9 min read

Can Biden Turn the Election Around? Plus, How I Feel About a World on Fire, and The Election’s Elephant in the Room

Can Biden Turn the Election Around? Plus, How I Feel About a World on Fire, and The Election’s Elephant in the Room
Alex Brandon

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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Can Biden Turn The Election Around?

By now, you’ve probably wondered. Whether or not you believe the polls (you should), and just believe it’s a “tight race,” or whether you do, and worry that Biden’s going to lose to Trump. Remember when we recently discussed The Economist’s new forecast, which gives Trump a 2/3rd chance of winning?

So: can Biden turn this around? He’s starting to try, recognizing that his old strategy wasn’t working. Hence, a new approach, focusing on Trump’s character.

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign is spending $50 million through the end of June, a blitz that includes its first television ad trumpeting Donald Trump’s felony conviction and signals that the Democratic incumbent is seeking to make his Republican opponent’s legal woes a bigger issue heading into November.

The advertising push comes with Election Day still months away. But Biden's campaign says it wants to more clearly define the choice between the candidates ahead of the first debate between them in Atlanta on June 27.

Besides Trump's criminal conviction, the ad, titled “Character Matters,” notes the former president also was found liable for sexual assault and financial fraud in separate proceedings. Trump also faces felony charges in three other criminal cases, none of which may go to trial before the November election.

“In the courtroom, we see Donald Trump for who he is,” intones the ad’s narrator. It adds over images of a Trump mug shot and Biden high-fiving supporters, “This election is between a convicted criminal who's only out for himself and a president who's fighting for your family.”

There’s a simple enough reason why Biden’s doing this. If one issue’s been shown to move the needle, especially with undecided voters, it’s that of Trump’s criminality. And so Biden’s team is trying to hit Trump where it counts most.

And yet: is this going to register…enough?

Here’s my feeling, and this comes to you from me wearing my Don Draper hat, as one of the guys that reinvented branding as we know it.

The number one issue, especially with undecided voters, is still the economy. The economy’s…doing strange and sinister things. We’ve discussed at length how it’s “growing,” but people’s well-being is still falling, and I won’t go over that again. The jobs market is now showing signs of serious distress, with those out of work reporting all kinds of horror stories about not being able to find jobs. Meanwhile, people feel poorer than before because they are, real incomes are lower now than five years ago, thanks to inflation.

We all know Trump is a bad dude. And sometimes, that works for you. The feeling among die-hard Trumpists isn’t that he’s a good guy, it’s that he’s a bad guy, who’s looking out for us. And that’s exactly what’s needed in a moment like this, because the establishment is a) worse b) entrenched and c) indifferent. Pushing the issue of criminality might change some minds, it’s true. But it’s worth asking whether or not it’s going to be a bigger sort of change than addressing the Even Bigger Issue of…

This Election’s Elephant in the Room

The economy. I know, I know, I go on about this, because…how can I put with crystal clarity? The economy is everything, in periods of collapse—think of Weimar Germany, or just before the fall of the Soviet Union. And in America, a hyper capitalist society with no safety nets, the economy’s everything, anyways. So right now, it’s hardly a surprise that the economy’s the biggest issue of all—it always is, but in this moment, sort of ignoring it….

Is that really wise? You see, I hate to have point it out, but that’s what Biden’s team is kind of doing. The silence is deafening, at least to me, the guy who sort of taught Big Marketing how to think about brands again. Me? I’d put it front and center.

Sure, have a huge ad buy about Trump’s character. But also one about…the economy. And just be honest about it. This thing I created, that became a juggernaut—Meaningful Brands—and transformed the industry and field? That was sort of its first principle: don’t even try to BS people.

So I’d just say something very, very simple. Empathic. Resonant. Poignant. Yes, the economy isn’t doing so well. It’s fractured, broken, shattered. It looks good on paper, but you’re not living it. That’s a problem that we’re going to fix together. That problem was created by decades of neglect and underinvestment, which came from crackpot philosophies that said things like “the wealth would trickle down,” and “it’s every person for themselves.” We had a Grand Social Experiment with this kind of radicalism, and it didn’t work. Now? My Job One is to fix the economy, not just for you, but for your grandkids. And that’s going to take time, and we’re going to do it together.

Something like that. Doesn’t matter, really, so much, the details. No need to focus group it—that’d just kill the spirit of truth and rawness. Just be real about it, empathize with people, acknowledge the problems that millions upon millions are facing in their every day lives.

Can You Really Win an Election By Ignoring the Number One Issue?

Why do I think that’s so important? Let me put that to you another way, which is above. Can you really win an election by ignoring what people think the number one issue is? 

Maybe. Maybe you can. But the risk is pretty high, no? It’d be better to…talk about it. In a sensible and realistic way, instead of sort of not talking about it much, so people think either you’re in denial, or it doesn’t matter to you. All of that raises the risk that you lose pretty significantly, whether through depressed turnout, or anger, or disgust, and so on.

