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‘Sleepy Joe?' Trump struggles to stick a label to ‘Teflon Biden’

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden pulled down his mask as he made an unannounced stop at his childhood home in Scranton, Pa., Thursday during a visit to the state to give an economic speech.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden pulled down his mask as he made an unannounced stop at his childhood home in Scranton, Pa., Thursday during a visit to the state to give an economic speech.Christopher Dolan/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Trump can’t decide whether Joe Biden is “sleepy,” “corrupt,” hiding at home, or a stealthy Trojan horse for “radical” leftists — and that’s a problem for his reelection campaign.

The man who was celebrated as a master brander — who dispensed with “Little Marco” and “Lyin’ Ted” before moving on to “Crooked Hillary” four years ago — has careened through different and often contradictory lines of attack against the presumptive Democratic nominee, less than four months before Election Day.

The president, who planned to run on the strong economy, no longer can, because of the coronavirus economic fallout. With the pandemic surging in much of the country and his own approval rating sagging below 40 percent, his reelection could very well hinge on persuading Americans not to like or trust Biden.

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“It’s become increasingly obvious to the people around the president that he won’t have the luxury of running on his record, not if he hopes to win,” said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank. “His best shot is to tear Biden down to his own level.”

But the 77-year-old Biden has been surprisingly hard to caricature, in part because he has largely stayed in his Delaware home due to the coronavirus outbreak while Trump has struggled to respond to the twin crises of the pandemic and racial justice protests.

Biden similarly survived blistering attacks on his record from his rivals during the Democratic primaries. Senator Kamala Harris memorably lambasted Biden for his decades-old stance against busing to integrate public schools, while liberals derided his stated willingness to compromise with Republican senators — even ones who defended segregation — and his assurances to donors that nothing would fundamentally change if he were elected.

Now, Trump has half-heartedly begun painting Biden as a secret radical, one who wants to “defund the police” and dramatically raise taxes, or at least who will be manipulated into doing so. The move fits into Trump’s larger strategy of warning his mostly white base that civil rights protesters seek to “erase” their history and transform the country, and that Biden will facilitate that.

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“Joe is just — look, let’s face it, he’s been taken over by the radical left,” Trump said on Fox News on Thursday night. “I think they brainwashed him.”

In one of Trump’s campaign’s recent digital ads, Representatives Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Senator Bernie Sanders silently leap out of the wooden cavity of a Trojan horse topped with the head of Biden, as ominous music plays in the background.

But Biden faced months of criticism from liberals for being too moderate in the Democratic race. Trump’s attacks face a credibility problem.

“They try to say he’s extreme. But of course Joe Biden has been ‘canceled’ every week for the last two years by people who think he’s too centrist,” said Sean McElwee, the founder of the liberal polling firm Data for Progress. “All the stuff that people really hated about Joe Biden in the primary, it’s ended up making it hard for Trump to attack him in the general.”

“It’s hard to say this man is this woke statue destroyer,” McElwee added, referring to Trump’s messaging around statues of Confederates and other historical figures that have been defaced or toppled in recent weeks.

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Biden’s own relative blandness as a political figure hurts Trump’s attempts to define him negatively, as he does not inspire strong feelings in a significant portion of the electorate. Just 22 percent of Americans say they dislike Biden “a lot” compared to 40 percent who dislike Trump “a lot,” according to a July Economist/YouGov poll.

That lack of venom can be seen at recent Trump events, where relatively few fans sport anti-Biden gear, unlike in 2016, when Hillary Clinton was skewered on pins and T-shirts and other paraphernalia, often in sexist terms.

“While I don’t want to say anyone is Teflon, Biden in some ways is unique because of his generic nature,” said Ian Russell, a Democratic strategist who used to run the House Democrats’ campaign arm. “The truth is they don’t have a ‘lock him up’ chant, they don’t have a ‘Crooked Hillary’ equivalent.”

In fact, even as Trump attacks him, Biden’s favorable rating has been on a modestly positive trajectory since the primary. Voters were split 44 percent to 44 percent in a July poll from Monmouth on whether they approved of Biden, up from his 42 percent favorable rating in June. Meanwhile, only 38 percent of voters have a favorable view of Trump in that poll, and his net favorable rating is 17 percentage points underwater.

