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 Biden’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 Trump.

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 Bedingfield 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.

“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 Axelrod, the former senior aide to President Obama, 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 Klain and White House press secretary Jen Psaki have stressed the economic growth that has been achieved in Biden’s first year, including the creation of 6 million jobs.

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.

Tags Barack Obama Capitol riot David Axelrod Donald Trump jan. 6 Jan. 6 anniversary Jan. 6 panel Jen Psaki Joe Biden Kate Bedingfield Ron Klain

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