It’s going to be a long road to next November. And the first steps started this week.
President Biden and former President Donald J. Trump traveled to Michigan, one day after the other, to speak directly to working-class voters in what amounted to a preview of a likely 2024 campaign.
Their dueling styles were on clear display as the two men tried to woo voters affected by the United Automobile Workers strike. Mr. Biden has campaigned on a message of bolstering the middle class, protecting democratic norms and countering China. Mr. Trump, a criminal defendant several times over, has focused on vindicating himself, channeling conservative grievances and promoting America-first policies.
Their differences are not just ideological and tactical but stylistic. Mr. Trump prefers a boisterous event that lets him take center stage, and Mr. Biden, so far, has opted for small fund-raisers where he can burnish his Scranton Joe persona.
Voters have signaled that they would prefer a different set of options in 2024, but for now, the most likely choice is between the current and former president, who have sharply diverging visions for the future of the United States.
Raucous rallies, like the one he held on Wednesday, allow Mr. Trump to test his messaging and give him political oxygen to power through the next news cycle. On Wednesday, as seven other Republican presidential candidates gathered in California for a primary debate, Mr. Trump bragged about being ahead of the field — at one point calling his rivals “job candidates” for a second Trump administration — and brought his usual bluster to a crowd of several hundred at a nonunion manufacturing facility.
Guests circulated inside the facility, called Drake Enterprises, some wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Mr. Trump’s mug shot and a telling caption: “NEVER SURRENDER.”
In an hourlong speech, Mr. Trump castigated the Biden administration’s clean-energy agenda, which includes a push for a transition to electric vehicles that has aggravated union workers who share his populist views on the economy.
“A vote for Crooked Joe means the future of the auto industry will be based in China,” Mr. Trump told the crowd, warning that a transition to electric vehicles amounted to a “transition to hell.” He offered tepid support for the striking autoworkers, telling them that electric vehicles would undermine any success with a new contract: “It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference what you get because in two years you’re all going to be out of business.”
Mr. Trump repeatedly overinflated the evening’s crowd size, at one point falsely claiming that there were 9,000 people waiting outside the venue. But in Michigan, he did what Mr. Biden has not done yet: He pleaded for endorsements and votes.
“Your leadership should endorse me,” Mr. Trump said, “and I will not say a bad thing about them again and they will have done their job.”
Never a big fan of a rally, Mr. Biden, who has for decades presented himself as a champion of the middle class, has so far limited most of his campaign appearances to fund-raisers or receptions with supporters. At those events, he opts to shake hands in rope lines and share stories of his decades in politics. He also warns his supporters of the grave risk he feels Mr. Trump continues to pose to the country.
On Tuesday, before traveling to California for campaign events and a meeting with technology advisers, Mr. Biden became the first sitting president to join a picket line, visiting workers outside a General Motors facility in Belleville, Mich. — a sign of how important it was for him to court a powerful political bloc whose ranks are no longer full of reliably Democratic voters.
“The middle class built this country,” Mr. Biden told striking workers on Tuesday. “And unions built the middle class. That’s a fact.”
In his short appearance with workers — Mr. Trump and several of supporters pointed out that the visit was only about 12 minutes — Mr. Biden spoke briefly and turned a bullhorn over to Shawn Fain, the U.A.W. president.
Unlike Mr. Trump, the president did not take the chance to link his visit to Michigan to securing union backing. When asked if he hoped to receive the support of the U.A.W., which endorsed him in 2020 but has refrained so far out of complaints about his clean-energy agenda, Mr. Biden would only say, “I’m not worried about that.”
Before Mr. Trump’s visit on Wednesday, the Biden campaign released an ad targeting the former president’s economic track record, accusing Mr. Trump of passing “tax breaks for his rich friends while automakers shuttered their plants and Michigan lost manufacturing jobs.”
Age and energy have become prevailing concerns among voters about Mr. Biden, who spent this week crisscrossing the country. On Thursday, Mr. Biden, who is 80, is scheduled to deliver what is widely seen as a rebuttal to Mr. Trump’s appearance and the Republican primary debate.
Mr. Trump, who is 77, relied on a teleprompter on Wednesday evening — as does Mr. Biden when he delivers prepared remarks. He could not resist the occasional aside, including an extended complaint about the paint job on Air Force One — “so inelegant,” said Mr. Trump, who tried to change the exterior of the plane when he was president. When he departed, he took his time navigating a set of stairs that led to the stage.
In recent appearances, Mr. Biden has spoken comparatively softly, and has tried to make light of concerns about his age. “I’ve never been more optimistic about our country’s future in the 800 years I’ve served,” he said at a campaign event this month.
But at a reception in California on Wednesday, Mr. Biden had sharp words for his predecessor.
“We’re running because our most important freedoms — the right to choose, the right to vote, the right to be who you are, to love who you love — has been attacked and shredded,” the president told supporters. “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans are determined to destroy American democracy because they want to break down institutional structures.”