The Memo: No more 'the former guy' as Biden tackles Trump head-on

For two years in a row, the date of Jan. 6 has marked an inflection point in American politics.

To be sure, nothing happened on Thursday that was so historically significant as the 2021 assault on the Capitol that injured about 140 police officers and caused democracy to teeter.

But President BidenJoe BidenFox News reporter says Biden called him after 'son of a b----' remark Peloton responds after another TV character has a heart attack on one of its bikes Defense & National Security — Pentagon puts 8,500 troops on high alert MORE’s speech to mark the anniversary, delivered with force amid the solemn grandeur of Statuary Hall, was vital in its own way. It marked an abrupt shift, with the 46th president taking the fight head-on to his predecessor, former President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver dead at 77 Biden, Democrats losing ground with independent and suburban voters: poll Bipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law MORE.

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For most of the first year of his presidency, Biden and his key aides have tended to keep direct engagement with Trump to a minimum, preferring to dismiss him with nonchalance and a metaphorical wave of the hand.

Biden was already complaining “I’m tired of talking about Donald Trump” 11 months ago at a CNN town hall in Milwaukee. At the same event, he coined a new label for the 45th president: “the former guy.”

Back then, White House communications director Kate BedingfieldKate BedingfieldWhite House spokesperson: Biden laid a foundation for progress but has more to do Overnight Energy & Environment — Biden seeks to reverse Trump on Arctic drilling Biden environmental aide leaving White House MORE told The Washington Post, “Joe Biden is president. ... The focus is entirely on President Biden’s agenda, and Donald Trump doesn’t factor into that for us.”

Trump factored in plenty on Thursday. 

“The former president of the United States of America has created and spread a web of lies about the 2020 election,” Biden said. “He’s done so because he values power over principle, because he sees his own interests as more important than his country’s interests and America's interests, and because his bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our Constitution.”

The reference to a “bruised ego” seemed calculated to get under Trump’s skin. So did the instances in Biden’s speech where he basically called his predecessor a loser — the label that Trump appears to detest more than any other.

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“He’s not just a former president. He’s a defeated former president,” Biden said. He added moments later, “You can’t love your country only when you win.”

True to form, Trump shot back less than 15 minutes after Biden had finished speaking. Trump accused his successor of engaging in “political theater” and complained that Democrats were using the day to “stoke fears and divide America.”

Trump’s statement did not itself make conspicuous efforts toward national healing, given that it repeated his fiction that the 2020 election was “rigged.”

Biden’s decision to turn his rhetorical fire on Trump came as a welcome relief for Democrats.

Their reaction wasn’t purely a matter of political strategy. Many members of Biden’s party are sincerely horrified by what happened a year ago and by Trump’s central role in inciting it. Members of Congress feared for their lives that day.

Many people in the Democratic ranks writ large also believe that the kind of fiery denunciation Biden delivered on Thursday was overdue. 

After all, they note, the toxins that fueled the attack on the Capitol are still surging through the body politic one year later. A Republican Party that seemed briefly inclined to breaking with Trump in the aftermath of the insurrection is now almost universally acquiescent toward him.

David AxelrodDavid AxelrodThe Memo: No more 'the former guy' as Biden tackles Trump head-on Biden's to-do list for 2022 looks a lot like 2021's Voters need to feel the benefit, not just hear the message MORE, the former senior aide to President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaA needed warning for Yemen's rebels — and for our allies and enemies alike What Joe Biden can learn from Harry Truman's failed steel seizure Biden: A good coach knows when to change up the team MORE, tweeted that Biden’s approach was “right,” in part because “the Big Lie that provoked the mob has taken root with a large majority of [Republicans]. Trump continues to peddle it. Unaddressed, it will spawn more assaults on our democracy.”

For all that, Biden’s speech cannot be divorced from its specific political and electoral context. 

A midterm election year has just dawned, the chances have dimmed of Democrats notching up further legislative landmarks and the president’s approval ratings have slid into solidly negative territory.

Biden, and his staff, have begun to switch gears, with the conciliatory approach they believed was optimal for achieving legislative progress giving way to a more campaign-oriented stance.

Key aides like Biden’s chief of staff Ron KlainRon KlainBiden: A good coach knows when to change up the team Biden seeks to save what he can from Build Back Better The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden clarifies his remarks on Russia MORE and White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiSchumer requests Senate briefing on Ukraine amid Russia tensions Biden rushes to pressure Russia as Ukraine fears intensify Pelosi requests all-member briefing on Ukraine MORE have stressed the economic growth that has been achieved in Biden’s first year, including the creation of 6 million jobs.

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The White House remains hopeful that COVID-19 will fade, even if it does not disappear, and that Biden will be given credit for taming it.

When it comes to attacking the GOP, Biden is in a sense moving back to the future — stressing the dangers that he sees Trump and Trumpism posing and urging voters to back Democrats to rebuff those perils.

“As we stand here today — one year since Jan. 6, 2021 — the lies that drove the anger and madness we saw in this place, they have not abated,” Biden said. “So, we have to be firm, resolute and unyielding in our defense of the right to vote and to have that vote counted.” 

The next immediate item on the agenda is voting rights. Biden and Vice President Harris will advocate for that cause next week in Georgia, even though the Democratic-led push for federal legislation faces stiff odds.

But their larger effort is to portray the GOP as the party of Trump — and as an active danger to democracy.

Biden on Thursday began sketching that picture more sharply than ever before as president.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.