One of the oddities about Republican efforts to define Barack Obama is that the party never seemed to settle on a specific message. As regular readers might recall, Americans were told the Democratic president was both a ruthless Chicago thug and a weak pushover. He was a bystander who golfed too much and an activist president who engaged too much. He was a passive leader, afraid to step up, and an out-of-control tyrant, determined to seize power.
Even after two full terms, it was never altogether clear what it was Republicans wanted us to believe about Obama. Years later, the party seems similarly unsure what it wants to say about the latest Democratic president.
This, for example, was how Fox News’ Sean Hannity went after President Joe Biden on the air this week:
“Now, Joe Biden’s cognitive ability is not good. Anyone with eyes can see, you can see it. Every week it gets worse and, and it’s getting worse by the day. Now keep in mind, Biden is also dealing with very real and serious corruption and bribery allegations, along with a very real impeachment inquiry.”
For now, let’s brush past some of the relevant details — there’s nothing wrong with the president’s cognitive abilities, there’s nothing “serious” about GOP’s anti-Biden allegations, etc. — and instead focus on the competing stories the Republican anchor seemed eager to tell.
Over the course of about 18 seconds, viewers were effectively told that Biden is both a doddering and deteriorating old man, and a criminal mastermind.
In reality, he’s neither, but for Hannity, the president is both.
These contradictions first came to the fore during the 2020 race. In early March, for example, Donald Trump held a campaign rally where the then-president called Biden a “moderate.” Four days later, Trump told reporters that Biden is “left wing.” The Democratic candidate obviously couldn’t be both.
A couple of months later, the Trump campaign sent a message to supporters labeling the former vice president a “crook” — a bizarre claim for a candidate who’s never faced credible corruption allegations over a lengthy career — and it led one of Obama’s former speechwriters to highlight the larger problem.
“Is he a crook now?” Jon Favreau asked. “I thought he was old and confused. Or a puppet of China. Or sleepy. Or creepy. Or a radical socialist. Good campaigns figure out one story to tell about their opponent. They might get there, but it’s May and [members of the Trump campaign] haven’t figured it out yet.”
Nearly four years later, Republicans still haven’t figured it out yet.
Others have caught on to the problem. NBC News noted in September 2023:
[W]ith the “Crooked Joe” persona, Trump routinely implies that a man he has suggested is not mentally fit has secretly been manipulating the Justice Department — as well as state prosecutors he has no authority over, and even secretive grand juries who were legally required to approve the indictments — while covering his tracks so well that House Republican investigators with subpoena power struggle to uncover proof.
Around the same time, the Bulwark’s Tim Miller, a former GOP operative-turned-Trump-critic, added, “I’m confused. Is dementia-riddled Joe Biden also controlling the people in all of these separate grand juries in four different jurisdictions in four states?”
I suppose it’s not too late for Republicans to settle on a single, coherent narrative, but if they do, it’d be a pleasant change of pace.
This post updates our related earlier coverage.
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