Muscle memory and a fight to inspire: on the campaign trail with Biden

“The fact is that this election, a lot is at stake,” said Joe Biden, collar unbuttoned, mic in hand, watched by about 50 guests at tables dotted with small US flags at Mary Mac’s Tea Room in downtown Atlanta. “It’s not about me. It’s about the alternative as well.”

The off-the-cuff remark was telling. After more than half a century in national politics, Joe Biden’s final campaign is defined not by his record but his opponent: Donald Trump. The outcome of November’s presidential election will decide whether he is remembered by history as the man who saved democracy twice – or as a mere interregnum in the onward march of Trumpism.

Related: Biden’s record is good but voters don’t feel it. Character, not policy, is key to victory | Robert Reich

The Guardian spent a weekend with Biden on the campaign trail, shuttling from swing state to swing state on Air Force One and in presidential motorcades, from small gatherings of supporters to flashy receptions for big-money donors. It observed a candidate struggling to articulate an inspiring vision for a second term and recapture the kind of enthusiasm that Barack Obama once generated, but galvanised by the dire threat that Trump poses to his legacy.

Biden understands that his long and storied career could yet end in failure. Surveys suggest that he is less popular than other members of his own party. Last week a swing-state opinion poll from the New York Times and Siena College found a generic Democratic Senate candidate led a generic Republican by five points, where Biden trailed Trump by six points.

Specifically, Jacky Rosen of Nevada, Ruben Gallego of Arizona, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin were doing 14, 11, eight and seven points better than Biden in their respective states. Other polls have come up with similar findings that may tempt Democratic candidates to keep the president at arm’s length. Senator Jon Tester of Montana has already run an ad that says he “fought to stop President Biden from letting migrants stay in America instead of remain in Mexico”.

A key reason for Biden’s weakness this time could be a lack of enthusiasm among African American voters, a demographic that powered Biden to the White House in 2020. A Pew Research report this week showed Biden leading Trump by 77% to 18% among Black voters – a shift from 2020 when Biden had 92% compared with Trump’s 8%. Among younger Black voters, Trump’s support crept up to 29%.

Last weekend Biden flew on Air Force One to Georgia and Michigan, two critical battleground states, embracing a gruelling schedule that belied concerns about his 81 years. The first campaign stop was Mary Mac’s Tea Room in Atlanta, a historic Black-owned small business, where Biden-Harris campaign signs were plastered on a door.

Biden’s entrance was greeted with applause and cheers that might be described as moderate rather than raucous. Some supporters and volunteers hugged him as he worked the room and music continued to boom from loudspeakers.

He then took a handheld mic and spoke for five minutes without notes, like an ageing tennis player hitting shots from memory. “Look, here’s the deal,” he assured his audience. “You hear about how, you know, we’re behind in the polls. Well, so far, the polls haven’t been right once.”

He said of Trump: “I think it’s fair to say – I won’t use the exact phrase that I’d use if I was still playing ball, but my opponent is not a good loser. But he is a loser.” The was an explosion of clapping and laughter. Biden himself chuckled. “Oh, I don’t want to get started. I’m going to get in trouble.”

Turning serious, the president warned: “Everything you let me do, everything you helped me do, everything we’ve done, they want to undo … Our democracy is really on the line.”

The speech was short on second-term promises but long on warnings about Trump, a familiar pattern. His next event was a significant shift up the wealth ladder: the Arthur M Blank Family office, home to a community-building foundation in a faux-Italian building with Roman-style mosaics.

Biden delivered a speech in a room with an ornate ceiling – 15 illuminated recess panels and five chandeliers – and a floor of polished wood. Behind the lectern was a tapestry depicting birds in a bucolic setting. At either end of the room gold-framed mirrors hung above grand fireplaces. About a hundred well-heeled guests had gathered.

When he lost in 2020, something snapped in Trump … He just can’t accept the fact he lost, and he lost it

Joe Biden

When the president appeared, people stood, applauded, whooped and took photos. One woman shouted: “We love you, Joe!” This time he spoke for 18 minutes, beginning with relaxed humour: “Who’s that good-looking guy on the end there? How old are you?” The boy replied: “Thirteen, sir.” Biden said: “Thirteen. You got to remember me when you’re president, OK?”

He again questioned the validity of polls while insisting that he was running strongest among likely voters and outperforming Trump in primary elections. Biden claimed that his team was building the strongest ground campaign in the history of the US, opening more than 150 field offices compared with Trump’s zero.

The message of his campaign, he went on, was that the threat Trump poses is greater in a second term than it was in the first term. “When he lost in 2020, something snapped in Trump. I’m not being facetious; I’m being serious. He just can’t accept the fact he lost, and he lost it.” He accused his opponent of “running for revenge”.

Biden listed some of his own accomplishments as president: 15m new jobs, an expansion of health insurance, lower prescription drug costs, climate action and investment in science and technology innovation. He promised that, if Democrats control Congress, he will restore the constitutional right to abortion. The room burst into applause. It seemed sure that dollars would follow.

The president spent the night an upscale hotel in a tony neighbourhood then, the following morning, delivered a commencement address at Morehouse College, an all-male historically Black college. Democratic fears that he would be heckled and disrupted by protesters against the war in Gaza were not realised. But nor did Biden get the kind of adulatory reception that Obama might once have done.

