WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden's 2024 campaign launch on Tuesday pushes America one step closer to Biden-Trump II, the rematch voters don't want.
Biden has no serious challenger for the Democratic nomination, and former President Donald Trump is the clear front-runner for a third straight Republican nod.
Ironically, a return engagement looks increasingly likely at a time when the vast majority of Americans believe the country the two men led back-to-back is on the wrong track. More pointedly, in an NBC News survey released Sunday, 70 percent of respondents said Biden shouldn't run, and 60 percent said Trump shouldn't.
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To add to the sense of stagnancy, most polls show the longtime rivals within a few points of each other, suggesting there has not been a seismic political shift in the country since Biden won the 2020 electoral college on the strength of statistically narrow victories in several key states.
“Culturally, society is used to new forms of entertainment,” said Faiz Shakir, who managed the 2020 Democratic primary campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. “A re-run, understandably to this generation of Americans, is not as exciting.”
Trump, impeached twice and under indictment in New York, casts the choice in apocalyptic terms by telling voters that he is the only candidate who can stop World War III. He also vows to bolster the economy, appoint conservative judges to the bench and establish 10 "freedom cities" on federal land.
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Democrats are of two minds when it comes to Trump. On a purely political level, they see a useful foil who was the dominant figure in three consecutive disappointing elections for national Republicans. But they also view Trump as an existential threat to the sanctity of the republic. In a statement Monday timed to pre-empt Biden's launch, Trump reiterated false claims that his 2020 defeat was “rigged,” a lie that inspired the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Pete Giangreco, a veteran consultant who advised Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., during her 2020 bid for the Democratic nomination, said Biden will be helped by what he described as the extremism of Trump and his allies in Congress.
"This is a Republican Party that has unglued itself from both traditional conservatism and reality," he said.
But like some other Democrats, he is concerned about the electorate's perception of an economy that Biden credits himself with saving from the doldrums of the pandemic.
"There’s just a lot of people who, despite the numbers, have a pretty negative view of the economy," Giangreco said. "Even if the inflation number was cut in half between now and next year, it’s still hard to convince people of any good news."
The rate of inflation and wage stagnation are two data points Trump uses to argue that Biden has been a flop on the economy. In Trump's version of the nation's recent history, he was a victim of circumstance because of the economic wreckage wrought by the pandemic and should be credited for beginning to mend it.
"President Trump created the greatest economy our country has ever had — twice as a matter of fact," Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller said. "And he's ready to do it again."
It seems inevitable that if the two men square off again — Trump still has to win the GOP nomination for that to happen — the rematch will be framed around Trump. Democrats say that will be helpful to them.
"It's going to be very hard to move voters in terms of their opinion of Donald Trump," Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pa. "A clear majority of Americans have a negative view of former President Trump."
That's true, but Biden's approval ratings are also below the water line: the NBC survey showed that 38 percent of adults see him in a positive light, while Trump's number was at 34 percent.
Both men are leaning heavily on their records to act as validators for what they would do with a second term, which points to their myriad differences in the realms of politics, policy and personality.
"There has never been a greater contrast between two successive administrations in all of American history," Trump said in his statement Monday. "Ours being greatness, and theirs being failure."
But Giangreco said Trump is backing himself into a corner.
"Presidential elections are almost always about the future, and there’s no way that Donald Trump is the future," Giangreco said. "Oddly enough, Joe Biden’s the future and Donald Trump’s the past."
Still, voters may be forgiven if they are starting to feel a sense of deja vu from both candidates, their campaigns and their political allies.
Brendan Buck, a longtime GOP strategist, predicted that the sequel to the last election would draw plenty of intense interest, largely because of the challenger's ability to focus media attention on himself.
“In a normal world you might expect this to drag down enthusiasm, but Trump will take care of that,” Buck said. “If this is the matchup we end up with, it won’t be a boring election, and it won’t lack for turnout.”
Biden's approval numbers are deceptively soft, Shakir said, because some progressives would like to see him move further in their direction. Those voters will show up to support him next year, Shakir added, because of the contrast between the candidates.
"You start off at an advantage," he said, citing abortion and "good, competent governance" among topics that he believes favor Biden. But he and other Democratic strategists say they see a close race shaping up that Trump could win.
"It would largely have to be prosecuted on the economy and raising questions and concerns about the economic direction of this country," Shakir said.