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Biden Promised Calm After Trump Chaos, but the World Has Not Cooperated

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Biden Promised Calm After Trump Chaos, but the World Has Not Cooperated

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During the 2020 campaign, Joseph R. Biden Jr. denounced Donald J. Trump as “an incumbent president who sows chaos rather than providing order.” After defeating Mr. Trump, Mr. Biden told the nation in his Inaugural Address that he would reverse the “state of chaos” that he had inherited.

The new president essentially promised to usher in a calmer era as the responsible grown-up to Mr. Trump’s tempestuous Twitter bomber.

But the world has not cooperated. While Mr. Biden has restored order to the White House and generally conducted himself with the decorum common to the pre-Trump presidency, he has nonetheless presided over a turbulent period that has unsettled many Americans. Inflation, the explosion of migration at the border and the wars in Europe and the Middle East have created a sense of instability that polls show have eroded his support.

To some extent, the impression has been fueled by conservative media outlets, which bombard viewers and readers with reports on “Biden’s border chaos,” among other regular themes. But polls show that satisfaction with the direction of the country has fallen by half since Mr. Biden took over three years ago. And paradoxically, Mr. Trump, once labeled the “chaos president” by a Republican opponent, is now marketing himself as the antidote to disorder, capitalizing on faded memories from his own time in office.

“I think Biden has delivered on the promise of calm, of orderliness in his own White House, all of those things, including good-faith efforts to work with the other side,” said David Axelrod, a senior adviser to former President Barack Obama. “But he was dealt a difficult hand, and events about which he has generally not much control have created a sense of disorderliness in which the self-styled strongman now offers to come back and step in the breach.”

As he enters the House chamber on Thursday night to deliver his final State of the Union address before the November election, Mr. Biden faces the challenge of reassuring Americans that he is in command of events rather than the other way around. Advisers hope a strong performance will convey the message that Mr. Biden’s mature leadership remains preferable to his indicted challenger’s volatile brand of constant combat and norm busting.

Mr. Biden plans to address public concerns by stressing his efforts to lower the cost of living and will try to convince Americans that the economy has bounced back strongly after the lockdowns and shutdowns of the Covid-19 pandemic that started under Mr. Trump. By contrast, he may highlight Republican disarray by pointing to the party’s rejection of a bipartisan border deal to stem the flow of immigrants and a refusal to even bring security aid for Ukraine and Israel to a floor vote in the House.

“There’s a lot more instability globally, but the bottom line is no one questions Biden’s word or reputation in the world,” said Representative Josh Gottheimer, Democrat of New Jersey. “There are factors that we can’t control. We can’t control an attack in the Middle East” or an invasion of Ukraine. “But his response to the external instability is to show America’s leadership, and I think that’s a credit to him.”

Mr. Biden’s return-to-normalcy pledge proved a profound relief to Democrats and many Republicans as well as international allies when he first took office, particularly after a violent mob stirred up by Mr. Trump stormed the Capitol in an effort to stop the transfer of power. Military units and security barriers gave Washington the feeling of a besieged city.

The new president was a diametrical contrast to the old one. He did not start daily flame wars or abruptly fire cabinet secretaries by tweet. He did not threaten American friends abroad or vow “retribution” against adversaries at home. He was a throwback to a different era.

But by the summer of Mr. Biden’s first year in office, the sense of order was disrupted by the chaotic military withdrawal from Afghanistan, with Taliban forces storming Kabul, Afghans racing across an airport runway trying to escape on departing planes and American troops killed in a terrorist bombing. Mr. Biden’s approval rating had already begun to slip from its high of 57 percent in Gallup polling but fell to 43 percent after the withdrawal and has not recovered since.

He was not helped as inflation hit a 40-year high, border crossings reached record numbers, Russia invaded Ukraine and Hamas attacked Israel. The mood of the nation took a dark turn. While 45 percent of Americans felt satisfied with the way things were going in the country after Mr. Biden’s inauguration, the highest level since 2005, just 19 percent do now.

“They see it in their households with prices, they see it in the world, they see it in the border, they see it in Afghanistan, they see it in Ukraine, they see in the Middle East,” former Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a Republican, said in an interview. “And they say, ‘Well, I’ll take a little bit of tweets that I don’t like in return for some stability.’”

A recent CBS News poll found that just 31 percent thought Mr. Biden’s policies would increase peace and stability while 47 percent thought Mr. Trump’s would if he wins a second term. Conversely, 36 percent thought Mr. Trump would decrease peace and stability while 43 percent said the same of Mr. Biden.

This has become a constant theme of Mr. Trump and his supporters in the conservative media assailing Mr. Biden. “His policies now have resulted in nothing but widespread chaos here at home and abroad,” Sean Hannity said on Fox News in November. Addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, Mr. Trump declared, “In many ways, we’re living in hell right now.”

The Biden campaign responded to Mr. Trump’s comment by reminding Americans of what the previous four years were like. “America already had the opportunity to choose if they wanted another four years of hell with Donald Trump’s chaos, division and crazy — they said no,” a campaign spokesman said in a statement.

Despite public concerns, there are plenty of indicators of stability in the United States now. Covid has been transformed from a society-shaking killer to a more manageable health issue. Recent data suggests that violent crime last year was near its lowest level in more than 50 years. After peaking at 9.1 percent in 2022, inflation has fallen to 3.1 percent, although prices have not come down.

Recession fears have eased, unemployment has been under 4 percent longer than any time since the Vietnam War, stock markets are setting records, wage hikes are surpassing price increases and domestic energy production is higher than ever. And while wars are raging in Europe and the Middle East, American troops for the first time in decades are not in the middle of them.

Many voters still do not see that in their own lives or do not credit Mr. Biden with any improvements they do see. Just 26 percent of those surveyed by The New York Times and Siena College last month called the economy good or excellent. But that was six percentage points higher than a previous poll, and Mr. Biden’s advisers hope that as economic optimism rises by the fall, it will translate into additional political support.

The president’s allies said the way he has conducted himself in office should matter more than events that are beyond his control, and foreign officials regularly say in interviews that they would much rather deal with Mr. Biden than the unpredictable and often hostile Mr. Trump.

Democrats said Mr. Biden should use the State of the Union address and other opportunities to turn the tables on Republicans by highlighting their own internal turmoil, punctuated by the ouster of their own House speaker last year that left the lower house of Congress without a leader for three weeks.

“He has an opportunity to draw a contrast against the Republican Party that is unable to pass government funding, who are holding up the Ukraine supplemental, who have gone through the speaker’s drama and who are more focused on leadership battles than what matters to the American people,” said former Representative Stephanie Murphy, Democrat of Florida. “That would be an opportunity for him to draw a contrast.”

“But,” she conceded, “it’s really hard to deny that the American people really feel a sense of insecurity from an economic perspective, as well as from a foreign policy perspective.”

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