Trump might want to stop comparing this moment to four years ago

There is definitely something weird about Donald Trump and his supporters constantly asking Americans whether they were better off four years ago. Almost no one in America was better off four years ago in April than they are now: Most of the country was still in the midst of the restrictions implemented at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, and even those who weren’t were at risk of catching the virus.

What Trump could say, instead, is something that most presidential challengers haven’t been able to: Were you better off when I was president? That’s the subtext to the “four years ago” question, of course, but in this case, the former is preferable for a very potent reason.

Four years ago, the election was roiled by specific issues that were unquestionably bad for Trump.

On Friday, the Associated Press published new polling data collected by NORC. On a range of issues, Americans indicated that Trump’s presidency was more helpful than Joe Biden’s.

On abortion and climate change, people were more likely on net to say President Biden helped than they were to say that Trump did. Same with voting rights and election security. But on health care, cost of living, creating jobs, foreign policy and the border? Trump had the advantage.

Comparing results within their own parties, Trump’s advantage was much larger. Democrats said that Biden was more harmful on net when considering cost of living and the border. Even on the issue of creating jobs, where — assuming we’re talking about job growth, the usual metric — Biden has outpaced Trump’s presidency, Trump has a wide advantage within his party.

But what isn’t included here are the things that were potent four years ago, like the pandemic and social-justice protests. There’s good reason not to include them, of course: The coronavirus, while still dangerous and widespread, isn’t the threat or the public focus it was in April 2020. And there have not been widespread protests triggering the back-and-forth we saw during summer 2020. Including a question about the pandemic would have been interesting, certainly, but it’s obvious why it wasn’t, given the realities of fielding a poll.

The extent to which the included questions are salient to the election, of course, is a question of its own. Climate change is a big issue for a lot of voters, for example, but tends to be ranked low on lists of importance overall. What’s more, not all of these issues are created equal. Sure, Trump has a big advantage on most of these issues, and Biden, while faring better than Trump, is underwater on abortion — but Biden’s advantage on abortion will almost certainly play a more significant role for many voters.

The Associated Press poll also asked people to evaluate how each president did in helping a number of identified groups by religion, gender, race and income. Respondents thought that Biden had done more for Black people, Hispanic people and women. Trump was given the advantage among most groups, especially rich, White men.

Notice the views of how the presidents fared in helping Muslim people. Biden has an advantage over Trump — but a plurality said “neither” president had been helpful.

This isn’t Muslim respondents offering that assessment. But it is nonetheless a reflection of the political moment, or at least of how the moment is perceived. It is a moment that is far less advantageous to Biden than the moment was four years ago.

The perils of being the incumbent. Now Trump can simply lob rhetoric from the outside, insisting (as he often does) that he would have handled everything much better than Biden does. A lot of Americans respond positively to that. But it’s also why Trump might want to stop comparing the moment now to four years ago — when he was the incumbent and the situation was far more dire.

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