“If I win the election, I will have a deal with Iran within 30 days,” he said about 14 hours later in the Oval Office in announcing a peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
To be sure, gone is the swashbuckling commander in chief who issued daily screeds about crushing Joe Biden in the fall – perhaps even in a landslide decision.
Trump practically oozes a lack of confidence these days, and appears fully aware of his rancid poll numbers and the uphill climb he faces to win a second term.
“And yet, they’re highly thought of. But nobody likes me,” he said earlier this month, bemoaning the high approval ratings for White House coronavirus task force members Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx. His rather depressing and self-loathing conclusion why: “It can only be my personality.”
This is a president who has completely lost his “I am the ‘Chosen One’” swagger.
Still, one should expect the race to tighten after both parties hold their nominating conventions over the next two weeks. But no credible political prognosticator believes the president is not in trouble, largely because the race with Biden is a dead heat in places he won rather easily in 2016, namely Florida, Ohio, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina.
One minute, Trump appears to have almost nothing left in the tank. The next, he’s back to his old rhetorical bomb-throwing self. There is no better example of his hot-and-cold running re-election strategy than his message about Kamala Harris joining the Democratic ticket.
A few weeks ago, he said she would have been a “fine choice.”
This week, he has called her an “unusual pick” and a “nasty” woman who was meaner to now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh than any other Senate Judiciary Committee member during his confirmation hearings.
But the president was unable to forcefully respond to her harsh criticisms of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic during his Wednesday evening briefing. Based on his sharp words for other political rivals, it felt like he was not even trying that hard to do so.
“The president’s mismanagement of the pandemic has plunged us into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression,” Harris said at an event a few hours earlier when she was formally introduced by Biden. She claimed the country is “crying out for leadership” because Trump is not that interested in playing that role.
The president’s response was so tepid it was surprising, and required a more forceful takedown in a Thursday morning clean-up call to a friendly Fox Business morning show host.
So far, all he has to rebut Harris is name-calling. As Americans continue to reject his handling of the pandemic, with a poll released this week showing they even now trust Democrats more than him and Republicans to create jobs. That had long been a strong point for him. No more.
Expect Biden to see two bounces in coming polls, one from his selection and mostly smooth rollout of the junior senator from California as his running mate and one from next week’s Democratic National Convention where he will address the country and accept the party’s nomination on Thursday night.
“We won’t know for sure for a few weeks, but right now it appears Harris is an excellent pick,” said University of North Carolina political science professor Marc Hetherington. “Unless something unexpected comes up, Biden’s choice will have done no harm to his candidacy. Given his lead, that was his top priority.
“She also provides balance to the ticket in a remarkably wide range of ways,” he said. “Race, gender, region of the country, age, etc.”
Balance. It is something the president lacks with less than three months until election day.
Harris has a point about a country “crying out for leadership.” But all the president can muster with his political future on the line is a self-serving and self-loathing Dr Jekyll-and-Mr Hyde act.