Biden vs. Trump debate: A battle between appearance and reality

Donald Trump; Joe Biden Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images
Donald Trump; Joe Biden Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images
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To beguile the time

Look like the time

- William Shakespeare

We are the living embodiment of Shakespeare’s Macbeth still wrestling with the old conundrum of appearance versus reality. Our difficulty understanding the difference between the two means President Joe Biden’s election problems are becoming acute.

It is early still, but at the end of the day, there are many a pundit who believe Joe Biden is either the reincarnation of Hubert Humphrey, who didn’t distance himself from Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policy quickly enough and lost both the youth vote and the 1968 election to the criminal Richard M. Nixon, or he is living a parallel life to former President Jimmy Carter, who lost to the equally venomous Ronald Reagan. Either way, if Donald Trump sweeps back into town and institutes his “Burn it all down strategy,” there is ample talk inside the Beltway from Democrats, attorneys, politicians, reporters and anyone else on Trump’s enemy list of fleeing town before the modern day Macbeth returns. “Now does he feel his title/ Hang loose about him, like a giant's robe/ upon a dwarfish thief.”

Biden’s problems, much like Trump’s, are of his own making. Less than three months into the administration it was easy to discern that Biden simply wasn’t going to communicate with the press or anyone else in public except under his very specific and controlled terms. Three years ago I and a few others were writing about Biden’s unwillingness to step forward and talk to the electorate. Others scoffed at that observation, though many are singing Macbeth’s song of the witches now regarding that very real problem. The idea often espoused, either subtly or bluntly, at the time by most pundits was that we should all be grateful for whatever Biden did because, after all, he wasn’t Trump. The appearance we were preached was a return to normalcy. The reality is far different: Donald Trump has severely lowered the bar and the Democrats are having trouble crawling over it.

Because Biden has severely limited his public interaction, Donald Trump’s narratives have taken over. They’ve cast Biden as the crook. They’ve cast Biden as a doddering fool who hasn’t accomplished anything as president. There are Trump supporters who firmly believe that Biden is both energetically and sleepily leading us to ruin and that “Sleepy Joe," “Genocide Joe” or “Communist Authoritarian Joe” will probably bow out of the race at the convention because of his evil dementia and Michelle Obama will step in and become the Democratic candidate for president. “Just another reason we need Trump,” the supporters say to this fictional narrative.

Meanwhile, Trump is on trial in Manhattan, and it appears no one who already supports him seems to care. House Speaker Mike Johnson is just one of Trump’s many surrogates who are still willing to bow before the modern Macbeth by showing up at Trump’s felony trial and telling the press that it appears to be a sham. The reality is Trump can’t run the risk of violating his gag order and now has brought his minions on stage to take up his cause. In addition, the trial is no sham – Trump is really on trial for alleged felonious acts revolving around the payoff of an adult film star. Should Trump be found guilty, the reality is Johnson will be among the first to distance himself from a convicted felon. He has his own interests to worry about.

There are additional appearance vs. reality problems to consider this year. Months before either the Democrats or the MAGA party assembles to pick its prospective candidate, the presidential race is already center stage. You can laugh at it, hate it, or love it, but before the end of next month Trump and Biden will apparently show up in Atlanta at the CNN studios for their first debate — and we haven’t even had either party’s nominating convention yet.

The appearance of the two (and maybe Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the independent candidate) on stage so early in the election season promises to heighten the folly of the ringside pundits who, incapable of cogent in-depth analysis, will again treat us to a labyrinth of comparisons to horse races, baseball games and professional wrestling matches.

The latest doomsday predictions for Biden revolve around recent surveys by The New York Times, Siena College and The Philadelphia Inquirer that showed Trump ahead of Biden among registered voters in five of the six states that pundits also say are likely to determine the 2024 election: Michigan, Arizona, Nevada, Georgia and Pennsylvania. Wisconsin is the only battleground state where Biden is currently leading.

The question is why does it appear so bleak for Biden when according to his staff and most Democrats he’s the working man’s dream candidate? He is, according to Roxanne Brown, vice president of the United Steelworkers Union, the “most pro-worker, pro-union president we’ve ever had.” That’s what she told us Tuesday from the Rose Garden in a quick ceremony honoring union labor with the president before he fled without taking any questions.

