Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

This November will likely be a rematch election. What's new with Biden vs. Trump?


Chances are this November 5 might feel a little bit like Groundhog Day. After a set of decisive primaries, including Michigan earlier this week, it is looking like President Joe Biden will face a familiar foe this election - former President Donald Trump.


DONALD TRUMP: A vote for Trump is your ticket back to freedom. It's your passport out of tyranny, and it's your only escape from Joe Biden and his gang's fast track to hell.

DETROW: This is not only a rematch. It is a contest between two men who have both occupied the Oval Office and also two men who have been in the public eye for decades. So what is there new to learn about the candidates at this point, and how should we think about their track records and what another term would mean for the country?

I put these questions to two people who have spent a lot of time learning about the former and the current president. Carol Leonnig is a reporter at The Washington Post and co-author of a bestselling book about Donald Trump called "A Very Stable Genius," and Franklin Foer wrote a biography about President Joe Biden called "The Last Politician." Welcome to both of you.

FRANKLIN FOER: Thank you so much.

CAROL LEONNIG: Glad to be here.

DETROW: All right. So I want to start with both of you about the mindsets of these two men entering this election. And Franklin, I want to start with you because right off the bat, in your book, you talk about how being underestimated and dismissed is a core part of Joe Biden's identity. You know, he and his close advisers see it as a theme running through his entire career, and they think he often surpasses those low expectations. And to me, that mindset seems very relevant to this moment we are in, where you have all sorts of Democrats urging Biden to step down, step aside at the last possible moment, even if it's not feasible, and are thinking, why is this our guy?

FOER: Right. So the question of - why is Joe Biden running again, given his age and given the stakes of this election? I think part of the answer has to do with exactly what you described, which is that he's run a fairly accomplished presidency during his first term, and yet he gets no credit for it with the media. He gets no credit for it with the voters. And so this kind of deep yearning that he has to kind of grab everybody by the lapels to say, look what I've done, I think, is a primary motivating force. But the other thing is, is that - the idea that he would step aside in this highly unusual fashion, which incumbent presidents rarely do, like, the flip side of that is that would feel like this big slight that he doesn't actually want to suffer. That would be this kind of mark against him.

DETROW: Yeah. And Carol, your book looked at the first few years of Trump's presidency, all of that turmoil and chaos and dysfunction. And early on in the book, you write that two kinds of people went to work for the administration - those who thought Trump was saving the world and those who thought the world needed to be saved from Trump. And there's been so much conversation about the fact that if he were to come back into office, he would know how to staff his administration, he would have his policies in place. That second group of people you talk about would not be a part of the administration at all. How much do you think there is credence to that mindset that it would be an entirely different staff and that would make a big difference if Trump were to return to the White House?

LEONNIG: Absolutely. I think that the one thing Donald Trump has learned from his first presidency is not exactly how to govern, which is actually what a lot of presidents learn the first time through. Like, I'm going to be a better executor of my will. What he learned instead is, I need to have more lackeys and loyalists. Remember, there were people who were incredibly supportive of Donald Trump going into his White House. These people turned on Trump. They basically - didn't become his enemies, but they said, what he is proposing is so insane, I have to step in front of it. What Donald Trump has learned is he doesn't want any more guardrails. He doesn't want the risk of guardrails.

DETROW: I want to talk for a minute just about some of the policy questions, Frank. The war in Ukraine, the war in Gaza have really dominated the last year or so of Biden's presidency. We saw this week in Michigan just how many Democrats have deep problems with his policies in Gaza and how that could be an issue for him in November. Going forward, both of these wars and the way that he's engaged in them seem to be at this inflection point. Have you put any thought into what a second Biden term could mean for Ukraine or for Gaza?

FOER: Well, foreign policy, I think, is the part of the job that he probably relishes the most. Talking to foreign leaders is his happy place. And I think, you know, going into his second term, it's very unlikely that Democrats are going to have control over both houses of Congress. So there's very little legislative possibilities for a second Biden term. I think that these wars were going to - are going to culminate in diplomacy, and so I think that that would be the thing that he would have to pour himself into.

