Gov. Josh Shapiro thinks voters have Trump ‘brain fog.’ He wants Biden to refresh their memory.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Josh Shapiro isn’t yet worried about President Joe Biden’s standing.

Rather, the governor of Pennsylvania attributes Biden’s recent polling slide behind former President Donald Trump to voter “brain fog” that he thinks will clear once the general election cycle kicks into gear.

“I’m not sure folks remember just how chaotic it was, how divisive it was, how he was just in your face in your living room every day,” Shapiro said, referring to Trump. “I don’t think people want to go back to that.”

Shapiro, who’s widely considered to be a future Democratic presidential prospect, sat with NBC News for more than 30 minutes in his office at the Pennsylvania State Capitol on Monday to discuss the 2024 race and his concerns about the contest, his first year as governor, and the war between Israel and Hamas and the tensions it has unleashed in the U.S. 

Since his campaign for governor last year, Shapiro has emerged as one of the Democratic Party’s most visible officials and a leading member of its next generation at a time voters are expressing concerns over Biden’s age. After he beat a Trump acolyte last year, he’s already seeking to pave the way for Democrats to win the pivotal state next year against Trump himself.

Shapiro spoke with NBC News following an address he gave about his first year in office to the Pennsylvania Press Club, in which he touted his administration’s initial accomplishments and called attention to “unfinished business” he sought to pursue in the year ahead.

Image: Governor of Pennsylvania, Josh Shapiro
Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro in Harrisburg on Monday.Jared Soares for NBC News

Shapiro took office following a 15-point win last fall over Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano, whom he painted as an extremist on democracy issues and abortion rights while running on his own platform of protecting essential freedoms. He feels a similar effort against Trump would help Democrats again win in Pennsylvania, arguably the state Biden most needs to capture next fall.

“As people are reminded of what it was like and they are forced to tune back in and listen to that during the course of a presidential race, they’re going to reject his extremism, his chaos and his danger,” he said of Trump. 

But Shapiro also wants Biden to offer a clear explanation for how his record has benefited Pennsylvanians, particularly efforts to expand broadband access and other infrastructure investments. In the Senate, Biden, who spent his childhood in Pennsylvania before he moved to Delaware, touted himself as “Pennsylvania’s third senator,” and he has made more than two dozen trips to the state since he took office. 

Image: Governor of Pennsylvania, Josh Shapiro
Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro’s office in Harrisburg.Jared Soares for NBC News

Trump has led Biden inside or outside the margin of error in national polls this month released by NBC NewsFox NewsMorning ConsultReuters/IpsosThe Economist/YouGov and Quinnipiac University. In Pennsylvania, surveys conducted by Bloomberg/Morning Consult and The New York Times/Siena College told a similar story. Surveys also show widespread dissatisfaction with the economy across party lines, while, increasingly, some core Democratic constituencies have heavily scrutinized Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war.

“My expectation is that as the race joins and there’s a real competition of ideas and of approach, the president will be in a much stronger position,” he said, adding that the current polling “does speak to the worry that a lot of people feel about whether it’s the economy or safety, immigration, you name it.” 

But does any of that make him think it’s time for Democrats to pass the torch to the next generation of leaders?  

“I think it’s clear that this is going to be a race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump,” he said, dismissing the question. “And I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure Donald Trump is defeated.

“If Donald Trump is given the opportunity to get the keys to the White House again, he’s even more dangerous the second time around, because he and the team around him know how to operate the levers of government. He’s told us that he understands how to do it, and he’s going to use that to prosecute his enemies,” he continued. “I know what the reality is. And the reality is it’ll be the two of them, barring some unforeseen circumstance, squaring off.”

For the better part of a year, Shapiro has batted away questions about his own presidential ambitions. But he did sound open to the idea that the 2028 Democratic nominee would be a current sitting governor.

Image: Governor of Pennsylvania, Josh Shapiro
A lectern outside of Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro’s office. Shapiro reviewed his first year as governor during a Monday interview with NBC News.Jared Soares for NBC News

“Governors know how to get s— done and deliver for people in really tangible, meaningful ways,” he said. “And what I hear from the good people of Pennsylvania is that they want folks to stop making noise, stop tweeting and seeking likes and love on the internet, and instead do the hard work that actually delivers concrete, tangible things for people.”

Shapiro’s first year

Shapiro’s first year in office hasn’t been easy. Working with one of the last remaining split legislatures in the country, including a state House that is under the narrowest of Democratic control, Shapiro was unable to get a number of initiatives off the ground, and he was locked in tense budget negotiations for months. The episode was capped by his line-item veto of a $100 million school voucher program he and state Senate Republicans supported after House Democrats said they wouldn’t.

What’s more, Shapiro’s administration is dealing with the fallout of sexual harassment allegations against a top legislative aide — which became public after the aide, Mike Vereb, then his legislative secretary, resigned in late September. A former Vereb aide filed the complaint — which alleged both harassment and retaliation — months before he resigned. Last month, Shapiro’s office settled the claim for $295,000.