On the college lawn, framed by redbrick buildings and trees, there was clapping and cheering from Morehouse alumni; less so from young graduates. Perhaps this was the worst fate of all: apathy. Jeremy Mensah, a 2024 graduate who voted for Biden in 2020 but is less sure this time, told the Politico website: “[Biden’s] speech didn’t move me at all. It was very much so a campaign speech. Like, ‘Oh I did this for the Black community.’ I didn’t feel connected to it.”

Trump is leading Biden by 10 points in Georgia, according to last week’s New York Times/Siena College poll. Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, said: “Black voters make up more than half of Democratic voters in Georgia and so if you have anemic turnout then it’s going to be difficult to stitch together a multi-racial coalition that is large enough to beat Republicans in the state.

If Black women and Black men don’t turn out at rates that they could possibly turn out to vote then that will cause him to lose

Andra Gillespie

“That’s the challenge. Biden can’t afford to lose any constituency. If Black women and Black men don’t turn out at rates that they could possibly turn out to vote in the election then that will cause him to lose.”

The president then headed to Detroit, Michigan, where the sun was bright and hot despite the swing state’s proximity to Canada. His motorcade swept from the airport past the Uniroyal Giant Tire, the world’s biggest tire model at 80ft and 12 tons, and into Detroit’s east side, one of the oldest parts of the city, dotted with both fading paint and glimmers of urban renewal.

Biden was greeted by the Crawford family, including the former professional basketball players Joe and Jordan Crawford, who opened Cred Cafe as a family business that doubles as a coffee shop by day and a speakeasy by night. The room had bare brick walls, exposed silver air ducts and a ceiling made of rough wooden panels. Audio cassettes, CDs, VHS videos, XBox games, a guitar and a dartboard adorned the walls.

Music played as Biden worked the room, meeting and greeting about 50 guests. He took a handheld mic and ad-libbed for four minutes. “We got three reverends back there,” he said. “I saw them at the airport. In addition to asking them to pray like hell for me, I asked their advice on a bunch of things.”

Biden nodded to the African American vote by talking about his childhood in racially segregated Delaware. “Dr King was one of my heroes, like many of my generation.” The audience listened in polite silence, punctuated by the wailing of a baby. Biden recounted how he left law school, got a job with “fancy law firm”, then quit and became a public defender. “And one thing led to another, here I am.”

The final stop was a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) dinner at the cavernous Huntington Place Convention Center in Detroit, with bad acoustics and an estimated 5,000 guests. Some chanted, “Four more years! Four more years!” as the president took the stage. He declared: “I don’t feel tired. I feel inspired.”

Biden said the NAACP was the first organisation he ever joined and he got involved in civil rights when he 15. He reeled off a list of accomplishments: cheques that reduced Black child poverty, reconnecting Black neighbourhoods cut off by old highways; removing lead pipes; investing a record $16bn in historically Black colleges and universities. Biden said Black unemployment was at a historic low and Black small businesses were starting up at the fastest rate in 30 years.

He also asserted that the racial wealth gap was its lowest level in 20 years. This claim is open to dispute. According to data from the Federal Reserve’s survey of consumer finances, the wealth disparity between Black and white families has persistently grown since 2010. It increased by $49,950 during the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in a difference of $240,120 between the median white household and the median Black one.

He accused Trump and his allies of trying to erase Black history. “Let me ask you, what do you think he would’ve done on January the 6th if Black Americans had stormed the Capitol?” The question struck a chord with this audience, prompting gasps and murmurs. “No, I’m serious. What do you think? I can only imagine.”

But Biden’s speech was littered with unforced errors. He recalled that as vice-president he tried to fix Detroit during the “pandemic” when he meant recession; he said he was humbled to receive an “organisation” when he meant award; he said the Affordable Care Act saves families “$8,000” a year in premiums when he meant $800; he referred to January 6 “irrectionists” when he meant insurrectionists; he said Trump had predicted “bloodshed” if he loses in November when he meant “bloodbath”.

Biden just doesn’t have magnetism. He’s charisma-challenged. For voters, you need to energise and rally and mobilise

Larry Jacobs

Still, the audience applauded warmly and soon he was back on Air Force One to Philadelphia, then flying by helicopter to Delaware, where he finally reached home at 11pm. There would be more flying and campaigning in the week to come. Joe Biden is an old political warhorse making one last big push, desperate to avoid the fate of one-term presidents such as Jimmy Carter and George HW Bush, who found the magic gone and incumbency a burden.

It might not be enough.

Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said: “He’s the most opaque presidential candidate in years: you might go back to George HW Bush, who blended into the background. Biden just doesn’t have magnetism. He’s charisma-challenged. For voters, you need to energise and rally and mobilise.

“Even the orchestrated events with Biden mixing it up with the ordinary person, it’s remarkable how blasé they are. Bill Clinton going into a bar; Trump stopping by the Cuban restaurant in Miami – these are exciting moments for the supporters of those candidates. But the speech that Biden gave at Morehouse, there’s just utter lack of excitement, engagement. There’s a real powerful disconnect between Biden and the voters that he needs to turn out.”

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