MIAMI, FLORIDA - NOVEMBER 06: Former U.S. President Donald Trump watches a video of President Joe Biden playing during a rally for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) at the Miami-Dade Country Fair and Exposition on November 6, 2022 in Miami, Florida. Rubio faces U.S. Rep. Val Demings (D-FL) in his reelection bid in Tuesday's general election. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Between the devil and the deep blue sea

A substantial and growing minority of Americans hate both presidential candidates

Artillery Row

With the American election in full swing, and the rat-tat-tat of political gunfire between the two candidates such a part of the nation’s noise, it’s somewhere between shocking and fascinating to visit, listen, and learn that you need to throw away the lessons of history when it comes to the extraordinary standoff between Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

It’s not just the tone that sets this election race apart. You hear  the challenger call the sitting President “dumb idiot” and you wonder : surely that makes a mockery of the code of the Founding Fathers. Equal time demands that we report that the President hardly minds his words, calling his rival’s proposals “dumb, shameful, dangerous, simply un-American.” Clearly, neither can claim a monopoly on decorum as the battle is joined.

Yet. Beyond tone, it’s the dramatic change in the value of power and authority that makes this election so baffling and unpredictable. Historically, for example, an incumbent  President is favoured heavily, reaping the major advantage of being the leader with those nuclear buttons at his finger-tips, not to mention being the leader you know. In my time as a White House correspondent and Washington hand, we saw Bill Clinton, George Bush junior, Barack Obama, all re-elected, and comfortably so. Incumbency meant the President held the nation’s microphone, with the country at large listening.

Yet consider the other day on this 2024 campaign trail, just one 24-hour snapshot of what the nation glimpses, and sense the fundamental shift in the way America holds this election. Joe Biden was at the White House, and the order of business could not have been more weighty, indeed statesmanlike. A two-hour conversation in the morning with China’s Xi Jinping, covering everything from fears of a Chinese invasion to Taiwan, to the potential for trade war between Washington and Beijing, to the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza.

The Presidency has become albatross for Joe Biden

Then came a Presidential declaration on the deaths of those aid workers, from the World Central Kitchen, killed while driving in Gaza (btw, I recall talking to Joe Biden, then a Senator, in Jaleo, one of the Washington DC restaurants that became the launchpad for chef Jose Andres, WCK’s founder). “I am outraged and heartbroken,” the President said as the images from Gaza, of aid vehicles charred almost beyond recognition, their passengers killed instantly, criss-crossed our world.

Finally, that night, the White House scheduled Muslim leaders for a traditional Iftar meal marking the month of Ramadan, and the daytime fast that goes with it, offering an ideal photo-opportunity for the President to hear the views of sizeable communities in some key states about the crisis in the Middle East. Such folks could be decisive come election day in key battlegrounds, think Michigan, home to the largest single Arab population in the country.

By the time Biden should have been sitting down to that, the evening news across America had a very different lead story. Donald Trump, a fellow facing criminal charges on multiple counts, where ? Yes, you guessed it, in Michigan, flanked by Sheriffs and Police officers, denouncing the murder of a local woman by an allegedly illegal immigrant from Mexico. The Trump podium carried the slogan, screaming out loud : “Stop Biden’s Border Bloodbath.”

So too did Trump’s farewell thought for the cameras : “If you win Michigan, you win the election, and we will.” The latest polls show him ahead in that midwestern bellwether, along with a handful of other swing states. Never shy of offering us a reason for his triumphalism, he added : “this dumb White House is losing the PR battle….they’re losing it big-time.”

The day ended with the White House obliged to report that their Ramadan meal with Muslim leaders was cancelled, after many invitees said No Thanks. In the words of one Palestinian doctor who refused, Thaer Ahmad, “how can you sit down to soda and steak at the White House when you are watching the people of Gaza starve to death?” Inevitably, that quote beamed across the 24/7 landscape.

The polls show, all too clearly, how the Presidency has become albatross for Joe Biden. Whether it’s sound judgement in a crisis, (down 9 points), or his capacity to manage the government (down by 13), even his likeability (down 9 again), his ratings have sunk since winning over Trump in 2020. Even his character and honesty have suffered (down six points). Not surprisingly, the Trump team celebrate their candidate’s uptick on the same counts. Being out of office seems a plus these days.

The so-called “double-haters, folks who cannot stand either candidate, close to 20 per cent of the electorate this year,”

Factor in Joe Biden’s age, and the widespread concerns about his mental sharpness, and you have a President damned almost whatever he does. “This is a cocktail of negatives suggesting he personally is leading the country in the wrong direction,” to quote one Democratic pollster, who laments the way Biden’s bold economic initiatives have been outweighed by the rising price of gas at the pump and four years of food price inflation. “The Presidency and the President have become the ultimate easy target for the woes on Main Street.”

Then comes the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Here Biden seems damned if he does, namely force Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to accept a ceasefire, to the fury of the Israeli lobby, and damned if he doesn’t, certainly by the younger generation of Americans who have embraced the Palestinian cause as never before.

Recent primary elections in Michigan and Wisconsin, states Biden won by a whisker in 2020, had tens of thousands of Democrats voting “uncommitted” rather than for him, the trigger being his inability to make Israel listen to his pleas for a halt to the killing of civilians, let alone aid workers. “The President can’t win this war, but he stands to lose this election because of it,” concludes one of Barack Obama’s longtime aides who worked with Biden as Vice-President.

Yet. Listening to Nate Cohn, a new-age pollster who mines data for the New York Times, and you hear of a new breed of voter that also defies the history books : the so-called “double-haters, folks who cannot stand either candidate, close to 20 per cent of the electorate this year,” according to Nate. He suggests that they will wait until the very last moment, “inside the polling booth in many cases, to decide.” In 2020, they split decisively for Joe Biden, he notes. One sign of hope for this President.

Then, of course, you hear Donald Trump some days, and you’re reminded of the chaos and noise that became such a factor in his four years inside the Oval Office. In recent days, he has suggested Russia, and Vladimir Putin can do “whatever the hell they want” to members of the NATO alliance who don’t pay their share of alliance costs. He has spoken of war at home if he loses : “if I don’t get elected, there’s going to be a bloodbath.” A recent nadir had Trump posting online a video showing Joe Biden tied up and gagged, driven off in the back of a pickup truck.

“Right now, this looks like Trump’s election to lose,” said one Democratic party bigwig, watching the latest round in Michigan, while working closely with the Biden team to raise money aplenty, a critical arena where the President will have a clear edge. “But Trump is so capable of shooting himself, not just in the foot, and so committing electoral suicide.” Now there’s a thought for the new history books being written this year.

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