Analysis: The danger of campaigning as ‘Mr. Normal’


(CNN)After his first presidential debate against Donald Trump, Joe Biden kicked off a train tour of Ohio and Pennsylvania to pitch himself to working-class voters. The scene played to Biden’s strengths: Born in the Rust Belt, he famously commuted from Delaware to Washington D.C. throughout much of his career. As he spoke from the platform of Alliance, Ohio, “Amtrak Joe”‘s common-man message was unmistakable, designed to draw a sharp contrast with the billionaire occupant of the White House.

With a few weeks to go before the election and polling in his favor, the Biden campaign might find valuable lessons in the case of another train-riding politician — in France. As unlikely as it sounds, there is a cautionary tale there: What works during the campaign may backfire once in office.

French socialist François Hollande came to power in 2012 riding a wave of anger against a wildly unpopular president, Nicolas Sarkozy. I argued in a previous analysis that Sarkozy had shown early flashes of Trump-style populism, taking a wrecking ball to norms of presidential behavior and ultimately earning himself the contempt of many voters. Hollande’s campaign — like Biden’s today — capitalized on the anti-incumbent resentment.

Sarkozy was perceived as bombastic, confrontational and hyperactive so Hollande campaigned as his exact counterpoint — purposely mild — even hyping what has to be one of the unlikeliest buzzwords in campaign history: “normal.” He pledged to erase the Sarkozy years, and burnished his “normal” credentials at every turn.

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    Less than two weeks before the vote, his campaign cannily assembled a scrum of reporters to witness the Socialist leader boarding a train, en route to his next campaign stop. “Taking the train is not solely for candidates” quipped Hollande to the French daily Le Monde. “It is a normal way to travel. Including for a president.” A scathing critique of Sarkozy, who favored the plane even for short distances. His upgraded presidential Airbus, mockingly dubbed “Air Sarko One,” was an easy target for satirists.

    Hollande chugged to victory and promptly took the train to his first European leaders’ meeting, symbolically turning the page of the Sarkozy era. The campaign message had hit home: Voters found him “sincere” and liked his “simplicity.” His good fortune also extended beyond the presidency. His ruling left-wing coalition controlled both chambers of Parliament, most major cities, and virtually all regional authorities. He controlled all the levers of power.

    Yet the President’s grace period didn’t last long. Within three months his approval rating dipped. Within six, it went into freefall. “When your thing is rallying anger [against an incumbent], you create momentum, but that momentum disappears the day you win,” said Gérard Araud, France’s former ambassador to the US. “And the same thing could happen to Joe Biden.”

    Without Sarkozy as a foil, Hollande’s political fortunes dimmed. The ordinary-man image lost its appeal to voters when he became Commander-in-Chief. “He wasn’t able to appear presidential,” explains Bruno Cautrès, lecturer at Paris’ Institut d’Etudes Politiques. “Mr Normal,” who eventually stopped taking the train, came to be seen as “Mr Weak.” His popularity rating plummeted to a previously-unimaginable 13%.

    French President Francois Hollande stands in a commuter train during a 2012 campaign trip.

    His signature policies did nothing to dig him out of that hole. Broken promises and flip-flops overshadowed his occasional wins. No sooner had he come to power than he cursed himself with a pledge to “bring unemployment down within a year.” Joblessness continued to rise for several years in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the economic reports were metronomic reminders of the President’s failure to reach his own benchmark.

    Raising taxes early in his presidency also sapped his public support. He had pledged to target the ultra-rich, yet his tax squeeze did not spare the working class. Ambiguities of the campaign were starkly exposed. “Did the voters fully understand what Hollande would do during his first year?” asks Cautrès of the Institut d’Etudes Politiques. The anti-Sarkozy momentum “led a part of the electorate to vote for Hollande without fully understanding his platform,” he said.

    The nail in the coffin? Hollande was never able to bridge divisions within his own camp. During the campaign, rival parties within the French left had papered over their differences long enough to oust their nemesis, Sarkozy, but that unity was short-lived. Hollande’s refusal to nationalize a struggling steel plant and his high-profile tax breaks for businesses cost him the support of the far left. “His majority was divided. It paralysed his presidency,” said Thierry Arnaud, former political analyst for CNN’s French affiliate BFM TV.

    François Hollande and Joe Biden are far from similar candidates: Biden, a former Vice-President, is a proven statesman and one of the most recognizable faces in US politics even before his latest presidential run. “Appearing presidential” shouldn’t be a challenge for him. Prior to running, Hollande, on the other hand, was mostly known for corralling the infighting of the French left as head of the Socialist Party, and had precious little experience of the executive branch when he came to power.

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    But there are striking parallels in the circumstances that buoyed Hollande’s presidential run in 2012 and Biden’s in 2020. Both campaigns were powered by intense rejection of the incumbent. Indeed, Biden’s very rationale for running — to rescue “the soul of the nation” — was an explicit anti-Trump manifesto.

    For Hollande, that highly effective campaign strategy left him with hidden vulnerabilities which were quickly revealed in office. Whereas most presidents can fall back on their core constituency or their personal appeal when the going gets tough, Hollande couldn’t; neither he nor his policies, it turned out, had a deep well of support.

    Presidential campaigns, whether in France or the US, are designed as the ultimate crucible — probing a candidate’s flaws for the public to make an informed choice, delivering a clear mandate to govern. But when the election cycle acts more as a referendum on the incumbent, it arguably falls short of that standard.

    Some of Hollande’s support came by default – and some of Joe Biden’s has too. His lackluster campaign during the Democratic primaries was almost written off until the contest turned into a race against a self-described socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders. The former Vice President owes much to “never Bernie” voters. He went from “a joke to a juggernaut” almost overnight because he was seen as the less risky candidate going into the general election, not because his vision for America elicited overwhelming enthusiasm.

    And now Biden is similarly poised to capitalize on anti-Trump sentiment. Araud, the former French ambassador to the US who served during the Obama and Trump presidencies, sees pitfalls for the former Vice President. What would a Biden presidency look like? “He’s veering left while also trying to appeal to anti-Trump independents. If he wins, what then? That big gap is hidden by Trump, but once Trump is gone, all that’s left is the gap.”

      If Mr Biden becomes the 46th president of the United States, he will have little margin for error. He will inherit a health crisis, a pandemic-stricken economy, and a nation rife with racial tensions. He will have to navigate the surging progressive wing of the Democratic Party and a Republican side which has shown little disposition for compromise. He will need to bridge the gap with the 46.1% of American voters who only four years ago voted to turn the page of the Obama-Biden years. And he might have to face these challenges in an Hollande-like position: with an unsteady support base that could shrink as the memory of Trump fades.

      The French leader, for his part, went down in history as the first President of France’s Fifth Republic who declined to run for re-election — crippled by record disapproval. He wasn’t, and had never been, the future of his party.