I mean, there's going to be some sort of diplomatic end, eventually, to the war in Ukraine and the war in Gaza. And he hasn't gotten a whole lot of credit for what he's done by creating the possibilities of normalization between Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Israel and a plan for rebuilding Gaza. But that confrontation to kind of force the Israelis into some sort of long-term vision for coexistence is going to be, I think, the big question, the big confrontation that looms over the rest of this year, but I think it would spill into a second term.

DETROW: Carol, in recent weeks, we've seen Trump question NATO again. We saw him be very reluctant to criticize Vladimir Putin over Navalny's death. What do you think the most immediate consequences are for the war in Ukraine, for the war in Israel if Donald Trump is sitting in the Oval Office again?

LEONNIG: I think most Americans are not paying attention in a keen way to what Donald Trump wants to do about NATO and what the consequences are. You know, again, there were guardrails stopping him in 2018 from walking away from NATO, which he threatened to do in a meeting in Brussels - you know, people with hair on fire, who were his aides, rushing literally down to the floor to try to intercede and make sure people understood in foreign diplomacy groups that, no, no, no, we're not going to back out of NATO because you aren't meeting the 2% goal of defense spending. But Americans aren't focusing on that.

DETROW: Right.

LEONNIG: Well, guess who is focusing on that? - people all around the world. And leaders listened to Donald Trump's remarks the other day about inviting Putin in and encouraging Putin to invade countries that are NATO allies with, you know, a chill up their spine and planning for what they will do to create their own protection without the United States. I don't think we can say, as we sit here today, how this would affect what happens in the Middle East because Donald Trump will, again, probably make a gut decision that he feels benefits him the most. But with regard to Ukraine, it's very clear he's going to tell Putin, take it, take whatever you want. Is there something else you'd like in that region? Go for it.

DETROW: I want to shift back to end the conversation on the election a little bit. And I want to ask both of you what I kind of think is each of these guys' superpowers. And Frank, I'll start with you. Relevant to this coming election and where Biden stands in the polls right now, you know, I think that Joe Biden has this unique ability to get people who don't especially like him or are indifferent to him to come along and be with him at the last possible moment, whether that's passing legislation or whether that's going from the guy who's finishing in humiliating place in the New Hampshire primary to suddenly having the Democratic nomination wrapped up, like, three weeks later. Is - do you think that's a fair way to phrase his track record?

FOER: Yeah, he's somebody who still believes in persuasion in a world that's incredibly polarized, where everybody tends to just shout at the people on the other side. But I think his superpower, if I were to describe it as such, is that everybody talks about his empathy and the way that his empathy extends to somebody - a kid who stutters or to people who've just lost their parents or a spouse. But really, his empathy is kind of the basis for how he deals with foreign leaders and how he deals with senators - that he's able to shelve his ego, which, to be fair, is quite considerable, and to kind of understand in an empathetic way, you know, what somebody's political interests are, what emotional baggage they bring to a situation, so that he can conduct a negotiation. All of these qualities that are kind of so antiquated, that make Joe Biden feel like a figure who's out of time, are the ways in which he's able to make incremental progress as he's done over the course of the last couple of years.

DETROW: And Carol, I feel like Donald Trump's superpower is very different. But we are talking at the end of a week where, once again, he seems to catch every break possible. He wins big in South Carolina and Michigan. The Supreme Court decides to continue the pause on the federal January 6 trial, making it possible that this trial might not even happen before the election. I feel like so often, he skirts from the catastrophic consequence at the last possible moment, either through luck or either through getting the people opposing him to be the worst possible version of themselves.

LEONNIG: Well, talk about a comeback kid, right? I mean, in every negative, Donald Trump - and I mean this over the arc of his life - in every sort of series of ash piles that he is in the middle of, he rises again, almost stronger, almost more vindictive, almost more empowered. Think about, you know, he's the only president who's been impeached twice. And he emerged from both of them more beloved by his supporters and more frightening in their private moments, Republicans will admit - more frightening to them because they are more chained ever to his base and his connection with that base. And that is his magic.

DETROW: That's Carol Leonnig, reporter with The Washington Post and co-author of the book "A Very Stable Genius," about Donald Trump, as well as Franklin Foer, staff writer at The Atlantic and author of "The Last Politician," a biography of Joe Biden. Thanks to both of you. I guess we've got eight more months to talk about all of this.

LEONNIG: Thank you, Scott.

FOER: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.