Joe Biden has an edge in the polls six weeks out from the American election

Four years ago, Hillary Clinton was in the same position as Biden is now: leading Trump in the polls. Will 2020 be different?

Today's expression: Off the cuff
Explore more: Lesson #296
September 21, 2020:

The United States is six weeks out from its presidential election, and polls show Biden with a comfortable, but slimming lead over the sitting president. Biden has been criticized for his “basement” strategy: largely staying out of the spotlight and letting Trump’s self-sabotage win him votes. Will Biden’s middle-of-the-road approach be enough to win in November? Plus, learn what “off the cuff” means.

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Joe Biden has the edge as the American election heats up

Lesson summary

Well hello there, thanks for joining us again for another Plain English lesson. I’m Jeff; JR is the producer; and this full lesson can be found at PlainEnglish.com/296.

Coming up today: the first of two profiles of the candidates in the American election. Today, we’ll talk about Joe Biden and his chances for unseating the incumbent president. The English expression you’ll learn is “off the cuff,” and we have a quote of the week. This is a longer lesson, so let’s jump right in.

Biden clinging to a lead in the polls

There are six weeks left until Americans choose their next president and polls show the challenger, Democrat Joe Biden, holding onto a clear lead—but that, you might remember, is exactly the position Hillary Clinton found herself in four years ago, before losing in a stunning upset. Will this time be different?

Biden is trying to do something very difficult: defeat a sitting president. It has happened only once in my lifetime and only twelve times in American history: the last time was in 1992; the time before that, 1980.

Still, Biden has a decent shot. He has an overall lead in the polls of about seven percent. He might not be the most inspiring candidate himself, but he doesn’t have to be: disapproval of Donald Trump is extremely strong and highly motivating for the president’s opponents. Biden’s entire campaign has been focused on contrasting himself with the president. Biden argues that he would be a steady, ethical leader with experience in competent governing, in contrast with the erratic and ethically compromised Trump.

Joe Biden has laid out a mostly sensible, noncontroversial platform of policies that leans left. On economic matters, he supports raising the national minimum wage to $15; mandating paid sick and parental leave; making the first two years of college free; and raising taxes on higher-income earners. He would tax carbon emissions and reduce offshore oil drilling. He supports a national registry of gun ownership and supports universal background checks for potential gun-buyers. He would expand the national government’s role in providing health insurance. He would offer citizenship to undocumented immigrants who were brought to America as children and who currently don’t have legal permission to be in the US. In all of these ways, his policies differ from Trump’s.

However, there is substantial overlap between Biden’s and Trump’s policies. Biden’s stance toward China would be similar. Biden has also pledged to support the USMCA trade agreement among North American countries, a signature accomplishment of Trump’s first term. He would not substantially change the country’s policies on drug legalization. Foreign policy has barely factored in the campaign.

Biden has not embraced some of the more radical proposals that his party’s left wing loudly advocates. Biden has resisted endorsing Medicare for All, a national system of publicly-funded health insurance; the Green New Deal, a panoply of environmental proposals; and calls to defund police. All three of these proposals are well outside the mainstream of public opinion, especially in the details. In each case, Biden has supported a watered-down version and has resisted moving too far to the left.

Regardless, I think it’s fair to say most voters will not make their choice based on policies. This election is going to turn on Trump and his personality. Biden is, in many ways, Trump’s opposite. Trump is impulsive and bombastic; Biden is cautious and looks for the middle ground. Trump is more comfortable off the cuff; Biden prefers giving a thoughtful speech. Trump is an outsider; Biden was a Senator for 36 years and vice-president for eight. Trump breaks with tradition; Biden respects tradition. Trump revels in the chance to call his opponents names, exaggerate, or just lie; Biden prefers to seek compromise and make alliances. Trump cares little for international norms and traditions; Biden would work to restore America’s leadership abroad.

In times of pandemic and global uncertainty, Biden is hoping people want a competent administrator instead of a bombastic leader. He has hammered Trump on his handling of the coronavirus and the message is working: over 60 percent of Americans hold Trump at least partially responsible for the slow and chaotic government response to the crisis.

Biden is also promising to lower the temperature of public discourse. His recent television ads have emphasized that he would end the division, anger and insults of the Trump years and restore normalcy to our politics—a message that an exhausted public will probably like. He is an honest and non-controversial public servant. Though his policies and positions have ebbed and flowed, and he hasn’t always been on the right side of many issues, especially in the eyes of today’s liberal voters, he has always served honestly and ethically. Even his political opponents are quick to say Biden is likeable.

Biden leads in polling among likely voters. He also holds a small lead in the states that are most likely to decide the election’s outcome in our state-based election system. Biden is raising more money, which he can use on campaign ads that highlight Trump’s weaknesses. Fifty-three percent of Americans view Trump unfavorably, while only 43 percent view him favorably: it is a yawning gap in approval ratings for an incumbent. This is, in short, a very winnable election for the former vice-president.

Yet there are a few reasons to worry. Biden’s caution can work against him when events change quickly, as they have with violent protests and looting in American cities; on that issue, Trump jumped to the advantage, while Biden dragged his feet for weeks before issuing a tepid, middle-of-the-road statement that pleased nobody.

Voters have also seen less of Biden than of any presidential candidate in recent history. For months, Biden has stayed out of the spotlight, running the campaign from his basement in Delaware. It has worked so far: Biden is standing aside and letting Trump commit political suicide. However, that strategy is not without its risks. In the final days of the campaign, voters may wonder why Biden has been in his basement while Trump—whatever his other flaws—has been out acting presidential.

There are grumblings of dissatisfaction among his party’s left wing; some are asking why he’s not leading by more against a historically unpopular president. Biden’s lead over the summer was in the double-digits—10 or 12 percentage points, depending on the poll. That has narrowed in the last few weeks to about seven points, forcing Biden to schedule more public appearances and more travel, where he is less comfortable.

The next big date on the calendar is September 29, when the two will face off in a one-on-one televised debate.

First of two lessons on the candidates

All right, there you go. A number of you have requested an update on the American election, including Halim most recently on our live calls with Plain English Plus+ members. I’ve shied away from discussing American politics, just assuming you guys get enough of it via your own media. But I do recognize there is some curiosity out there, so I hope this was helpful.

Next Monday, we’ll look at the other candidate in the race, Donald Trump. Since Trump does not lack for media exposure around the world, we’ll take a slightly different approach on Monday’s lesson: we’ll talk about the reasons why people support him. The arguments against him are pretty well established, but tens of millions of people will cast their vote for this controversial figure—and we’ll explore their reasons for doing so in Monday’s lesson.

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Expression: Off the cuff