In theory, President Trump is in a pitched battle with Joe Biden for the presidency. In reality, Mr. Trump is in a battle with Mr. Trump.
That’s one way to look at the recent round of sliding Trump poll numbers, which the media and Democrats are prematurely hailing as an obituary for the administration, but which also have Republicans nervous. Mr. Trump’s path to re-election rests in painting a sharp contrast between his policies of economic restoration, a transformed judiciary and limited government with those of Mr. Biden’s promise of (at best) a return to the slow growth of the Obama years or (at worst) an embrace of progressive nirvana. Instead, he’s helping Democrats and the media make the race a referendum on his Twitter feed.
“Let Trump be Trump!” cry the president’s supporters. They argue it worked before. But this isn’t 2016. The U.S. is emerging from an unprecedented pandemic lockdown that left millions unemployed or bankrupt, children without education, the social order in shambles. The fury that followed George Floyd’s death has put Americans on the edge. They need calm leadership and a positive vision for the future.
Mr. Trump offers glimpses. His May 30 speech following the historic manned SpaceX launch—which addressed the Floyd killing—was a call for justice and peace as well as a tribute to American aspiration. In a subsequent Rose Garden speech, he deplored Floyd’s “brutal death” and reminded viewers that “America needs creation, not destruction.” A week later, his Rose Garden remarks celebrated a jobs report that defied gloomy predictions, and it showcased the American desire to get back to work.
The Trump campaign makes a compelling case that it is nonsensical to claim Democrats are running away with the race. Democratic pollster Doug Schoen wrote that the recent CNN survey showing Mr. Biden up 14 points nationally was skewed—it underrepresented Republicans and counted registered voters rather than likely ones. Match-ups still look tight in swing states.
Mr. Biden is also grappling with an enthusiasm problem. Mr. Trump this year has set records in primary after primary in voter turnout—even though he is uncontested. A recent ABC poll showed only 34% of Biden supporters were “very enthusiastic” about their nominee, compared with 69% of those backing Mr. Trump. Officials also note that the race—at least the mano-a-mano part of it—has yet to begin.
But there’s no question Mr. Trump’s numbers have eroded, both overall and among key voter subgroups. The latest Gallup poll finds only 47% approval of his handling of the economy, down from 63% in January. Those numbers are bleeding into congressional races, putting Republican control of the Senate at risk and raising the possibility of a rout in the House. If the Trump campaign can’t turn things around, the country could be looking at total Democratic control for the first time since 2010—and a liberal Senate majority that may well eliminate the filibuster for legislation and pack the courts. The stakes are high.
The prospect of a turnaround rests on Mr. Trump’s ability to do more than taunt his competitor as “Sleepy Joe” and rail against the “RADICAL LEFT!!” With an economy in tatters, Mr. Trump has an opening to redefine the election as a choice. Americans can vote again for the policies that revived the economy after the moribund Obama-Biden years and continue transforming the judiciary. Or they can take a chance on a Democrat who has promised to raise taxes on 90% of Americans, kill blue-collar fossil-fuel jobs and ban guns, and a party that is considering demands to “defund the police.”
Democrats want this election to be a simple question of whether Americans want four more years of a chaotic White House. The country has had its fill of chaos, so that could prove a powerful message for Mr. Biden. Mr. Trump has to decide just how much he wants to help him.