President Trump, who four years ago sold himself as a long-overdue disruptive force, is running for reelection on the promise he can return American life to normal.
Whether it’s reopening an economy that has been locked down to fight the coronavirus or ending the riots that have for days engulfed major cities, he is trying to assure voters that he’s the one who will make sure they can safely go to work, restaurants, and church.
A second term for Trump may hinge on delivering these results or at least being perceived as a source of order and stability rather than the “chaos candidate” Jeb Bush warned Republicans about, both tasks even those close to the president acknowledge will be incredibly difficult. “The challenges facing this White House at this moment are overwhelming,” said one GOP operative.
Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden has made his own pitch to be the candidate of normalcy, an appeal some of his supporters believe is key to ousting Trump from the White House. They maintain the pandemic and the unrest triggered by the death in police custody of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, show the country needs a more conventional president who is temperamentally better equipped to be a calming and unifying presence.
“The presidency is a big job. Nobody will get everything right. And I won’t either,” Biden said in a speech Tuesday. “But I promise you this: I won’t traffic in fear and division. I won’t fan the flames of hate.” The former vice president vowed to “seek to heal the racial wounds that have long plagued this country — not use them for political gain.”
Team Trump cast Biden as acquiescing to anarchy. “Joe Biden’s campaign made it clear that they stand with the rioters, the people burning businesses in minority communities and causing mayhem, by donating to post bail for those arrested,” said senior adviser Katrina Pierson in a statement. “He has obviously made the crass political calculation that unrest in America is a benefit to his candidacy … President Trump is restoring the nation to order and is clearly the leader we need to return the country to peace and prosperity.”
Biden’s address followed a Monday statement by Trump in which the president expressed sympathy for Floyd’s family, support for peaceful protests — and pledged to use whatever means are at his disposal to crush the riots if mayors and governors fail to do so. “The biggest victims of the rioting are peace-loving citizens in our poorest communities, and as their president, I will fight to keep them safe, I will fight to protect you,” he said. “I am your president of law and order and an ally of all peaceful protesters.”
While Trump critics found his comments menacing, they spoke to a desire to see cities returned to normal. “We are a country of laws,” said Bradley Blakeman, a former adviser to President George W. Bush. “Once the rule of law ceases to exist, the very fabric of civil society is ripped to shreds and the mob rules. No one can argue, regardless of party affiliation, for looting, arson, violence, and lawlessness. Good governance is good politics, and now is the time to lead.”
“I thought his remarks were spot on, but nobody will remember his remarks,” said Republican strategist John Feehery. “They will remember the picture of him in front of St. John’s Church. And if you love Trump, you love that picture. If you hate Trump, you hate that picture. And if you’re somewhere in the middle, it all depends how you have been personally impacted by the riots. Voters typically like strong leadership when lawlessness breaks out.”
Trump has been under fire for the way protesters outside the White House were cleared to make way for his walk to the church. Biden chided him for “using tear gas and flash grenades in order to stage a photo-op” and caring more about “the passions of his base than the needs of the people.” But some Trump backers said they needed this reassurance that “law and order” wasn’t just for Twitter consumption.
“The president needed a moment that displayed strength and resilience in the face of the unfolding anarchy. His Rose Garden speech and walk to St. John’s provided him that moment,” conservative strategist Chris Barron said. “I, like many other Trump supporters, was concerned about the president’s response to the riots prior to yesterday. Yesterday was exactly what I needed to see and hear, and it’s exactly what the country needed to see and hear.”
A Morning Consult poll gave Trump early low marks on his response but also found strong support for enlisting the military in riot suppression and a split on whether the demonstrations should be viewed as mostly peaceful or violent.