Opinion: The 2020 election was about returning to normal. 2024 is about something completely different

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including the forthcoming book “Our Nation at Risk: Election Integrity as a National Security Issue.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

The 2024 election is fundamentally different than the one in 2020 — a reality the Biden campaign needs to confront in order to meet voters in this current moment.

Four years ago, in the midst of a global pandemic and the endless tumult of the Trump presidency, many voters craved a sense of normality. They wanted a stable and experienced leader as well as a return to effective governance. Joe Biden met the moment by pitching himself as a steady hand who could serve as an antidote to the chaos and dysfunction of the Trump years.

Four years later, that pitch seems less appealing, as voters seem to crave a stronger and more decisive leader who can tackle a myriad of problems, from the cost of living to climate change and immigration.

A number of polls have found that Biden is trailing Trump nationally and in almost all of the critical swing states. Trump, despite his criminal indictments and the baggage he carries, seems to be defying the odds. In some cases, he is eating into Democrats’ traditional support among Black and Latino voters, as well as younger voters.

Trump is entering the hot summer months in a strong position. How can this be? Why is Biden finding it so difficult to gain traction? Despite massive campaign expenditures in recent months and a legislative record that stands up among the most productive presidents in American history, Biden is having trouble breaking through.

That’s largely because 2024 is different from 2020 — and Biden needs to adjust his strategy accordingly. While Biden succeeded in offering an old-fashioned, by-the-books approach last election, he needs to make a more emotional and compelling pitch this time around, appealing to the hearts, and not just the minds, of the electorate.

The 2024 election will center on the candidates’ ability to provide bold and decisive leadership to tackle the multiple challenges the nation faces: high prices and interest rates that are bearing down on the household budget; immigration patterns that have created financial and social pressures in a wide range of communities; foreign conflicts that generate dangerous flashpoints overseas and divisive dinnertime conversations back home; radical threats to women’s reproductive rights; concerns over safety and security among key constituencies (from Black to Latino to Jewish voters); and alarming weather patterns providing constant reminders that climate change is a pressing and ongoing issue.

This turbulent moment creates a desire for leaders who can provide both a compelling vision of a path forward and a sense of muscularity needed to guide this deeply divided political system toward viable solutions.

Putting Trump aside, Biden has struggled to achieve this goal. The problem could come down to his age, the person Biden has always been or a number of other factors. Regardless of the reason, it remains a problem.

Meanwhile, Trump has managed to capitalize on his legal peril, selling the message of being an anti-hero, ant-establishment fighter who will do anything to defend those who defend him. “I am your justice … I am your retribution,” as he likes to say at his rallies. And for Americans who might not be happy with the way things are going, Trump offers the potential to shake up the status quo.

To energize Democratic voters and win back Americans who support Trump or are considering sitting out the election altogether, Biden has to provide a message that fits the needs of 2024, rather than repeating an outdated pitch from 2020.

The good news is that victory is within reach, and a complete revamp might not even be necessary. Biden may be behind in the polls, but it is a very close race where tipping the scales ever so slightly in his favor in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin could be a path toward a second term.

Boasting about his experience and even legislative success won’t be enough. That kind of reasoning was more appropriate in 2020, or even the 2022 midterms. To start pulling ahead, Biden has to tap into his inner-Barack Obama and emerge as a president who has the gravitas and the imagination to use another four years in office to bring America into a more vibrant era that the next generation can inherit.

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