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Image Making for a National Audience

Image Making for a National Audience

Joe Biden and Donald Trump are not yet the official presidential nominees of their parties, so voters have not had the opportunity to watch them go head to head, as in 2016, in a debate or interview setting. But on Thursday, as each visited the U.S.-Mexican border to address the issue of immigration, the two were as close to a face-off as has been seen since the last election — even if they were 300 miles apart.

The result was a picture not just of different policy and presentation styles, but of political positioning, with little to do with actual border conditions and more to do with the general election.

That’s clearly what both men were costumed for, anyway. It sure wasn’t for a stroll along the dusty edges of the Rio Grande.

Neither Mr. Trump nor Mr. Biden even bothered to doff his jacket or roll up his shirt sleeves, the universal sartorial signal for “I’m mucking in,” to pretend differently.

Rather, Mr. Trump seemed to be putting his own twist on the adage, “Don’t dress for the job you have, dress for the job you want,” while Mr. Biden seemed to be dressing to showcase the job he wants everyone to understand he is doing.

Note that for Mr. Trump, rather than wearing the khakis, windbreaker and white MAGA cap he wore to visit the Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas, in 2019 (and which he favors for playing golf), he wore what has become his campaign uniform.

Which is to say, the blue suit, white shirt and bright red tie that were his signatures when in office and that envelop him in both the colors of patriotism and the trappings of aspiration, redolent as the combo is of businessman stereotype.

That identity may be under threat after a New York court ruled that Mr. Trump had fraudulently inflated his financial success, fined him $355 million plus interest and barred him from doing business in the state for three years. But Mr. Trump’s Texas appearance suggested that he’s not letting go of the camouflage, the one his base recognizes and to which they respond.

Instead, he’s doubling down. He’s drawing the line on policy, and he’s drawing the line on his wardrobe. He even wore well-shined dress shoes, not his recently introduced Trump “Never Surrender” sneakers, giving up what could have been a prime marketing moment to complete the look.

By contrast, Mr. Biden eschewed the suit and tie for a navy blazer, striped button-up shirt, gray slacks and what appeared to be his newly favored black Hoka Transports, sustainably designed comfy sneakers that at least seemed to acknowledge, unlike the more formal pants and jacket, the exigencies of the landscape. They are advertised by the brand as “conceived at the intersection of lifestyle and performance.”

In other words, they are the embodiment of compromise, just like Mr. Biden’s border pitch to Congress and just like the rest of his outfit, which was more awkwardly casual Friday approachable than Oval Office. To top it all off, he wore a navy baseball cap that looked as though it had the presidential seal on the front. Just in case anyone doubted who the actual POTUS was.

Why does any of this matter? Because as the photos of the men make their way through the media ether, they filter into the general consciousness, whether anyone scrolling or flipping past the pictures realizes it or not. In doing so, the images become a data point that shapes opinion. That’s partly why neither Mr. Trump nor Mr. Biden was simply playing to the home crowd. They were playing to the national audience, against an illustrative backdrop and with all the communications tools at their disposal — including footwear.

Indeed, by the end of the day, it seemed as if the only thing Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden had in common was the tiny American flag pin on their lapels. And a keen awareness of the nuance of the photo op, of course.

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