On Thursday afternoon, President Donald Trump said the quiet part loud in a tweet where he attacked Fox News for “doing nothing to help Republicans, and me, get re-elected on November 3rd.” Hours later, the network gave him a new thing to get angry about.
Fox’s latest poll finds Trump trailing presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden by a robust 8 points nationwide. It’s enough to put Biden ahead even considering the 3-point margin of error, and a significant swing from last month, when Fox’s polling had the race tied.
Trump’s eroding standing versus Biden in the poll of 1,207 registered voters conducted May 17 to 20 correlates with a decline in approval of his handling of the coronavirus, which according to the Fox poll stands at 43 percent, an 8 percent decrease from March and April. A separate ABC News/Ipsos poll out Friday morning finds approval of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus hitting a new low of 39 percent.
Earlier this month, Trump declared that “Transition to Greatness” is a phrase we’re going to hear a lot about because he’s decided it’s the perfect reelection slogan. (I’ll turn to Biden in a minute.)
As the former chief media adviser to three presidential campaigns (two for George W. Bush, one for John McCain), I pay attention to these things. And I am among the many who give credit to Trump for coining—or, at least, repurposing—the Reaganesque phrase “Make America Great Again.” As a campaign theme it was ideal for Trump in 2016. Simple but clear. Loaded with meaning. Fundamentally, his message to voters was: Due to reasons mostly beyond your control (immigration, technology, globalization), America has left you behind. I’ll take you back to a country you recognize, a country in which you’ll prosper.
Like it or not, Trump’s sound bite conveyed that he had a compelling reason for running—something Hillary Clinton failed to come up with, even after thinking about it far longer than Trump, and having run, and lost, once before. Her slogan “Stronger Together” didn’t express why she was in the hunt—or who she was campaigning as. Political analysts Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes said as much when slamming her 2016 announcement speech in their book, Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign: “There was no overarching narrative explaining her candidacy…. Hillary had been running for president for almost a decade and still didn’t really have a rationale.”
Recent history is filled with presidential campaign themes about the future. Bill Clinton declared he would “Build a Bridge to the 21st Century.” Barack Obama promised, during the middle of an economic meltdown, that he’d provide the “Change We Need” for the challenges ahead. But Trump ran for president during a unique era, one in which more voters liked the idea of moving backward—toward a familiar and comforting past.
It was no surprise, then, when Trump announced that his reelection-campaign theme would be “Keep America Great.” On brand. Direct but sort of meta. He was saying that he’d made America great. And he’d keep it that way. And to underscore the point, the campaign mantra became “Promises Made, Promises Kept.”
So, count me among the perplexed that Trump, who clearly considers himself a marketing genius, suddenly announced on May 8 that he was changing his theme to “Transition to Greatness.” He described his decision this way: “It’s a great term. Just came out at this meeting. That’s right. It came out by accident. It was a statement and it came out and you can’t get a better one. We can go to Madison Avenue and get the best, the greatest geniuses in the world to come up with a slogan but that’s the slogan we’re going to use. Transition to Greatness.”
I believe that any bipartisan parsing of the statement would conclude that its basic meaning is: We are not currently great. But we are going to get there at some point. We are on a general trajectory toward greatness. The implication is that we are not currently great, even though Trump promised us we would be. Moreover, even though Trump had promised to keep America great, he was now saying we’re not even going to do that because we aren’t, in fact, great yet. Instead, he is saying: We’re going to transition to all the greatness he’d been promising during the last election. We just have to wait for it. It’s a bit like Trump’s coronavirus policy: We’re fine…Let me be clear: We’re not fine, but we’re going be fine very soon…Oops, hang with me on this, it’s gonna be quite a while till we’re fine.
And my verdict is that “Transition to Greatness” is, at the very least, confusing. But it is problematic, even more so, because it runs counter to the narrative Trump successfully pushed in 2016. He’s pushing, instead, a lot of snake oil: He hasn’t delivered the greatness yet, but try him again and he’ll deliver it next time.
Which brings me to Joe Biden, who chose not to run in 2016, even though, in hindsight, he might have given Hillary Clinton a good run for the nomination.
Biden has repeatedly talked of “transition,” of being a transitional figure. “I view myself as a transition candidate,” Biden said during an online fundraiser with Mayor Pete Buttigieg. “My job is…to bring the Mayor Petes of the world into this administration…and even if they don’t come in, their ideas come into the administration.” He is using the same term but is focusing on another meaning of the word, and incorporating it in an entirely different context.
Remember Donald Trump’s pronouncement at the 2016 Republican National Convention that “I alone can fix it”? Well, Biden seems to be suggesting just the opposite. He appears to recognize that the challenges of the presidency require a lot more than one person. They require an A-team, as opposed to the ad hoc pickup squads that Trump has put on the field. They require people, like Biden, with experience in governing. Especially now. Biden’s message is, We, together, can fix this mess.
Biden’s message also addresses the elephant in the room: his age. Without pointedly admitting it is an issue or a problem, he is reassuring voters that in the event that something should happen to him, he’ll be surrounded by experienced and well-qualified people, of all ages, so that a beat won’t be missed and the machine will continue to hum. And that his team, his vice president first and foremost, has “got this.”
The big pitfall for Biden is that while it may be a good idea, politically and practically, to bring in the Democratic farm team, it’s a process argument not a message. And while “I’m Not Trump” may work as a placeholder message during the worst of the pandemic, it’s not enough to excite voters to turn out for Biden in numbers sufficient to ensure victory in November. What’s more, he’s starting to embrace very bold (and to many moderates, alienating) ideas from his primary opponents. Those stances may make progressives happy but might turn off voters who had helped him win the primary—or consider him for the general election because he was a reassuring choice. So who is this Traditional, Transitional Joe going to be? The progressive choice or the safe choice?
In truth, neither candidate’s use of the word or the concept suits this moment. What America needs is real leadership, competence, and proven economic and medical reassurance—in the here and now. Trump’s use of the word, however, has more downside for him than it does for Biden. I can only imagine the gnashing of teeth that accompanied Trump’s mid-campaign-season audible to switch to “Transition to Greatness.” Sure, it made sense that he was acknowledging how the pandemic had altered things (from, say, Great to Not So Great). And that the campaign should adapt. But his proposed solution might actually create openings for Biden to jump in and say, Transition to greatness? Why wait? I’ll deliver day one. I’ve done it before.