Why the Trump-Biden Fight in 2024 Won’t Be the Same as 2020

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“We are back to where we started.”

I heard CNN’s Dana Bash say that last Sunday morning, while I was half-listening to a talk show. I immediately knew what he meant.

A rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump in the 2024 presidential election seems inevitable. And it doesn’t just feel familiar. It feels like the exact same race as we saw last time – the same old guys, saying the same old things they’ve always said, except now they’re even older and (in one or both cases, perhaps) less mentally sharp .

It seems boring, disappointing, or annoying to many people, and you may be one of them. I understand. But I also think it’s easy to overlook the vast differences between Biden-Trump 2.0 and why they will matter in November, when the American people must decide who will be president for the next four years.

The most obvious difference is the state of the election: what’s happening in the country and the world, and what challenges face whoever will serve in the White House.

Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.), third from top left, and security officers block the door to the House chamber as rioters disrupt a joint session of Congress to certify the Electoral College vote on Jan. 6, 2021.Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.), third from top left, and security officers block the door to the House chamber as rioters disrupt a joint session of Congress to certify the Electoral College vote on Jan. 6, 2021.

Tom Williams via Getty Images

In 2020, this campaign was launched just as COVID-19 first spread, creating a once-in-a-lifetime public health crisis. This election took place in the midst of a violent international crisis, conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza.

The main economic challenge in 2020 is propping up the economy when the pandemic threatens to shut down the economy. Today, the main economic challenge is to keep the economy running without letting it overheat.

Violent crime is now decreasing, not increasing. The number of illegal border crossings is increasing, not decreasing. And of course, in 2020, abortion is still a right across America, albeit with restrictions. Now the disease exists in only a few states, and is under threat in others.

But there are other, less obvious differences between 2020 and 2024, and these may be more important. Today, we know more about the two people most likely to appear on the ballot.

What We Learned About Trump

In 2020, Trump has said enough things to suggest that he probably won’t accept the results of an election he lost fairly, and may even try to contest the outcome. But it wasn’t until January 6, 2021, that he demonstrated that he would actually follow through on that impulse, going so far as to provoke an armed insurrection to stop Congress from certifying the electoral votes.

Since then, Trump has repeatedly threatened to continue violating democratic principles and the rule of law, whether by granting pardons to the January 6 rioters or having the Justice Department prosecute political enemies he has called “vermin.”

Meanwhile, prominent conservatives, including several former Trump administration officials, have put together the “2025 Project,” a 1,000-page strategic blueprint for how Trump could govern in a second term. This includes plans to lay off as many as 50,000 federal workers, as part of an effort to fight the so-called “deep state.”

Author E. Jean Carroll (center) and attorney Roberta Kaplan (right) are seen leaving federal court in Manhattan, New York, on January 26, 2024.Author E. Jean Carroll (center) and attorney Roberta Kaplan (right) are seen leaving federal court in Manhattan, New York, on January 26, 2024.

GWR/Star Max via Getty Images

In December, Sean Hannity asked Trump if he intended to act like a dictator. “Only the first day,” Trump said. In 2020, you can probably find a reason to ignore such talk. In 2024, you really can’t.

The same is true for allegations of serious misconduct in Trump’s professional and personal life, which have dogged Trump long before he ran for president. It wasn’t until 2022 that a jury found the Trump Corporation guilty of tax fraud and found Trump personally responsible for sexually abusing author E. Jean Carroll in the 1990s and then defaming her by publicly denying it.

Those are some pretty important data points for voters to consider, and the rest will depend on how and when other legal proceedings involving Trump play out.

But it is Biden from whom we may learn the most, because in 2020 it is impossible to know what kind of president he really is. Now we do it.

What We Learned About Biden, Part 1

As a candidate, Biden embraced a broad and potentially historic domestic policy agenda, a plan that included a once-in-a-generation infrastructure effort, reimagining child and elder care, and transformational investments in green energy. But Democratic presidential candidates almost always talk big.

As a senator and later as vice president, Biden focused more on the judiciary and foreign policy. It’s easy to assume that he’s not fully committed to his campaign agenda, or that he’s not really trying to make it happen.

Wow, is that assumption wrong?

President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) arrive for the signing of the CHIPS bill and the Science Act of 2022 on the South Lawn of the White House, August 9, 2022.President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) arrive for the signing of the CHIPS bill and the Science Act of 2022 on the South Lawn of the White House, August 9, 2022.

Tom Williams via Getty Images

Biden pushed his big ideas, initially trying to combine them into one giant legislative package he called “Build Back Better.” He strongly defers to Democratic leaders in Congress and is not afraid to pass legislation regarding party-line voting, although he simultaneously implements bipartisan legislation when he sees an opportunity.

Not all decisions are successful. There is a strong case that narrowing the agenda even just a little might produce more benefits, or at least speed up the process.

But even though Biden had to scrap some parts of his agenda and scale back others, he ultimately achieved more than analysts could have hoped for, putting his signature on major initiatives that now spend hundreds of billions of dollars on infrastructure, semiconductor development and green energy – and also lower the price of prescription drugs.

What We Learned About Biden, Part 2

Regarding foreign policy, the most interesting episodes of Biden’s presidency have been the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and his position on the wars in Ukraine and Gaza. These represent very different challenges, although it is possible to see some patterns in Biden’s approach.

One constant has been his attention to and management of international alliances. With Ukraine, Trump has successfully led a policy response that has been relatively free of dissent from America’s key international allies. On Gaza, he has maintained a diplomatic united front with Saudi Arabia and other regional countries that, he hopes, will lay the foundation for post-war reconstruction and peace arrangements (as reported a few weeks ago by Talk News’s Akbar Shahid Ahmed).

Hassan El-Tayyab, legislative director for Middle East policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, spoke during a news conference about delivering nearly 1 million supporters asking Biden to help bring about a ceasefire in Israel and Gaza at the White House.  Home on November 29, 2023.Hassan El-Tayyab, legislative director for Middle East policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, spoke during a news conference about delivering nearly 1 million supporters asking Biden to help bring about a ceasefire in Israel and Gaza at the White House. Home on November 29, 2023.

Countess Jemal via Getty Images

Another constant has been strong beliefs about right and wrong and what needs to be done, despite what Biden hears from critics, even from his own administration. This was clearly demonstrated by the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which many members of its military and diplomatic establishment rejected or tried to slow down. This is even more apparent today with its support for Israel, despite increasing criticism regarding the impact of Israel’s response to the Hamas attack on October 7 on the people of Gaza.

In both cases, it seems clear that Biden is following his own inner compass. In Afghanistan, that compass led him to get American soldiers out of what he believed was a futile endeavor – a perspective perhaps gained from having a son serving in the military.

In the Middle East, his compass directed him to support Israel, which he considered a sanctuary for the Jewish people. Such views are more common among senior officials who formed their opinions in the era of Golda Meir and the Yom Kippur War, while the Holocaust was still fresh in memory and Israel repeatedly fought Arab military forces.

What You Might Think About This

How you process all this clearly depends on your values, sympathies, and priorities, and in some cases, on how you resolve your own internal conflicts.

But whatever you think of Biden – and whatever you think of Trump – you have more information now than you did in 2020.

Maybe it’s the same old people in the polls. This does not mean that this election will be the same as before.

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