AROUND DOWNEAST, Maine — How is President Biden doing with voters? And what’s the feeling about a third Trump-for-president campaign?
It’s complicated, a mixed picture on both fronts. That, at least, is my conclusion after talking to several dozen Mainers (and some visitors to the state) in communities ranging from Belfast to Lubec over the last few days.
For those who voted for Biden, the overall feeling is this: He’s struggling with difficult coronavirus pandemic and political circumstances, so let’s give him ample time and a fair chance. As for Trump, who seems intent on attempting a comeback, his hard-core supporters certainly want to see him run again, but others who once backed him now have their doubts. (Some of those I interviewed, worried about backlash in their small communities, declined to give their last names.)
The Biden voters I interviewed were still basically positive about the president, tending to blame his problems on the situation he inherited or a unified GOP opposition rather than mistakes he has made or the moderate-progressive impasse within the congressional wing of the Democratic Party.
Rebecca, who teaches English learners in the Belfast area, was sitting with two friends at a waterfront park in that small coastal city when I stopped by to talk. Her observation that “it is a very difficult situation, but his administration is making really solid efforts” summed up their shared sentiments.
Shopping in Machias with two friends, a middle-aged woman named Bon, of East Machias, captured her grocery expedition’s outlook with this comment: “He would be doing better if he didn’t have so many people of a particular party fighting against him.”
“I think he’s doing the best he can with the contentious Congress,” said John Holt, 75, a retired clergyman from Lamoine, whom I interviewed in downtown Bangor. “He is backing the right initiatives. I’m frustrated he can’t get them passed.”
There was no such forbearance afforded the president by the conservatives I spoke with.
Afghanistan was a fiasco. The US southern border is a disaster. Inflation — and particularly rising gas prices — is wreaking havoc on the country.
“This country is going down a rathole,” opined Vinal, a 78-year-old former-Navy-man-turned-mechanic walking with his wife and daughter in Machias. “He has used eight months to destroy the country.”
Although not that harsh, Dennis Middleswart, 80, a retired pipe fitter from Belmont, also thought Biden was making a hash of things, citing the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and the spending plans the president is pushing.
“I don’t think he knows what he’s doing,” said Middleswart, who was a Democrat until the administration of Barack Obama, whom he considers “one of the two worst presidents.” Biden is the other, said Middleswart, now a Republican.
Those are seemingly cases of political affinity predicting perspective.
Perhaps more worrisome for Biden as a barometer is a narrow group of voters who, though they didn’t vote for him, at least profess a willingness to give him a chance.
In Belfast, I also talked with John and Amy Johnson, a middle-aged couple from Camptown, Penn., who were visiting family in the area. She is a high school teacher, he a factory employee. Both voted for Trump in 2016 but went libertarian in 2020. So far, said John, Biden seems “weak as a wet paper bag — but I’ll wait and see what he does.”
Amy hasn’t yet come to a larger conclusion about Biden, but said, “I’m generally not impressed.”
So why did they abandon Trump?
“His mouth,” said John.
Which illustrates an easy-to-miss point: Being a Biden skeptic doesn’t automatically equate to being a Trump enthusiast.
John and Cindy Hoak, visiting Lubec from Cambridge, Maine, both voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, and both felt Biden was doing a poor job. But neither John, a 58-year-old EMT, nor Cindy, a 52-year-old retail worker, was enthusiastic about the prospect of a third Trump campaign.
“He’s too divisive,” said Cindy. “We need new people.”
Another thing I found noteworthy: Most Trump voters I talked to were aware of his false claim (read: Big Lie) that the election had been stolen from him and were inclined to think something untoward had indeed occurred. None, however, were aware that both William Barr, Trump’s theretofore lackey-like attorney general, and Chris Krebs, his cybersecurity chief, had said there was no widespread fraud. Or that the Cyber Ninjas “audit” of Maricopa County has confirmed Biden’s win there.
Take, for example, Bonnie Foster, 57, a Republican having lunch outdoors at a Bangor eatery, who said no when asked if Biden had won the election legitimately.
“I think there were things going on,” she said. Told about the Arizona audit results, she conceded: “I didn’t know that.”
My takeaways? Biden’s slump, though worrisome, is hardly irreversible. The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan helped crystallize a sense that things have gone awry, but that will fade as a perception-shaping lens. Inflation, as ever, looms as a political peril, but how much of one depends on whether it is limited or longer term.
Biden does, however, need to get control of the narrative about the border. The right wing’s ceaseless “open borders” canard has raised concerns and anxieties even among those favorably inclined toward him. Although he considers border issues overblown, “it is going to be a political problem,” worried retiree Rusty Jackson, 71, of Lubec, who voted for Biden and thinks he is “doing OK under the circumstances.”
Finally, given the Trump fatigue among voters who chose him as the lesser of two evils and the lack of awareness about the evidence and officials refuting his preposterous claim of a stolen election, an opportunity presents itself for Democrats to exploit. If, that is, they can find a way to convey the actual facts in a concise and cogent way.
After all, in the long run, a politician doesn’t generally emerge unscathed in a head-on collision with the truth — not even one who is as skilled and practiced a liar as Donald J. Trump.