By COLLEEN LONG and ZEKE MILLER
WASHINGTON (AP) — It was his last stop of the day on a West Coast swing, a fundraiser in a television producer’s backyard in Los Angeles, and President Joe Biden was telling the crowd how the last few years have been difficult.
He checked off the challenges: the technology that facilitated the corruption of truth. Russia and China’s efforts to upset the world order, soaring inflation at home. The persistent pandemic. The aftermath of the Capitol Riot. Election deniers and their impact on the next national vote.
Yet despite all of this, Biden insisted, the nation’s best days lie ahead.
The optimistic heart of the president’s message is the same wherever he goes. In Detroit or Los Angeles. Syracuse, New York, or Hagerstown, Maryland. To crowds in an auditorium or a few dozen in a weathered union hall, the Democratic president says he’s never felt more optimistic.
“I really believe we’re just getting started,” he told a crowd in Florida on Tuesday. “I have never been more optimistic about America’s future than I am today.”
Yet that refrain of Biden’s presidency — that promise that things will get better — clashes with his own dire political projections: a Congress potentially controlled by what he has called “ultra-MAGA” Republicans as he does facing midterm elections that will define, and quite possibly stifle, the next two years of his term.
Biden still relies heavily on the positive. But he must do so when many voters are feeling the pain of rising prices and have deep concerns about the fragility of democracy itself.
He delivered his second speech Wednesday evening about threats to the country’s system of government in as many months, warning Americans about hundreds of candidates on the ballot who support false claims about the 2020 election, and how those lies fueled the political violence that led to the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband last week. Biden described in grave terms the threat to democracy and called for an end to the violence.
Still, he had hope.
“You have the power, it’s your choice, it’s your decision,” he told voters. “There is nothing beyond our abilities if we do it together. The fate of the nation, the fate of America’s soul, lies where it always lies: with the people.”
Presidents “have to almost indulge in a sense of optimism. If they can’t project the hope that we can overcome our difficulties, then they’re sunk and so are we,” lamented Jeff Shesol, former speechwriter to President Bill Clinton who now runs a writing company. discourse and strategy in Washington.
And it’s anything but clear that Biden’s optimistic view is breaking through. Just 25% of Americans said the country was headed in the right direction in an October AP-NORC survey.
Throughout history, leaders have tried to strike the right balance, agreeing with people on challenges, but also giving them reason to hope.
President Barack Obama tried during the 2010 midterm campaign, when he was hopeful about the incipient economic recovery but aware that so many voters were still hurting. His party has seen a “shellacking” in the House.
Now, less than a week before Election Day, the nation is going through an unprecedented and newly uncertain period, marked by the punitive pandemic, economic fears and a growing wave of hate crimes and political violence. A growing number of people are wondering if democracy can survive – and if their leaders can cope in the moment.
It’s a hard line for any president to toe – too many of Pollyanna’s speeches can sound just plain delusional.
“If you get carried away with this, as a politician or president, you risk detaching yourself from people’s real experience,” Shesol said.
Biden’s optimistic message is being ridiculed by Republicans, whose midterm speech is tied to an image of a nation plagued by rising crime and inflation. Even a basic measure like last week’s report that the economy grew again after two quarters of contraction was subject to other interpretations: Biden said it was proof that the country’s recovery was continuing to ” to advance ” ; Republican Rep. Kevin Brady called it short-lived “phantom growth.”
“Joe Biden is completely detached from reality,” Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel said last month. “Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, they can’t afford rising gas and grocery prices, and real wages are falling.”
Those who know Biden best insist that he is a realist: It’s not that he believes things are good all the time; it’s that he thinks there’s always room – and a path – to improve.
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said Biden knows when to hold out hope and when to walk. He gave the example of Biden’s billion-dollar infrastructure plan. The deal fell apart in spectacular public fashion a few times, but Biden didn’t relent until it passed with bipartisan support. On other bills, he let himself go when it was clear he couldn’t get a deal.
“It’s a terribly difficult balance, but I think he hits it as well as anyone can,” Casey said.
The president’s outlook is partly shaped by a personal tragedy: his first wife and young daughter died in a 1972 car crash that also injured his two sons. Later, her son Beau died of cancer at age 46. No one can tell him anything worse than what he’s already been through, his friends and staff often say.
Add to that his long experience in government and “he has no surprises,” said Ted Kaufman, Biden’s longtime friend and former Delaware senator. “He has the kind of strength of his own personality, but he’s backed up by the facts on the pitch.”
Despite Biden’s efforts to convince the nation of what it is, doubts cross the electorate, particularly about the future of American democracy.
According to an AP-NORC poll, only about half of Americans are confident that votes in next week’s midterm elections will be accurately counted. Only 9% of adults think democracy works “extremely” or “very well,” while 52% say it doesn’t work well.
Support for false election claims runs deep among Republicans running for office. According to an Associated Press review, nearly a third of candidates running for positions that play a role in overseeing, certifying or advocating for the election supported the nullification of the results of the presidential race by 2020.
Senior White House adviser Mike Donilon said Biden “never underestimated the moment we’re in. But I think he’s always believed that the overwhelming percentage of the country still holds what’s right.” he believes to be the core values that have always defined America.”
The president, Donilon added, knows there is back and forth between the country at its best and its worst.
He added: “Moving the country to a better place is about acknowledging the reality you are facing, explaining what should be rejected, what the country can rally around and creating an image of where the country may be. ”
Associated Press writer Chris Megerian contributed to this report.
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