Who's the Incumbent Here?

Bloomberg Businessweek|June 29, 2020

Who's the Incumbent Here?
Donald Trump and Joe Biden have pulled a switcheroo, with each assuming the other’s conventional campaign role
Amanda Kolson Hurley and David Rocks

Over the past several months, a presidential race already upended by a global pandemic and historic recession has developed an odd characteristic that’s making it even more unusual: President Donald Trump, the incumbent, and Senator Joe Biden, his challenger, have effectively swapped roles.

The sitting president is campaigning like an outsider, lobbing incendiary tweets and blaming others for the failures of the government he himself presides over. Biden, meanwhile, is acting like a traditional incumbent, running on his record and the promise of familiarity.

Trump isn’t doing much of what a typical incumbent does in an election year. He hasn’t rolled out an ambitious second-term agenda. He doesn’t make a big show of trying to unify the country. He isn’t using the White House Rose Garden to host foreign dignitaries or captains of industry—unless you count the MyPillow TV pitchman, Mike Lindell— to showcase the powers of the presidency and remind people what he can do for them.

With the lockdown lifting, he’s finally been able to make use of Air Force One, making swing-state campaign stops in Arizona and Wisconsin. But by focusing unwaveringly on his base, he isn’t doing the one thing presidents in both parties have always done when seeking a second term: making a concerted play for undecided voters in the middle.

“One of the great myths of the 2004 campaign was that President Bush just appealed to his conservative base,” says Sara Fagen, former White House political director and senior strategist on George W. Bush’s reelection campaign. “The fact is, our whole focus was on the winning over the middle.”

For Bush, running in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, that meant emphasizing national security and American safety. “We knew that even people who didn’t completely agree with him or love his economic policies felt more secure with him at the helm,” Fagen says. “It came up in our research and fit the president naturally.”

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June 29, 2020