Biden Must Campaign Against a Man Who Already Thinks He’s President

He promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He demanded states deploy the National Guard to the U.S.-Mexico border. He warned congressional Republicans to hold out for a perfect deal on immigration — or else.

Former President Donald J. Trump has not even clinched the Republican presidential nomination, but he has wasted no time issuing directives as if he were making them from the Oval Office instead of between appearances in a New York courtroom.

And now, President Biden has been forced to ponder a campaign question that no president has ever had to consider: How do you run against a man who has already had the job, never conceded his election loss and is already acting like he has the job again?

Mr. Trump’s power over his party, the loyalty of his base and his swift re-emergence as the likely Republican nominee allows him to spar with Mr. Biden in ways that other candidates could not.

The president’s frustrations boiled over on Friday night as he fought to save an immigration deal from collapse in Congress. Mr. Trump has spent weeks pressuring lawmakers to oppose the deal, and Republicans appear unlikely to defy him.

In an unusual statement from a president who often keeps the most sensitive negotiations private, Mr. Biden said Friday he would shut down the U.S.-Mexico border under the emergency authority in the deal if Republicans returned to the table and agreed to it.

“For everyone who is demanding tougher border control, this is the way to do it,” Mr. Biden said, pointing the finger at Republicans who had demanded a crackdown on the border in exchange for approving military aid to Ukraine. “If you’re serious about the border crisis, pass a bipartisan bill and I will sign it.”

Current and former advisers to Mr. Biden say the deadlock over immigration highlights one of the president’s sharpest cases for re-election. The border-policy fight, steered by Mr. Trump, is “putting on display for the American people where Donald Trump and the Republicans’ priorities are, which is not actually solving problems but instead scoring political points,” said Kate Bedingfield, Mr. Biden’s former communications director.

“I’m sure President Biden is frustrated and I’m sure his team is frustrated, because they’ve been working in good faith to try to get to a deal on the border,” Ms. Bedingfield said. Asked about what the president thinks of the threat Mr. Trump poses, she said Mr. Biden talks similarly about Mr. Trump in private as he does in public: “He thinks he’s dangerous.”

Dan Sena, a Democratic strategist, said the campaign would need to get better, and faster, at countering Mr. Trump in real time, because Mr. Trump has perfected a tactic that Mr. Biden has never mastered: creating a new narrative for the news cycle when the current one doesn’t suit him.

“He really has the ability to take the oxygen out of the room and frame everything the way he wants to,” said Mr. Sena, who worked to help Democrats flip the House in 2018. “They absolutely have to set the record straight.”

There is evidence that this is already happening.

On Friday, when Mr. Trump had all but torpedoed the border bill, Mr. Biden was quick to respond in a way that pointed out that Republicans were walking away from a bill that would allow for the emergency closure of the border.

But the former president is shadowboxing with the current president in other areas, as well.

On Thursday, in between stints in a courtroom for a defamation trial, Mr. Trump posted on social media calling on “all willing states” to deploy National Guard troops to Texas “to prevent the entry of illegals, and to remove them back across the Border,” exacerbating a standoff between Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas and the Biden administration.

The Supreme Court sided with the Biden administration this week, allowing federal officials to cut or remove parts of a concertina-wire barrier along the border with Mexico that Texas had erected to keep migrants from crossing into the state. Mr. Abbott has mobilized armed National Guard troops from Texas and other states to install the barrier and order migrants to return to Mexico.

Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, would not say whether Mr. Biden would take federal control of the Texas National Guard, and called Mr. Abbott’s efforts a “political stunt.”

It is unclear whether responses from the Biden administration will do much to prompt Republicans back to the negotiating table on immigration, or anything else, now that Mr. Trump is flexing his muscles.

Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Biden faces low approval ratings. He is struggling against pessimism about the American economy, despite his efforts to showcase a healthy job market, reduced inflation and infrastructure projects under his watch. And a sizable slice of young Democratic voters deeply disapprove of his support for Israel’s campaign against Hamas in Gaza.

As Mr. Biden continues to needle Mr. Trump on the campaign trail and, more subtly, at official events, Mr. Sena said that Republicans may soon be forced to blunt Mr. Trump’s attacks in other areas, including his repeated efforts to rally support for repealing the Affordable Care Act. (Mr. Trump failed to do this several times as president.)

By now, the 14-year-old law has become popular with Americans. Some 21.3 million people signed up for coverage on the Affordable Care Act’s marketplaces for 2024, a record high for the third year in a row, and almost double the number of sign-ups from 2020.

“President Biden knows we have a responsibility to work across the aisle and govern with families’ best interests in mind,” said Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman, “and if others have the opposite view, the American people deserve to know.”