Speaking Monday at a Hilton ballroom in Harrisburg, Shapiro put focus on what his administration sees as its greatest successes from year one. Front and center among them was the rapid repairing of a collapsed section of Interstate 95 in Philadelphia this year. With a sign reading “Getting Stuff Done” at his side, he also drew attention to efforts to expand a property tax rebate for seniors, provide universal free breakfast in public schools, initiate automatic voter registration and remove the college degree requirement for state employees — a change he said led to a flood of applications and 60% of the state’s new hires having no college degrees. (He said he hopes the change triggers private-sector businesses to do away with those degree requirements, too.)

Image: Governor of Pennsylvania, Josh Shapiro
Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro speaks Monday at a gathering of the Pennsylvania Press Club at the Hilton hotel in downtown Harrisburg.Jared Soares for NBC News

He said he still wants to see a school voucher program — which cuts against much of his party — sent to his desk, as well as a minimum wage increase, a gun violence initiative and statute-of-limitations reform. He expressed interest in providing gas tax relief, as well as legalizing recreational marijuana — like neighboring Ohio, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware and New York.

“I think it is an issue that makes sense if we want to remain competitive,” he said. “Our neighboring states are doing it; we’re losing out on that revenue. And we’re not getting the good people of Pennsylvania the opportunity to make that purchase if they want in a legal manner.”

During a question-and-answer session following his speech Monday, Shapiro was pressed about what he knew about the sexual harassment claims and when he knew it. He declined to discuss any specifics about the case but touted the process by which such claims are adjudicated in the state’s executive branch, and he called on lawmakers to adopt similar standards for the Legislature.

He said in the interview: “What’s clear is that in our administration, we have a thorough, robust, independent process if anyone ever raises any issues. And we’ve never deviated from that.”

Image: Governor of Pennsylvania, Josh Shapiro
At the Pennsylvania Capitol, Gov. Josh Shapiro discussed with NBC News the 2024 election, the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas and his plans for the next year.Jared Soares for NBC News

Foreign conflicts hit home

Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and the subsequent outbreak of war in the region have hit close to home for Shapiro, a self-described “proud American Jew” who said he and his wife have had to have a number of difficult discussions with their four children about both the war itself and an outbreak of antisemitism around the world. He has also sought to combat both antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents that have drawn attention across the commonwealth in recent weeks.

The war has split open a divide on the left between some progressives and activists and the majority of elected Democrats, including Biden, who have vociferously defended Israel’s right to retaliate after the October attack, in which 1,200 people were killed and more than 200 were taken hostage. In Gaza, health officials say, the death toll has eclipsed 13,000. Surveys find larger numbers of young voters rejecting Biden’s handling of the war while older generations are more likely to be supportive. (Israel and Hamas reached a deal Tuesday, which Biden helped broker, that included a temporary pause in fighting and the release of some hostages.)

The divide has hit home in Pennsylvania, too, where Democratic U.S. Sen. John Fetterman faces a backlash from pro-Palestinian activists and some former staffers for tightly hugging Israel. On Tuesday, a dozen Democratic state lawmakers wrote a letter to the state’s congressional delegation asking it to support calls for a cease-fire in Gaza.

Image: Governor of Pennsylvania, Josh Shapiro
Speaking from the State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. on Monday, Shapiro cautioned that Trump’s polling rise was more a product of “brain fog” voters feel about his tenure than a newfound embrace of his “chaotic” governance.Jared Soares for NBC News

Speaking to the generational divide over Israel, Shapiro said this war is unique in just how much “disturbing” imagery is being presented seemingly nonstop not just on TV but also on social media, and he doesn’t blame young people for being upset by what they’re seeing come out of Gaza.

“I don’t blame them for wanting to engage and speak out,” he said. “I think that’s really healthy. I think it’s incumbent upon them to know some history and not just enter the conversation in recent weeks but go back and understand what happened in the past. You can enter this conversation in biblical times; you can enter it in 1947 and 1967. You can also enter it on Oct. 7, if you want.”

For Shapiro, the question of how the war should be handled is “pretty cut and dry.”

“In this nation, I don’t know of another time where folks have sided with the hostage-takers over the hostages, and we’ve got 10 American hostages there,” he said. “So I stand with Israel having the right to defend itself. I stand on the side of the United States government in making sure we do everything we can to get our hostages home and free the other hostages, as well, and the belief that you cannot allow a terrorist group to not only live side by side with Israel but also to upset any prospects for peace in that region.”

Shapiro did describe Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “a terrible leader” who “has driven Israel to an extreme that has been bad for Israel and bad for the stability in the Middle East.” Had Netanyahu not been in power, Shapiro said, more progress would have been made on reaching a two-state solution, as well as on the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and some Arab countries.

“The nuance when it comes to ‘how do we create a two-state solution?’ is a conversation that needs to be had right now, led by the United States,” he said. “But there should be no nuance when it comes to good vs. evil. And in this case, Hamas is pure evil, pure terrorists. And Israel, a pluralistic democracy, even with its faulty leaders, has every right to defend itself. And I stand with them in their efforts to get their hostages home and rid that region of Hamas.”

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