News junkies like to assume a baseline level of competence on the part of elected officials and campaign operatives. These are professionals we are talking about—or so we tell ourselves. We like to think that a politico’s status, wealth, and fame are the result not merely of blind luck, but of cleverness, guile, smarts, and hard work. And we cling to the notion that an incumbent president and his advisers are the most capable of all.

We pretend that the chief executive and his inner circle have a deep and mystical insight into the mood of voters and how best to shape public attitudes. The reason for this illusion is that there is only one president at a time. Winning the White House is an enormous task. To achieve it, the president and his team must build a national coalition. They must earn a mandate. They have got to know what they are doing.

That’s the cover story. Every so often, though, a president comes along who dashes the nation’s expectations of fitness, capacity, and suitability for office. The president may be an honorable man or an effective demagogue. His record may be admirable or mixed. But, at some point, his poll numbers go south. Nothing goes right. None of his solutions work. Looking back, it appears as if he were doomed from the start.

Such was the fate shared by Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Donald Trump. They belong to a club no one wants to join: a motley crew of one-termers. It may soon welcome a new member named Joseph Robinette Biden Jr.

As I write, in early May, Biden continues to trail Donald Trump in averages of national and battleground polls. Biden is close behind Trump, it’s true. But what is most striking about the 2024 campaign is its consistency. Trump took the lead in September 2023 and has not relinquished it. He maintains his lead on issues such as the economy and the border. Voters continue to prefer his presidency over Biden’s.

Which means that Biden is running out of time. He has less than six months to restore a deteriorating political environment. His decision not to change his approach is bizarre. Instead, Biden and his consultants have doubled down on the same ineffective or counterproductive practices that brought them to the threshold of defeat. From the economy to the border and beyond—for what other reason can there be for an incoherent and harmful betrayal of Israel than mind-blowing quantities of unawareness, idiocy, and political maladroitness—Biden is just not very good at this whole politics thing.

Nowhere is his failure to adjust to changing circumstances more evident than in the realm of economic policy. In 2021, according to Gallup, 57 percent of Americans said they had a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in Biden’s ability to do the right thing for the economy. The figure has since fallen to 38 percent. That is among the worst ratings measured this century. Yet Biden persists in telling Americans that the economy is great and they should let him “finish the job.”

On May 8, for example, Biden traveled to Racine, Wisconsin, to take credit for an artificial-intelligence data center that Microsoft plans to build. It was the latest in a series of trips to swing states to highlight the factory construction or infrastructure projects spurred by Biden’s massive federal spending bills. Biden also used the visit to remind voters that the much-ballyhooed chip factory that Donald Trump pledged to build while president never materialized. “Biden,” Axios reports, “is convinced he’ll rattle Trump if he taunts him daily.”

I guess that’s a strategy?

The Racine trip was meant to display strength. And as he was leaving the White House for Air Force One, Biden’s campaign announced a $14 million advertising buy. The campaign said it plans to increase its payroll to more than 500 employees in hundreds of offices around the country—Dark Brandon’s army of community organizers. The rush of pro-Biden activity contrasted favorably with Trump, who is stuck in a New York City courtroom for four days a week, who lags in fundraising, and who hasn’t spent much money on television since winning the GOP nomination.

Biden’s Wisconsin jaunt occasioned some positive headlines. But what are a few good notices worth when you are an incumbent president with an average job-approval rating of 39 percent? An incumbent president who has spent the past several years cutting ribbons at bridge and factory openings, to little effect?

Biden’s economic message in May 2024 is no different from his message at any other point in his presidency. “We have more to do to lower costs for hardworking families,” Biden posted on X a few days before his stop in Racine. “But we’re making real progress.” The American people might be making some economic progress. Biden is not. Voters still prefer Trump’s economy to his. They still give Biden no credit.

Nor will another $14 million in advertising make a difference. Biden’s campaign spent more than $50 million in swing-state ads in 2023. It spent $30 million in advertising over six weeks in March and April. All that money has bought him—well, what, exactly? A few more servings of mint-chocolate-chip ice cream? At the national level, the race remains a toss-up. In the states, Biden’s numbers have grown worse.

The president has yet to convince voters that he takes their economic concerns seriously and plans to address them in meaningful ways. He’s not the first president to face such a challenge. But he is unique among recent presidents in his failure to convince voters that he takes anything seriously—at least, anything other than abortion rights. Which is why his poll numbers are so abysmal.

Immigration competes with inflation and the economy as a top voter priority. Biden has known for years that the crisis at the southern border is a huge liability. Ever since the collapse of his gambit to pair border fixes with military aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, Biden has toyed with the idea of issuing an executive order that would crack down on illegal immigration. On May 7, 15 House Democrats in competitive districts sent Biden a letter urging him to “restore order at the border and fix our broken immigration system.”

Such an order could assuage voter fears that out-of-control migration reduces wages, brings crime and inequality, and raises the potential for a terrorist attack. An executive order would be good for vulnerable congressional Democrats, for Biden’s reelection chances, and for the country. Biden hasn’t done it. He keeps dithering. He relies instead on Mexico’s proto-authoritarian president, Andrés Manuel López-Obrador, to reduce border crossings. His inaction and ineptitude make no sense.

Unless, of course, Biden is simply incapable of perceiving what is in his interest and pursuing that interest effectively.

And yet, remarkably, so deep is the uneasiness and anxiety many Americans feel at the prospect of Donald Trump being restored to office that Biden might still win a second term. If he does succeed in November, it will be for reasons not of ideology or policy but of ontology. Biden is not Trump. That existential fact may get him another four years. But it won’t make him any more competent. And it won’t make the country and the world any better.

Photo: AP Photo/Alex Brandon

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