Skirting His Step-Up Moment, or Why Joe Biden Can’t Win the Presidential Election by Just Blaming Trump

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One of my favorite movies – one that inspires me every time I watch it – is “When We Were Kings”, the documentary on the build-up to the epic “Rumble In the Jungle” championship bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. One of my favorite parts of the movie is when Ali, surrounded by paparazzi and hangers-on as he entered a gym, began to rile up the crowd (and intimidate the reigning champion), by announcing through conga drum and vocal proclamation, “The Champ Is Here.”

Interviews and accounts years later from many observers from that 1974 fight – including Foreman himself – will attest to the fact that Ali won the fight in the weeks building up to the epic championship match. What happened during 8 rounds of “rope-a-dope” tactics by Ali before knocking out the younger, stronger former champion has less to do with victory than the build-up to the actual event.

Ali knew that he needed to actually win the fight – through positioning himself as the champ, presence in the public eye as “the one”, and through punching through the opposition.

Apparently, Joe Biden and the Democrats have never seen the award-winning film, or else their strategy in this 2020 presidential election would include more positioning of Biden as a leader, actual presence in the public eye in person (not via satellite or some Memorex recording), and some jabs that actually sting.

Perhaps it is true in many ways: politics is another American sporting activity for many in our nation, with the Race for the White House serving as the political Super Bowl. (It would also seem to touch upon the old saying – “Washington is Hollywood for Ugly People” – as well as fit into the current “Nerd Prom” moniker for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.) However, winning in politics – especially executive leadership – is not like winning a game. One cannot simply “run out the clock” once they procure a big lead, hoping that the seconds tick off the clock until victory is secured. That usually works in football (unless if you are the Atlanta Falcons) or basketball (unless if you are the New York Knicks).

However, running for the White House – if it is akin to sports – is more like boxing than it is any other sport.

The match-up is about styles and contrasts. It is about how strengths play out over the course of rounds where one takes a public drubbing. It is about having enough endurance to have flurries of brilliance in moments where one’s reserves are running low. It is also about taking the mantle the championship belt away from a reigning champion, not hoping that the title is surrendered by judges’ decisions.

And because presidential races are like boxing matches, it is no wonder that a few things are happening post-conventions.

For starters, it should be no surprise that Biden’s leads in key states are dwindling despite the Democrats’ continued rant against Trump as the nation continues to struggle with the pandemic, the weakened economy, and the racial divisiveness that has gripped us in 2020. Merely attempting to put the blame at Trump’s feet will not be enough for the Obama/Trump voter to come back around to Biden in 2020. To be the champ, one must beat the champ – and that often means knocking the champ out so that there is no doubt. In the contrast of styles between Trump and Biden, there is not a question as to who Americans (regardless of political persuasion) see as the “fighter” among the two and who they view otherwise. Taking the argument to the opponent and to the people directly and aggressively is not the same as working the argument to fix within poll numbers.

Further, it is tough for Biden to project having the moral and leadership ability to tamp down the violence gripping America – both the violence that has come to categorize regions where peaceful protests also occurred as well as the spikes of violence in New York City, Chicago, Memphis, and other urban regions. Much of the Biden response to the violence has been, “Trump did this”. It is true: much of the tensions have occurred (and even have been exacerbated) by President Trump (often through Tweeting thumbs at odd hours). However, what is also true (and often overlooked by the Biden/Harris ticket along with many other Democrats) is the reality that Ferguson exploded during the Obama/Biden Administration, pathways to education equity were maligned repeatedly during the Obama/Biden Administration, and that administration was more focused on using political capital to get Chicago the 2016 Olympics than on quelling violence that occurred blocks from the Obamas’ home on the South Side.

It is tough to project strong leadership for tough times when one has been found wanting during the escalation of tensions over the better part of a decade.

Biden will not win through Trump losing. The Democrats tried that tactic four years ago, practically begging for Donald Trump to be the Republican nominee in 2016, only to bemoan Trump’s presence as nominee and POTUS ever since. It did not work then, despite having the “most qualified presidential candidate ever” (i.e., even moreso than Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Eisenhower, and a slate of founding fathers and notable others?) Why would it work now for the Democrats, a party that used a “lifetime achievement award” mentality to fill their 2020 presidential nomination with a candidate who has a history of missteps, bad quotes, and questionable policies? Does any of that equate to confidence in troubled times? Does any of that point to having a vision?

One cannot win by not losing. Trump is trying to win a second term. Biden is not trying to lose leads in the polls. The candidates are not trying to do the same thing, and the closing poll numbers indicate that. Democrats should know by now: ask Michael Dukakis, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, or President Jimmy Carter (or even Republican Thomas Dewey) how that strategy works out, especially in times of upheaval (as was the case in 1968 and now in 2020). Times for active vision cannot be met with passive leadership – whether that is on the campaign trail or if that would be in the Oval Office.