President Joe Biden’s first news conference in office featured two presidents: the incumbent and the man he defeated almost five months ago.
The East Room event underscored the extent to which Biden has never stopped running against Donald Trump. He mentioned Trump by name five times before any reporter asked about him. The new president invoked his predecessor as a shield to defend his approach to immigration, Afghanistan, China and the national debt.
“Oh, God, I miss him,” Biden said of Trump at one point. He was joking, but not entirely.
Biden needs Trump as a foil to hold together an unwieldy coalition that ranges from self-identified socialists who backed Bernie Sanders in the 2020 primaries to country-club Republicans, namely women, who supported Mitt Romney over Barack Obama in 2012.
One of the few positions all his supporters share is disdain for Trump. That binds them together. As memories fade and new story lines emerge, that glue will lose some of its adhesive power.
Biden referred to his predecessor almost exclusively as “Trump”—not “Mr. Trump” or “President Trump.” He felt no need to use an honorific. Nor did he make any effort to avoid saying the name, as he had previously.
The 46th president has legitimate reasons to feel bitterness toward the 45th. Trump spent months plotting to overturn the election results, obstructed Biden’s transition team, incited the Jan. 6 insurrection, skipped the inauguration, and continues casting doubt on his successor’s legitimacy.
Unlike previous ex-presidents, Trump has made no effort to rise above the fray. Trump called into Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show Thursday night to respond to Biden’s news conference. He gave a series of interviews bashing Biden earlier in the week and continues to cultivate his desired role as GOP kingmaker from his voter-imposed exile at Mar-a-Lago.
It would have been inconceivable four years ago for Obama to go on Rachel Maddow’s show after Trump’s first news conference or George W. Bush calling into Sean Hannity’s show after Obama’s first presser 12 years ago. But no one is surprised that Trump has disregarded this norm.
What’s more surprising is that Biden is still running against Trump.
The president is right that it will take a long time to fix the damage inflicted by Trump, but he has been around politics long enough to know that the window for being able to get away with blaming him will close sooner than later. Trump might remain in the fray in a way that no previous president has, but his usefulness as a Biden defense mechanism will wane the longer Biden is in office.
Obama and Biden tried to run against Bush during the 2010 midterms, but independent voters no longer blamed Republicans for the weak economy two years after they were swept out of power. In a society with such a collectively short attention span, no matter how awful Trump was, there is some statute of limitations.
Oh, God, how Biden will miss him.