The Real Difference Between Trump and Biden

Americans likely face a choice this fall between two men they don’t want for president. Or they can stay home and get one of the two guys they don’t want for president anyway. The reasons for voter disdain are clear enough: Poll respondents say Joe Biden is too old, an impression reinforced by last week’s special-counsel report, and they have always been troubled by Donald Trump’s judgment and character (though a majority think he’s too old too.)

Voters have genuine questions about both men. But we’ve seen each occupy the presidency. One thing the two administrations have made clear is that whereas Biden follows an approach to governance that seems to offset some of his weaknesses, Trump’s preferred managerial style seems to amplify his.

Many people treat elections as a chance to vote a single individual into office; as a result, they tend to focus disproportionately on the personality, character, and temperament of the people running. But voters are also choosing a platform—a set of policies as well as a set of people, chosen by the president, who will shape and implement them. The president is the conductor of an orchestra, not a solo artist. As the past eight years have made very clear, the difference in governance between a Trump administration and a Biden administration is not subtle—for example, on foreign policy, border security, and economics—and voters have plenty of evidence on which to base their decision.

But for the sake of argument, let’s consider the potential effects of Biden’s failures of memory and Trump’s … well, it’s a little tough to say what exactly is going on with Trump’s mental state. The former president has always had a penchant for saying strange things and acting impulsively, and it’s hard to know whether recent lapses are indications of new troubles or the same deficits that have long been present. His always-dark rhetoric has become more apocalyptic and vengeance-focused, and he frequently seems forgetful or confused about basic facts.

To what extent would either of their struggles be material in a future presidential term? One key distinction is that Biden and Trump have fundamentally different conceptions of the presidency as an office. Biden’s approach to governance has been more or less in keeping with the traditions of recent decades. Biden’s Cabinet and West Wing are (for better or worse) stocked with longtime political and policy hands who have extensive experience in government. Cabinet secretaries largely run their departments through normal channels. Policy proposals are usually formulated by subject-area experts. The president’s job is to sit atop this apparatus and set broad direction.

[Read: The presidency is not a math test]

Biden doesn’t always defer to experts, and he has clashed with and overruled advisers on some topics, including, notably, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Such occasional clashes are fairly typical—as long as they’re occasional. As my colleague Graeme Wood wrote this week, “The presidency is an endless series of judgment calls, not a four-year math test. In fact, large parts of the executive branch exist, in effect, to do the math problems on the president’s behalf, then present to him all those tough judgment calls with the calculations already factored in.”

This doesn’t mean that Biden’s readily apparent aging doesn’t bring risks. The presidency requires a great deal of energy, and crises can happen at all hours and on top of one another, testing the stamina of any person. The oldest president before Biden, Ronald Reagan, struggled with acuity in his second term, an administration that produced a huge, appalling scandal of which he claimed to be unaware.

In contrast to the model of the president as the ultimate decision maker, Trump has approached the presidency less like a Fortune 500 CEO and more like the sole proprietor of a small business. (Though he boasts about his experience running a business empire, the Trump Organization also ran this way—it is a company with a large bottom line but with concentrated and insular management by corporate standards.) As president, Trump had a tendency to micromanage details—the launching system for a new aircraft carrier, the paint scheme on Air Force One—while evincing little interest in major policy questions, such as a long-promised replacement for Obamacare.

At times, Trump has described his role in practically messianic terms: “I alone can fix it,” he infamously said at the 2016 Republican National Convention. He has claimed to be the world’s foremost expert on a wide variety of subjects, and he often disregarded the views of policy experts in his administration, complaining that they tried to talk him out of ideas (when they didn’t just obstruct him). He and his allies have embarked on a major campaign to ensure that staffers in a second Trump administration would be picked for their ideological and personal loyalty to him. Axios has reported that the speechwriter Stephen Miller could be the next attorney general, even though Miller is not an attorney.

Perhaps as a result of these different approaches to the job, people who have served under the men have divergent views on them. Whereas Biden can seem bumbling and mild in public, aides’ accounts of his private demeanor depict an engaged, incisive, and sometimes hot-tempered president. That’s also the view that emerges from my colleague Franklin Foer’s book The Last Politician. “He has a kind of mantra: ‘You can never give me too much detail,’” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has said. “The most difficult part about a meeting with President Biden is preparing for it, because he is sharp, intensely probing, and detail-oriented and focused,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said last weekend. (As Jon Stewart noted on Monday night, the public might be more convinced were these moments videotaped, like the gaffes.)

Former Trump aides are not so complimentary. Former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly called Trump “a person that has nothing but contempt for our democratic institutions, our Constitution, and the rule of law,” adding, “God help us.” Former Attorney General Bill Barr said that he “shouldn’t be anywhere near the Oval Office.” Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper described him as “unfit for office.” Of 44 former Cabinet members queried by NBC, only four said they supported Trump’s return to office. Even allowing for the puffery of politics, the contrast is dramatic.

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None of this is to say that Biden’s memory lapses aren’t worth concern or that he is as vigorous as he was as a younger man. But someone voting for Biden is selecting, above all, a set of policy ideas and promises that he has laid out, with the expectation that the apparatus of the executive branch will implement them.

Voting for Trump is opting for a charismatic individual who brings to office a set of attitudes rather than a platform. Considering the presidency as a matter of individual mental acuity grants the field to Trump’s own preferred conception of unified personal power, so it’s striking that the comparison makes the dangers posed by Trump’s mentality so stark.