You may have heard that Donald J. Trump is president of the United States. If you are inclined to forget it for a moment, he is ever ready to remind you by incessant tweets, abrasive public comments, loud rallies, expensive ads, and the hallelujahs of his chorus of supporters that he is the man. Not only is he the president, he is, he insists, the greatest president ever, whose administration is dizzy with success and muscle-bound with accomplishments. His midterm self-assessment was modestly entitled “500 Days of American Greatness.” Trump’s presidency is quite possibly the most imperial of imperial presidencies, characterized by contemptuous disregard for any constitutional limits on his power (“I have an Article 2 [of the Constitution] where I have the right to do whatever I want as president” he once said).
I reiterate these well-known attributes of our narcissistic chief executive by way of background for this astonishing Wall Street Journal story:
President Trump’s case for re-election reprises his pitch for a first term in office, as he and his team try to portray presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden as an incumbent while accentuating his own outsider credentials.
In advertisements, interviews and social-media posts, Mr. Trump is highlighting Mr. Biden’s four decades as a Delaware senator and vice president — the most consistent message among several the president has driven so far about his competitor.
Now, it’s not surprising that an incumbent president running for reelection at a time when objective conditions in the country are dreadful — in part because of his own hubris, negligence, and, yes, narcissism — wants to avoid a “referendum” election. And that’s particularly true of an incumbent whose personal favorability indices are as horrible as Trump’s (about half the electorate has a very unfavorable opinion of him). Typically, a president in this sort of jam will try to engineer a “choice” election; when Jimmy Carter was in a world of hurt in 1980, his strategy was to frame the election as a “two futures” choice between him and his controversial challenger Ronald Reagan. It didn’t work, but it made sense.
But I don’t believe a president running for reelection has ever sought to depict his challenger as the real incumbent and pose as the real “outsider.” And it’s particularly laughable coming from a president so endlessly puffed up with his own presidential status. I’m guessing “Hail to the Chief” plays in an endless loop in the back of Trump’s mind 24/7. This “outsider” strategy even sounds ludicrous to one of the architects of the 2016 Trump “insurgency”:
Steve Bannon, Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign chairman, said the re-election effort should focus more on the president’s actions while in office.
“Trump is the president, not simply a candidate,” said Steve Bannon, the chief executive of the 2016 Trump campaign. “He is the protagonist in this drama. You drive action like a president, govern like a president, show leadership like a president and you will be re-elected. It really is that basic.”
Sure, it’s possible, even credible, for Team Trump to treat Joe Biden as a figure from the past who would drag the country back into the swamp from which the 45th president has sought to rescue it. But that doesn’t absolve the president from what has happened since Biden returned to private life in 2017. The best Trump’s campaign can do is to beg for more time:
Jason Miller, a Trump campaign adviser, said the campaign plans to paint Mr. Biden as “part of every job-killing, failed policy decision of the past 40 years.” The campaign wants voters to see the race as a choice between “President Trump’s record of success in less than four years versus Joe Biden’s record of failure over more than 40 years.”
But even if you are willing, somehow, to describe the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations as a long saga of failure before the so-much-winning of the current regime — and blame it all on Joe Biden — the fact remains that Trump is responsible for where the country is today. A new Pew poll asked Americans if “in thinking about the current state of the country these days” they felt angry, fearful, hopeful, or proud. Only 17 percent answered “proud,” which is a terrible rebuke to a president who has made “America First” nationalism his central theme alongside hatred for those who dare to question his or the country’s divinely anointed destiny.
No, Trump isn’t going to get to proclaim his power and glory as president for three and a half years and then rerun his 2016 campaign as though his presidency did not exist. It is in fact the dominant reality of American political life — joyous for some and painful for many — and perpetuating or ending it is unavoidably going to be the big question for voters in November. Maybe the Trump campaign can succeed in creating or enhancing doubts about Joe Biden, but treating him as a quasi-incumbent ignores all their boss has done to shout: Look at me! I am the president!