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Opinion: Three years later, many Americans see Trump through rose tinted glasses

Opinion by Scott Jennings

(CNN) — The 2024 presidential election offers voters an unusual experience — not only is it a referendum on the incumbent, Americans will also be faced with the choice between two chief executives they know well: the current Oval Office occupant and his immediate predecessor.

And in comparison polling thus far, something fascinating is happening: there seems to be real nostalgia for the Trump years, even as head-to-head polls remain relatively close.

What to make of this post-term Trump bump? After January 6, 2021, most voters and commentators (this one included) were furious with Trump, writing off any chance of his returning to the White House.

But a few years removed from that terrible day and over three years into Biden’s term, it’s clear that millions of Americans see things differently.

The latest CNN polling lays it bare:

“Looking back, 55% of all Americans now say they see Trump’s presidency as a success, while 44% see it as a failure. In a January 2021 poll taken just before Trump left office and days after the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, 55% considered his time as president a failure.”

As for Biden, “61% say his presidency thus far has been a failure, while 39% say it’s been a success.”

The biggest problem for Biden is obvious — it’s the economy, and specifically inflation. Forty-one percent of Americans have cited inflation and high cost of living as the most important financial problem facing their family today —  a massive spike from just 8% in June 2017. Skyrocketing foodgas, energy, and housing costs have people souring on “Bidenomics” in a way that seriously threatens the president’s reelection.

Against a normal challenger, persistent inflation would be tough enough for Team Biden. But it’s an even bigger issue in a face-off against Trump, an opponent who, as president, presided over an economy that most regard as better than today’s. And on top of that, prior to running for president, Trump spent years attempting to brand himself as one of the best businessmen in the world.

According to a New York Times report in August 2020, several months into the Covid-19 pandemic, “The president [Trump] has built an enduring brand with conservative voters, in particular, who continue to see him as a successful businessman and tough negotiator. Many of those voters praise his economic stewardship before the pandemic hit, and they do not blame him for the damage it has caused.”

Views on Trump and his perceived economic wizardry, in other words, are baked in. And so is anger about persistent inflation that has made trips to the grocery store painful for all but the wealthiest American families.

When presented with a polling choice, Americans seem to be yearning for the recent past, when they felt they were getting ahead instead of being sucked under by runaway inflation. Trump was the president then, and he’s benefiting from that nostalgia for better times now.

There are other signs voters may be nostalgic for Trump. A Gallup survey conducted in April found just 38% of Americans think Biden is a “strong and decisive leader,” an eight point decline from 2020. For Trump, that figure is at 57%, up a point from four years ago. While Biden’s scores on a range of metrics including likability and efficacy have declined dramatically, Trump’s have been remarkably stable.

It’s easy to see how, if voters disapprove of Biden on a specific issue like the economy or immigration (which many Americans do), the persistence of these problems might lead them to conclude he isn’t strong enough to find solutions or change their trajectories for the better. This creates a perception doom loop that Biden will have a hard time breaking out of.

Biden’s perceived weakness gives Trump openings on numerous fronts. He doesn’t necessarily have to provide detailed policy cures as much as he has to channel the anger of Americans who have had it with Biden on various issues. For Trump, operating from the outside worked for him in 2016 and may again in 2024.

In 2020, Trump was running against a different Biden, at least as a matter of public perception. Biden was old then, but not in a way that had people thinking he wasn’t up to the job. And Biden benefited from a campaign run largely from his basement and on Zoom, while Trump struggled with the Covid spotlight.

Now, the tables are turned. Four years on, Biden has aged significantly, often rambling and stumbling over his own words. With the pandemic long in the rearview mirror, it’s increasingly apparent that Biden is not exactly the paragon of vitality and dynamism. A group of his own staffers has recently started walking across the South Lawn alongside Biden to distract from his stiff gait, advisers told Axios.

Trump has had his own gaffes and mix-ups, too, but there’s no question he’s viewed as more vigorous and “with it” than Biden. And it helps that Trump isn’t in the spotlight the way he was as president, while Biden’s gaffes have piled up.

Finally, nostalgia for Trump may also be a result of Americans losing confidence in Biden as an effective government operator. In 2020, 52% of Americans thought Biden could “manage the government effectively.” Today, that number is down to 38%. Trump sits at 49% today, up one point since 2020, according to Gallup.

Biden’s core argument in 2020 was that he was more experienced and competent, and those attributes would result in less drama in Washington and around the world. But that notion crumbled with America’s disastrous pullout from Afghanistan in August 2021 and has not recovered since. The feeling that the country is going off the rails continues to plague Biden, as protesters, including some with antisemitic slogans, shut down roads, bridges and college campuses across the country. Whether you believe Biden is directly responsible, the president of the United States catches credit and blame for most things that happen on his watch.

For the team that once basically argued that the adults are back in charge, the Biden administration now faces a tough re-election campaign against a man it seems many Americans are nostalgic for.

™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

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