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The Trump Referendum
Wall Street Journal, Eastern edition; New York, N.Y; June 26, 2020
President Trump may soon need a new nickname for "Sleepy Joe" Biden. How
does President-elect sound? On present trend that's exactly what Mr.
Biden will be on Nov. 4, as Mr. Trump heads for what could be an
historic repudiation that would take the Republican Senate down with him.
Mr. Trump refuses to acknowledge what every poll now says is true: His
approval rating has fallen to the 40% or below that is George H.W. Bush
and Jimmy Carter territory. They're the last two Presidents to be denied
a second term. This isn't 2017 when Mr. Trump reached similar depths
after failing to repeal ObamaCare while blaming Mitch McConnell and Paul
Ryan. He regained support with tax reform and a buoyant economy that
really was lifting all incomes.
Now the election is four months away, voters know him very well, and Mr.
Trump has reverted to his worst form. His record fighting the
coronavirus is better than his critics claim after a bad start in late
February and March. He mobilized federal resources to help hard-hit
states, especially New York.
But he wasted his chance to show leadership by turning his daily
pandemic pressers into brawls with the bear-baiting press and any
politician who didn't praise him to the skies. Lately he has all but
given up even talking about the pandemic when he might offer realism and
hope about the road ahead even as the country reopens. His default now
is defensive self-congratulation.
The country also wants firm but empathetic leadership after the death of
George Floyd, but Mr. Trump offers combative tweets that inflame. Not
long ago Mr. Trump tweeted that a 75-year old man who was pushed by
police in Buffalo might be an antifa activist. He offered no evidence.
Americans don't like racial enmity and they want their President to
reduce it. Mr. Trump has preached racial harmony on occasion, but he
gives it all back with riffs that misjudge the national moment. His "law
and order" message might resonate if disorder and rioting continue
through the summer, but only if Mr. Trump is also talking about racial
reconciliation and opportunity for all.
Mr. Trump has little time to recover. The President's advisers say that
he trailed Hillary Clinton by this much at this point in 2016, that they
haven't had a chance to define Mr. Biden, and that as the election nears
voters will understand the binary choice. Perhaps. But in 2016 Mrs.
Clinton was as unpopular as Mr. Trump, while Mr. Biden is not.
Mr. Biden hasn't even had to campaign to take a large lead. He rarely
leaves his Delaware basement, he dodges most issues, and his only real
message is that he's not Donald Trump. He says he's a uniter, not a
divider. He wants racial peace and moderate police reform. He favors
protests but opposes riots and violence.
Some Democrats are literally advising Mr. Biden to barely campaign at
all. Eliminate the risk of a mental stumble that will raise doubts about
his declining capacity that was obvious in the primaries. Let Mr. Trump
remind voters each day why they don't want four more years of tumult and
Mr. Trump's base of 35% or so will never leave, but the swing voters who
stood by him for three and half years has fallen away in the last two
months. This includes suburban women, independents, and seniors who took
a risk on him in 2016 as an outsider who would shake things up. Now
millions of Americans are close to deciding that four more years are
more risk than they can stand.
As of now Mr. Trump has no second-term agenda, or even a message beyond
four more years of himself. His recent events in Tulsa and Arizona were
dominated by personal grievances. He resorted to his familiar themes
from 2016 like reducing immigration and denouncing the press, but he
offered nothing for those who aren't already persuaded.
Mr. Trump's advisers have an agenda that would speak to opportunity for
Americans of all races -- school choice for K-12, vocational education
as an alternative to college, expanded health-care choice, building on
the opportunity zones in tax reform, and more. The one issue on which
voters now give him an edge over Mr. Biden is the economy. An agenda to
revive the economy after the pandemic, and restore the gains for workers
of his first three years, would appeal to millions.
Perhaps Mr. Trump lacks the self-awareness and discipline to make this
case. He may be so thrown off by his falling polls that he simply can't
do it. If that's true he should understand that he is headed for a
defeat that will reward