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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

McManus: New normal: Nonstop crises

By Doyle McManus
Published: May 16, 2024, 6:01am

A poll published by the Economist this month included a finding that was striking yet unsurprising: Almost 7 in 10 Americans believe things in the country have spun out of control.

That’s a problem for President Joe Biden, who campaigned in 2020 offering a return to normalcy after four years of chaos under Donald Trump.

Biden promised, in effect, to Make America Normal Again, but “normal” never quite returned. COVID-19 restrictions ended, but the ensuing recovery brought high prices and rising mortgage rates. Wars broke out in Ukraine and Gaza; protests erupted on college campuses. And domestic politics remained polarized; the bipartisan unity Biden promised remained out of reach.

“People are reeling from the sense that we can’t get going in the right direction,” said Celinda Lake, one of Biden’s top pollsters, relating sentiments from voters in focus groups. “They’ve been shocked by events they never expected: Afghanistan, the war in Ukraine, Gaza, even the wildfires in Maui and the collapse of the bridge in Baltimore.”

Unsurprisingly, Trump has responded by blaming Biden for everything and anything that goes wrong, from surges in illegal immigration to wars overseas.

The combination of adverse events and Republican attacks has taken a predictable toll on Biden’s image. The Economist poll found that 58 percent of Americans consider Trump a strong leader, but only 36 percent see Biden as strong. Biden scores higher on other qualities; most voters see him as more honest and more likable than Trump. But those attributes may not be as important to voters in an era of instability.

“When people feel uncertainty or anxiety, they are looking for strong leaders,” said Doug Sosnik, a political aide to President Clinton during his 1996 reelection campaign. “Trump’s narrative, plain and simple, is … to portray Biden as weak.”

Despite Trump’s claims, Biden can’t be blamed for the wars in Ukraine or Gaza, much less wildfires or bridge disasters. Whether he should be blamed for inflation is up for debate, although inflation in the United States has been lower than in most other countries.

Still, in an era of economic and political volatility, the new normal is that there is no normal. And that makes every incumbent vulnerable to bad news on his watch.

Some scholars have concluded that incumbency, once considered an advantage for a president seeking reelection, has increasingly become a burden — mainly because in an era of polarized politics, presidents get less deference from voters on the other side.

“In the past, Democratic voters might sometimes rally around a Republican president … and Republican voters might sometimes support a Democratic president,” political scientist Lee Drutman of the New America think tank wrote recently. Now, he added, “there is simply nothing Joe Biden could ever do” to win support from GOP voters.

Two factors could move those numbers before Election Day.

One is the focus of the campaign. So far, it has largely been a referendum on Biden’s record. But the president and his campaign are trying to shift the lens toward Trump, turning the election into a “dual referendum” on both candidates.

“Remember when he told us, literally, inject bleach?” Biden said at a campaign stop last month. (In fact, during a White House news conference, Trump asked aides to investigate whether it would be an effective therapy.)

The other factor, of course, is events. A cease-fire in Gaza, a continuing decline in illegal immigration, a Federal Reserve decision to cut interest rates or a conviction of Trump in any of his four pending criminal cases could help Biden. A new spike in inflation, an upsurge of migrants or riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago could boost Trump.

But neither candidate can credibly promise to deliver “normalcy” anymore. No matter who the next president is, voters will soon be disappointed that he didn’t return life to normal.