Running against Trump is tried and true, but is Biden 'mentally sharp' enough for the job?

Running against Trump is tried and true, but is Biden 'mentally sharp' enough for the job?
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Joe Biden may think he’s doing a great job and that if, by chance, anything has gone wrong during his presidency, it’s somebody else’s fault. But the American people aren’t buying it.

A new poll by Gallup has the president at his lowest approval rating since he took office. Only 43 percent of the American people approve of the job he’s doing and, for the first time, a majority — 53 percent — disapprove.

And while Democrats overwhelmingly support the president — 90 percent — even that’s not as good as it sounds. At the height of his popularity, almost everybody who identified as a Democrat — 98 percent — said they approved of the way Biden was handling his job.

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But in these hyper-partisan times, independents are the ones who really matter. And there’s bad news on that front for the president. Only 37 percent of independents approve of the president’s performance in office — his lowest number so far, 24 points below his personal high of 61 percent.

Polls, of course, aren’t etched in stone. They can change tomorrow. But if the numbers don’t change, Democrats are going to have a tough time running on the president’s record in next year’s midterm elections.

So what to do? Democrats already have an answer to that: Run against Donald TrumpDonald TrumpGOP grapples with chaotic Senate primary in Pennsylvania ​​Trump social media startup receives commitment of billion from unidentified 'diverse group' of investors Iran thinks it has the upper hand in Vienna — here's why it doesn't MORE.

It worked in 2020, after all. Voters didn’t elect Joe Biden because they thought he was especially smart or that he was a statesman with great ideas. They voted for him because he wasn’t Donald Trump. They voted for him because they had grown weary of Trump’s chaos.

So, if running against Trump worked in 2020, why not try it again? And they did just that — a few weeks ago in California. For a while, polling in September’s recall election was close. Then Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomAlarm grows over smash-and-grab robberies amid holiday season Newsom pledges increased spending on busting retail crime rings The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden talks up bright side beneath omicron's cloud MORE decided not to run on his record — or even to run against Larry Elder, the leading GOP candidate. Instead, Newsom figured he’d run against Donald Trump, who wasn’t on the ballot but is something akin to a toxic waste dump to most of California’s voters.

At a rally on Sept. 7, Newsom said, “Larry Elder not only supported Donald Trump, he’s to the right of Donald Trump.” Then, one week later, on the last day before the election, President BidenJoe BidenMarcus Garvey's descendants call for Biden to pardon civil rights leader posthumously GOP grapples with chaotic Senate primary in Pennsylvania ​​Trump social media startup receives commitment of billion from unidentified 'diverse group' of investors MORE told a rally in Long Beach that Elder is “the clone of Donald Trump,” before asking: “Can you imagine him being governor of this state?” Voters could not. More than 62 percent voted not to recall the governor. Newsom won. Trump lost. 

Which brings us to another race for governor, this one in Virginia set for Nov. 2.

Two days after the results of the California vote were in, there was a debate in Virginia between Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffeTerry McAuliffeJudges uphold GOP win for Virginia state House seat, cementing party control of chamber To empower parents, reinvent schools Pollster says he would tell Democrats running in 2022 that 'we have a problem' MORE and his Republican opponent, Glenn Youngkin. The moderator asked McAuliffe: “Why have so many of your paid ads and your rhetoric mentioned Trump in an election focused on the people of Virginia, and an election that presumably should be focused on your own proposals for what you would do as governor?”

“Because my opponent is a Trump wannabe,” McAuliffe replied.

Odds are McAuliffe won’t be the last Democrat to run against Donald Trump.

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The midterm elections in 2018 were a referendum on Donald Trump. Democrats took over the House. As we mentioned, the 2020 presidential election was another referendum on Trump.  Democrats won that one, too. Then, in January, it looked like Republicans would win at least one of the two Senate races in Georgia, if not both. But Trump made the election about — who else? — himself, and the Democrats won both seats.

And so next year, Democrats will have a choice: run on Joe Biden’s record, or run against their favorite boogeyman. Some decisions are hard. This one is easy.

Even if Trump decides to pack up and leave Mar-a-Lago for Timbuktu, he’ll still be the center of attraction as November 2022 approaches. Democrats loathe the man but they can’t seem to get enough of him. For them, he’s a gift that keeps on giving.

One more thing: A new poll by the Pew Research Center found that a majority of Americans — 56 percent — don’t believe that President Biden is “mentally sharp.” That’s an 11-point drop in the same poll since March.

It’s one thing if voters don’t like a particular policy this president puts forward. But if they see him as weak, or not in command, or too old to do the job — if they see him as not “mentally sharp” — that’s something else altogether.

Again, poll numbers are simply an indication of how voters feel about what’s going on at the moment. Numbers can change. But are we really supposed to believe that Joe Biden — who will turn 79 in November — will be more “mentally sharp” as time goes by?

Anything is possible. But if the perception of Biden doesn’t change for the better, no amount of Trump- bashing is likely to save the Democrats next year.

Bernard Goldberg is an Emmy and an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University award-winning writer and journalist. He was a correspondent with HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” for 22 years and previously worked as a reporter for CBS News and as an analyst for Fox News. He is the author of five books and publishes exclusive weekly columns, audio commentaries and Q&As on his Patreon page. Follow him on Twitter @BernardGoldberg.