One need only take a quick glimpse of the Bided administration’s public interactions to understand why he appears to suffer in the polls:

  • Tuesday in the Rose Garden: He spoke but took no questions.

  • Tuesday evening: He spoke publicly to supporters, giving a very tired and ubiquitous stump speech that was absent usable quotes on policy. Again, he took no questions.

  • Biden has never visited the White House briefing room during his tenure.

  • He’s held only two White House press conferences during his tenure — and one was during the height of COVID when few reporters were present.

  • The travel pool had to recently seek clarity on why they were going to San Francisco when press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre held a gaggle onboard Air Force One.

  • There are numerous accounts of reporters being chased out of the upper press office by underlings trying to limit interaction between the administration and reporters.

  • Democrats often complain that Biden doesn’t speak often enough about his own accomplishments.

On that last point, Biden has also been criticized for mentioning Donald Trump too much while on the campaign trail. As the Associated Press noted this week, Biden appears to be running for re-election on Trump’s record rather than his own.

“In a hotel ballroom in Seattle, at fancy homes in California and at stops in Illinois and Wisconsin over the past week, Biden has been betting that reminding voters about Trump’s presidency and highlighting his Republican opponent’s latest campaign statements will work to the Democrat’s advantage,” The AP reported.

While it appears that making the 2024 election a referendum on Trump — at least according to the president’s strategy — is sound reasoning, if not at least a scare tactic, the reality is not that clear. If you’re alive, cogent and capable of thought, you already know what Trump is about. He lets us know every day. One could argue that Trump doesn’t need Biden to act as his public relations agent and remind us of that reality.

What Biden does poorly is talk about things he’s done to make life better for the rest of us. The federal government fails in the simplest of ways of doing so. When I was a child, any highway improvement included large signs telling you, “Your Federal Highway Tax Dollars at work.” In the last month, after visiting 15 states where the $1 trillion infrastructure funding means updating and expanding our federal highways, in only one state did I see a sign reminding us of that: California.

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Biden’s administration passed an infrastructure bill when Trump’s could not. The Biden administration also brought us cheaper prescription medication, student loan debt forgiveness and, with the CHIPS Act, a re-emphasis on technology. It has also helped rebuild manufacturing. We avoided a recession coming out of COVID and the economy is strong.

But the appearance is that inflation (prompted by price gouging and record corporate profits) is overwhelming us and Biden hasn’t done anything about it. He certainly hasn’t got a handle on how to answer a question about inflation.

That is Biden’s fault, and it is exacerbated by the fact that Trump is masterful at selling you the appearance that Biden is incompetent, decrepit and demented. Although Biden, the Democrats and the Republicans reached an agreement on legislation that would address illegal immigration, Trump’s minions pulled the plug on it so he could sell you the appearance that Biden is soft on the border.

I’m not tooting Biden’s horn. His is a frustrating administration. The arrogance and ignorance of him and the people around him are very reminiscent of Jimmy Carter’s people. It isn’t enough to be a decent man in the election. The reality is that you have to sell the American voter an appearance. Ronald Reagan, the B-movie actor, knew that. People still cheer his cowboy appearance and not the reality of his “Trickle Down” economics that destroyed the middle class. People still believe he was a hero. Donald Trump, the ultimate con man, understands this even better than Reagan.

Biden can be as pious and as Christian as the Pope, and millions will fawn over Trump’s golden tennis shoes and his autographed bibles, believing the appearance that he is a Christian maverick who can solve our problems. Unless Biden gets hip to this, he’s doomed to be the next Jimmy Carter: An inherently decent man who did many good things but ultimately suffered defeat because he couldn’t grasp the concept of his appearance and hired inept clowns to represent his administration.

People are not getting Biden’s message. That’s his fault.

Politics today is a constant battle between appearance and reality. Donald Trump is a con artist grifter who can sell an appearance. Joe Biden is a politician who can’t sell reality. Foul is fair and fair is foul, said the witches in Macbeth.

The reality is the first presidential debate scheduled next month could decide whether we settle for the fair or the foul this fall.