Biden seeks to avoid referendum with sharp attacks on GOP

Alex Brandon

President Biden is debuting sharper attacks against Republicans, seeking to make the upcoming midterm elections into more of a choice between his party and the GOP.

The strategy has proven difficult for past presidents to successfully execute but is one that Biden’s allies say is vital in order for Democrats to hang on to their narrow majorities in Congress. 

“When you have the bully pulpit, you don’t cede it to your opponents,” said former Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who served as the chairman of the Democratic National Campaign Committee.

“The president is doing exactly what he must to show the contrast between those who are trying to manage the pandemic and the economic recovery responsibly and those who are blocking progress,” Israel added. “Especially facing a midterm, which is always a referendum on the sitting president’s party, pointing out that contrast is vital.”

Biden delivered a forceful speech from Atlanta on Tuesday, assailing former President Trump and Republican state legislatures for enacting restrictive voting laws across the country.

“The goal of the former president and his allies is to disenfranchise anyone who votes against them,” Biden said.

In his speech last week marking the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, Biden portrayed Trump as a threat to democracy and skewered him for spreading lies about the 2020 election. 

A day later, Biden accused the GOP of rooting against a robust economic recovery in an address about the jobs numbers, reminding the public that Republican lawmakers uniformly voted against his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief law that has supported school reopenings and vaccine distribution since last March.  

Allies say this is exactly the tone that should be taken, particularly as election season inches closer. Biden, who ran on unifying the country in 2020 and typically avoids mentioning his predecessor, has to call out Trump and Republicans as they continue to throw cold water on the 2020 election results, they say. 

“We live in abnormal political times. When you have a party that is still questioning the legitimacy of a free and fair election, and a former president that won’t accept the results, there’s no choice but for the president to call it out,” said Ben LaBolt, a Democratic strategist who served as a spokesman in the Obama White House and on the former president’s campaigns. “All politics is relative and all elections are choices. I’d expect to hear more about that contrast as November approaches.”

Biden is facing difficult political tides. His poll numbers remain deflated despite the passage of a $1.2 trillion infrastructure law last fall. The American public is anxious and frustrated by the persisting COVID-19 pandemic and inflation. Democratic infighting about Biden’s signature Build Back Better package has dominated headlines for months. And the president’s legislative agenda remains stalled amid disagreements within his party. 

Alex Conant, a Republican strategist, said that Biden’s recent rhetoric is all about playing to his base. 

“Part of why Biden’s numbers are so soft is that he is underperforming with his own base. He was never very popular with progressives to begin with, and a year into his presidency he needs to do better with them,” said Conant. 

There is anxiety among Democrats going into the midterm elections given the political divisions in the country. But they say driving the narrative of a choice election is a powerful one. 

“I feel good about our chances of keeping the Senate. The ballgame is on the House side,” said Democratic strategist Rodell Mollineau.

“It’s smart for the administration to look at the Marjorie Taylor Greenes and the Matt Gaetzs and show to the American people, these are the people who would be in charge. It could be a compelling message,” Mollineau said, referring to the Georgia and Florida House Republicans.

“He’s a credible messenger on that because he didn’t come in as a fiery partisan,” Mollineau said. “He worked really hard to bring the parties together. Overall, he’s dealing with a bunch of crazies in the House whose opinions on Fox don’t even reflect reality.” 

Still, history shows that the president’s party faces an uphill battle in any midterm election, and Democrats will lose their majority if they lose a handful of seats. 

The party also sought to make Trump an issue in last year’s gubernatorial contest in Virginia, to no avail against Republican Glenn Youngkin.

“I think that it’s just harder to make Trump an issue when he is not actually president. Biden is president now and particularly in off-year, midterm elections, those elections are often a referendum on the sitting president,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

But Democrats believe that Biden can be successful in drawing a contrast with Republicans, particularly if he finds the right issue to focus on.

“You don’t need to be a communications expert to know that identifying a serious threat is fundamental to framing a decision as a choice,” Chris Lehane, a longtime political consultant, said. “However, knowing that as the incumbent White House party one will have a heavier burden of proof to shift this from a referendum to a choice makes identifying the specific threat especially critical.”

Lehane said it’s still an open question whether the White House will focus on painting Republicans as a threat to democracy or instead as a threat to more traditional values like health care and climate. 

It took months for Biden to ramp up the criticism of Republicans, some of whom he worked with to pass the infrastructure law. But in the throes of an election year, Democrats say it is a necessary path. 

“I don’t think he waited too long,” Mollineau said.  “I think the evolution needed to happen the way it happened. His attempts to work with Republicans needed to run its course.”

One thing is certain, Mollineau said. The new forceful tack is “definitely making people pay attention.” 

“Anytime the president changes the tone in a forceful way it’s going to make people notice,” he said.

Tags Build Back Better Donald Trump Filibuster Glenn Youngkin Joe Biden Steve Israel voting rights

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