Opinion: Biden must win. But how?

Photo/Evan Vucci/The Associated Press / President Joe Biden delivers remarks on a $95 billion Ukraine Israel aid package being debated in Congress, in the State Dining Room of the White House on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024, in Washington.
Photo/Evan Vucci/The Associated Press / President Joe Biden delivers remarks on a $95 billion Ukraine Israel aid package being debated in Congress, in the State Dining Room of the White House on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024, in Washington.

Like many Democrats, I'm stuck on a doomsday merry-go-round: Joe Biden shouldn't be running for president. Joe Biden is running for president. Donald Trump shouldn't be running for president. Donald Trump is running for president.

But this isn't 2020. Biden cannot run the same campaign he did last time, when all he had to do was appear normal. Back then, he still had some of the Obama sheen; today, he and his vice president are both unpopular. Little in his first term seems to be serving him well. Although he's done a good job as president and the economy is thriving, few give him credit. And multiple polls show him running behind Trump.

Most troubling, he's too old and he looks tired.

If Biden is going to convince America that he has the drive to fight for their interests for the next four years, he has to show that he has four years of ideas and the wherewithal to carry them out left in him.

So how on earth can Biden energize an electorate that tunes out the moment he starts speaking?

What must Biden do to win?

He needs to go against his own political instincts — both in terms of how he's run in the past and in how he governs. Forget nuance, forget reasonableness, forget complicated facts, forget humility and homilies and old-timey yarns.

Instead, he should take a page from what's worked for Republicans: going for the gut rather than the mind. Or, as Rachel Bitecofer, a political strategist and co-author of a new book, "Hit 'Em Where It Hurts: How to Save Democracy by Beating Republicans at Their Own Game," put it when I spoke to her last week, instead of Michelle Obama's "When they go low, we go high," the Biden campaign should think, "When they go low, we hit them where it hurts."

That shouldn't mean ad hominem attacks and childish insults; leave the gutter to Trump. But it should mean pushing hard on the issues in plain, here's-what-we'll-do language. It means relentlessly warning people precisely how a Trump administration will hurt them.

First, the issues that matter to voters. The border remains Biden's biggest weak spot; then again, Trump didn't fix the border, either. But rather than simply blame Republicans for the failed border deal or more of the same dithering and pandering to the progressive wing, Biden needs to take concrete measures, through executive orders, to address the crisis now. He needs, at long last, to say: Here is what my administration will do to secure the border and prevent uncontrolled migration.

He has a much easier job on abortion. But still, Biden should hammer it home: He is the candidate who will fight to protect women's rights.

Because not enough people are feeling the effects of a rebounded economy and slowed inflation, he needs to emphasize what he will do to make sure those benefits extend to working- and middle-class Americans.

And he needs to say that Trump will jeopardize all of that. Trump will push for a federal abortion ban. He will likely do little to push back as Republicans try to chip away at Social Security — no matter what he claims to the contrary. He will eliminate job protections and weaken unions further. He will amp up his policies of rewarding the rich and penalizing the poor.

Early polls are unreliable, and a lot can change in nine months. Once Trump quashes Nikki Haley and secures his party's nomination, the reality of Trump will set in.

But Biden can't wait for that to happen. Trump is running like he's already president. Biden needs to act with similar urgency. He needs to talk about the future. He needs to start making the threat of a second Trump term — in all its unbridled terror — real now. Lord help us, we're relying on him to prevent that from happening.

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