Sam Nunberg, a Trump aide during the 2016 campaign, said he was concerned that the campaign had not, until relatively recently, blanketed the air with negative ads about Biden.

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“Wasting [money] on Facebook and whatever else they were doing as opposed to blasting Biden on national TV is one of the most consequential decisions of this cycle,” Nunberg said. “Biden should not be above water in favorability.”

Nunberg speculated that Trump just may not feel the same antipathy toward Biden as he has toward other rivals. He characterized a phone call in early April between the two men, which Trump called a “wonderful, warm conversation,” as a political mistake on the part of Trump’s team.

“Once you talk to him and flatter him a little, he doesn’t want to attack you,” Nunberg said.

Biden has also benefited from maintaining a relatively low profile, as coronavirus absorbed the country’s attention and also limited his ability to make public appearances for several months. Although Biden often criticizes Trump in speeches or at fund-raisers, he rarely gets into a protracted back-and-forth with the president.

In May and June, the Trump campaign attempted to make Biden’s low-key campaign an issue, mocking the former vice president’s decision to follow Delaware’s stay-at-home order, repeatedly taunting him as “Hidin’ Biden,” keeping a count of how many days he’d gone without holding a press conference, and challenging him to agree to more than the standard three presidential debates in the fall. The president also mocked Biden for wearing a mask, despite his own top health officials’ advice that masks help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

“Attacking Biden for doing what most Americans are doing is never going to be super effective,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and former aide to Marco Rubio’s 2012 presidential run. “If anything, Biden’s message is that he may not be flashy but he’s responsible. Trump attacking him for putting responsibility ahead of politics only helps Biden’s image.”

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Trump has since deemphasized that line of attack, as Biden has begun appearing in public more regularly, including on Thursday with a speech at a metalworks plant in Pennsylvania and a visit to his hometown of Scranton.

Instead, the campaign is painting Biden as a tool of liberals or mocking his age and stamina. One of the Trump campaign’s negative TV ads features clips of Biden misspeaking, while a narrator says he’s 77 and “diminished,” and does not have the “stamina” to lead the country. (Trump is 74, and recently faced his own negative ads from the Lincoln Project SuperPAC mocking his shaky walk down a ramp.)

Although questions of stamina and strength can be potent, the focus on Biden’s could inadvertently lower the bar for his debate performance, as happened when Jimmy Carter’s campaign painted Ronald Reagan as old and out of touch in 1980.

“If the Trump campaign isn’t really careful, it will lower expectations about Biden’s debate performance to such an extent that if Biden shows up and doesn’t drool, he’ll win,” Galston said.

Another ad ties Biden to the “defund the police” movement that sprang from George Floyd’s killing, a policy the former vice president does not support. It features an imagined automated recording that plays after a citizen dials 911, in which a voice asks the person to leave a message to report a rape or murder, with a wait time of days.

On Friday, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway and Trump reached back through the mists of time to bash Biden for “plagiarizing” Trump’s economic platform, a reference to Biden’s using unattributed lines from a British politician in a speech during his failed 1988 presidential campaign.

“He plagiarized from me but he can never pull it off,” Trump told reporters of Biden’s economic plan, which calls for buying American goods and investing in US jobs and infrastructure.

But Biden is not out of the woods yet. His favorability rating could change as more voters start paying attention to the race, and Trump’s attacks ramp up. The president also may become more inspired when Biden announces his vice presidential pick, who Biden has said will be a woman. From Clinton to Ocasio Cortez to Omar, Trump has often shown more enthusiasm skewering female politicians.

“I think it’s been pretty clear that Trump has a problem with strong women leaders, so he saves special venom for Hillary Clinton or Angela Merkel or Elizabeth Warren,” Russell said.

Aimee Allison, the founder of “She the People,” a political advocacy group for women of color, said Black women are used to the incoming fire from this administration and will be prepared for sexist or racist attacks if Biden picks a woman of color as his running mate. “Centering women of color is the key and we’re at this point where we shouldn’t be afraid of Trump’s attacks,” she said.

Terry McAuliffe, the former Virginia governor and a surrogate for Biden, added that attacking a woman vice presidential candidate could backfire.

“I think if Trump goes and attacks our nominee for vice president who is a woman, he will do that at his peril,” he said. “He’s already in such bad shape with suburban women and independent women. It’d put another nail in the coffin.”


Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.