I think that any smart…anything…has to talk about the number one issue. I’ve seen organizations of all kinds try to ignore it, and it doesn’t matter what kind, from soda-makers to august luxury maisons—the result usually tends to be pretty disastrous, because when you ignore what matters to people, people feel ignored.

So I think Biden’s team needs to talk about the economy, and when I say that, I don’t mean even more cheering on Bidenomics, which people just don’t believe is affecting them positively yet, because the truth is it’s not—you can see inflation, a sputtering jobs market, and stagnant incomes are killing people out there, just filling them with dread and despair. I mean that Biden’s team needs to talk about the economy, not themselves, and at least, at the very bare minimum, recognize that people feel terrible about it, and sort have some of narrative, explanation, understanding, about why.

Without that? This election is going to stay this “tight”, if you don’t believe the polls, and if you do, Trump’s probably going to maintain his lead. Because there’s one big, big difference between Biden and Trump, beyond the usual authoritarian stuff: Trump talks about the economy, and Biden doesn’t. Even if Trump’s ideas are crackpot ones—replacing taxes with tariffs, etcetera—at least he talks about it, giving people the idea that he cares about it, is engaged with it. Meanwhile, Team Biden’s deafening silence, except to extol the virtues of Bidenomics, speaks volumes to people.

It’s true that this new strategy—paint Trump as a criminal—will be effective. It’ll shave a few points off of Trump’s lead here and there. The question, though, is about strategy, in big picture terms, whether or not that’ll be enough, and like I said, another way to ask it is: can you really win an election by ignoring the Number One Issue?

How I Feel These Days About The Troubles Our World’s Going Through

What would you say the Number One Issue in…our world…is? For our age? Go ahead and pick from the Long, Scary List of Existential Threats: climate catastrophe, political meltdown, social fracture, yawning inequality, economic discontent, technological dystopia.

I wake up every day and—hold on.

How do you feel about all that? 

I wake up every day and I feel…worried

In a way that I’ve never really felt before. I’ve been issuing these sort of dire warnings and whatnot for quite some time now, and for much of that period, it’s been sort of…almost a calculative exercise for me, in a way. I see the trend, I crunch the numbers, I share my findings with you.

Now, though? I’m…worried. I feel, if I’m honest, a sense of profound anxiety, most days, when I wake up. What else is going to go wrong today? What kind of disaster are we going to see here, there, for this, or that? Are any of these trends, social, economic, political, cultural, technological, going to swing in the right direction, flicker, even for moment, upwards, or will we just see another grim day of decline?

You see, the years are taking their toll on me. And maybe on you, too. Years after years like these.

We all know this is an abnormal time. But it’s abnormal in a kind of particular way. Good things just don’t seem to happen. Not much, anyways, not with any kind predictable frequency. The world just lurches from bad to worse, engulfed by crisis after crisis, each feeding the next. We say “things are spinning out of control,” or “the world is on fire,” or any number of descriptors, and they sort of hide the truth, which is the way that the movie Office Space once memorably put it: each day is worse than the last.

Maybe I exaggerate a bit. Sure, there are good days here and there. But we’re living through year after year—not just day after day or month after month—where the great trend lines are going in the wrong direction.

And that’s not easy. That kind of thing? I suspect it takes it toll on all of us who are thoughtful people. In a sort of strange, almost invisible way. We grow listless, depressed. Slowly, slowly, we come to expect little but bad things. Anxiety sets in and locks, like a needle stuck in a groove. This is the process of being slowly traumatized by a world going haywire, and I’d bet many of us are experiencing it right now.

Thinking thoughts like: what will I do, if this disaster—political, ecological, economic, social—really happens? Keeps happening? What about my kids? What will their futures hold? How about my career? How do I keep my sense of stability, let alone meaning and purpose, when the world is so unstable?

Do I just grit my teeth and try to get through another day?

Day after day. It all feels…so much the same, doesn’t it? Lunatics, crackpots, distress, meltdown, rage, dysfunction. Shakespeare said it best: creeps this petty pace. It all feels sort of Shakespearean at the moment, too, this sort of self-inflicted tragedy, on so many levels. And yet the sameness, the relentlessness, the grim, unstoppable pace of it—year after year of day after day like this.

No wonder our negative emotions have soared off the charts. All that has a cumulative effect far greater than a linear one. Ten bad days are one thing, but ten bad years are quite another. The mind can cope with the former, but the latter? It’s hard not to feel demoralized, spent, bewildered, and sort of deeply wounded hurt, right down in the soul. I think that’s where we are, all of us, whether we know it or not, even those on the extreme right, lashing out in rage, to those of us in the center, trying to hold what’s left of a civilization together with thread and sheer willpower.

That’s how I feel. Tell me how you do. Maybe we should share it all more, how we feel about this historic age, because it is one, and the way we sort of have been told to operate is left over from yesterday: grin and bear it, and soon enough, things will go back to the way they were. They’re not—and neither are we.

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