Anyone But HIM? At least he’s not Trump’ might not be the rousing campaign pitch Dems think it is

Apparently, it’s not the economy, stupid. Because if it was, based on the metrics, President Joe Biden would be coasting to a second term. 

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He’s not. Instead, Democrats are propping him up by lowering the bar. Their pitch: At least he’s better than Donald Trump. That’s a long fall from 2008, when Barack Obama, and Biden as his running mate, pitched voters with soaring rhetoric about “hope” and “change.” 

Grassroots Democrats are freaking out, especially after Special Counsel Robert Hur, who was investigating Biden’s retention of classified documents after his term as vice president, questioned Biden’s memory issues. The Trump-appointed U.S. attorney described Biden “as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”

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Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz encouraged voters Friday to remember that elections are a “binary choice,” and said Hur’s report didn’t recommend criminal charges against Biden for his use of classified material, compared with Trump, who is facing 40 federal charges for obstruction and allegedly retaining dozens of sensitive documents after leaving Washington. 

“We’ve got someone who is not going to be exonerated as an option,” said Walz, chair of the Democratic Governors Association, “versus someone who has.”

Walz’s comments are illustrative of how the party’s leaders and top fundraisers say they’re not concerned, including Jim Messina, the San Franciscan who led Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection. Obama’s approval rating was 38% a year before Election Day.  

Messina tells me that Democrats should relax. It’s still early, and most voters haven’t tuned in yet. 

“You win a presidential election by having a very clear choice,” Messina told me this week before he co-headlined an abortion rights fundraiser at Oakland’s Grant Lake Theater. “I used to say to Obama, ‘If it’s a referendum on the incumbent, you lose. If it’s a choice, you win.’”

Messina pointed to recent Biden campaign internal research that found that nearly three in four voters they’re trying to target don’t believe Trump will be the Republican nominee.

Voters “haven’t started thinking about that choice,” Messina said. “And when they’re forced to think about that choice, that’s when the race gets better for Joe Biden, and really, not until then.” 

It’s an example of how Messina, now a top Biden fundraiser who is among those trying to raise a projected $2 billion for the president’s reelection, and leading Democrats are all banking on a version of the “at least he’s not Trump” pitch to drag Biden over the finish line.

It’s a cynical strategy for a cynical time in politics. A look at the polls shows it’s not working.

Republicans have successfully made the focus of Hur’s 345-page report the portions that recounted how Biden had trouble remembering when his son Beau died or the exact dates of his vice presidency.

The anecdotes cut to the core of why three-quarters of respondents, and half of Democrats, have concerns about Biden’s fitness for the job, according to an NBC News poll this month.

After the report came out, Biden seethed over Hur’s question about his late son: “I don’t need anyone, anyone, to remind me when he passed away … how in the hell dare he raise that?”

“I’m well-meaning and I’m an elderly man, and I know what the hell I’m doing,” Biden told reporters this week. “I put this country back on its feet.”

Messina told me Friday that “clearly the report is a problem,” but that “the issue was age both before and after the report.” 

“The question is,” Messina said, “does it fundamentally alter the race 269 days out?” 

Yet voters haven’t been moved by a continuing stream of positive macroeconomic numbers that should be helping Biden. The economy grew at a 3.3% annual rate last year. Unemployment is 3.7%, the 24th consecutive month that it has been below 4%, the longest such streak in half a century. More than 800,000 manufacturing jobs have been created during Biden’s term. Consumer confidence, a monthly barometer for Americans’ buying intentions, hit its best level in January since December 2021.  

“This is a good economy,” Jerome Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve, said this month. 

But polls say a lot of likely voters aren’t feeling it. The pace of inflation is slowing, but it is still up 3.4% from a year ago. Food prices remain higher than pre-pandemic levels. 

Good news about the economy usually takes about six months to resonate with voters, Messina said.  

But six months from now is a few weeks before Election Day. Is there enough time for voters to change their mind? 

Yes, Messina believes. Obama didn’t ultimately pull ahead of Republican nominee Mitt Romney until news broke in September 2012 that Romney told attendees at a private fundraiser that “there are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what” because they are “dependent upon government” and don’t pay income tax. The Obama campaign used it to reinforce the perception of Romney as an out-of-touch rich guy. 

After months of Democrats melting down over Obama’s poor poll numbers, the race changed when voters made the comparison. 

Or, as Biden likes to say it, don’t compare him to the almighty, compare him to the alternative. 

When asked about concerns about young voters being unenthused about Biden, Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi told the Chronicle last week that younger Americans “tell us over and over again they care about women’s right to choose, LGBTQ rights, gun violence protection and the planet. Now, all of those things are very much in jeopardy if Donald Trump becomes president of the United States.” 

But so much is different and uncharted in this race. This is the first time that two former presidents have squared off. Most voters have calcified opinions of each man. And who knows what will happen regarding the 91 criminal counts Trump faces over four different cases. Will any be adjudicated before Election Day? And if Trump is convicted, will voters desert him? 

What worries Messina are  third-party candidates, such as Robert Kennedy Jr., Cornel West and Jill Stein. Not that any of them could win. But that they could siphon off enough votes in those key battleground states to tip the election to Trump. 

Messina said that Biden defeated Trump by 10 percentage points among “double-haters” — voted who loathed both Biden and Trump in 2020. But if “there’s a place for those voters to go,” Messina said, “even if that person has no chance of winning, that keeps me up at night.”

Rep. Adam Schiff, a Burbank Democrat running for Senate, emphasized Biden’s passage of legislation addressing new infrastructure and climate change in a meeting with the Chronicle, and said “we have somebody running (Trump) who says he wants to be a dictator on Day One. And I think that as we get closer, that we will be able to make that case with increasingly greater clarity.” 

Click here to read the full article in the SF Chronicle

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