WASHINGTON ― A full year out from the 2024 presidential election and nearly two months before Republicans cast their first primary ballots, President Joe Biden and his campaign are assuming that Donald Trump will be his opponent and have already started reminding voters why they threw him out of office in the first place.
Biden personally has stepped up criticism of his coup-attempting predecessor and is framing the likely rematch as one that will determine the survival of American democracy.
“The same man who said we should terminate the rules and regulations and articles of the Constitution — these are things he said — is now running on a plan to end democracy as we know it,” he said last week at a fundraiser in Chicago.
“This next election is different. It’s more important. There’s more at stake. And we all know why: Because our very democracy is at stake,” he told a San Francisco audience on Wednesday.
His campaign, meanwhile, has shifted from a summer-long effort to highlight the improving economy to one designed to persuade Americans that, though they might not love Biden, they should be terrified of Trump.
Biden’s team wants to put both Trump’s legacy as well as his new promises front and center, from rounding up millions of undocumented immigrants into camps to climate change denial to the demise of Roe v. Wade to his open plans to impose a more autocratic rule.
“It’s going to be a long campaign, and we may as well start getting into it now,” one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “At the end of the day, it’s a choice. Driving the contrast is incredibly important.”
The campaign is already running digital ads attacking Trump in key states. It declined to reveal what issues it plans to focus on in the final months before the general election.
The choice to move to a more aggressive posture against Trump comes amid a slew of recent polls that show Biden trailing Trump both nationally and in key swing states. Prominent Democratic consultants, as well as anti-Trump Republicans, have been urging a more energetic campaign for months.
“Trump is the almost certain Republican nominee, and they would be wise to begin framing the choice now,” said David Axelrod, whose work helped put Barack Obama in the White House in 2008.
Added Steve Schale, a Florida Democratic consultant who works with a pro-Biden super PAC: “Unless something completely nuts happens, this is a Biden-Trump race, and what you are seeing is recognition of this fact.”
The Biden team’s effort acknowledges a perverse reality that both Democratic and Republican consultants agree has benefited Trump over the past three years: His banishment from Twitter following the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol has wound up helping him.
Prior to that day, every incendiary and outlandish thing Trump would post to his Twitter account would generate extensive news coverage, much of it hurting his standing with mainstream voters. Combined with the natural decrease in coverage of his spoken remarks that accompanied his departure from the White House, the result has been that while Trump has continued writing and saying equally inflammatory things, they have been getting far less news coverage.
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a Nov. 8 campaign rally in Hialeah, Florida, while other Republican presidential candidates were holding a debate in Miami.
The Biden campaign’s new approach aims to make sure that Trump’s racist or autocratic or otherwise off-putting comments and proposals get widespread attention quickly.
One example is Trump’s echo of language used by Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany. On Sept. 27, a pro-Trump website posted an interview in which he stated that illegal immigration was “poisoning the blood of our country” ― phrasing Hitler used. It did not get much attention in the mainstream media until a week later, and the Biden campaign did little to highlight it.
Contrast that to this past week, when after Trump in a Veterans Day campaign speech described people who oppose him as “vermin” ― again a term Hitler used to vilify and scapegoat Jews and other minority groups ― the reaction was swift and coordinated. On Monday, the first workday after the long weekend, both the White House and Biden’s campaign released statements excoriating Trump.
By midweek, Trump’s use of both “vermin” and “poisoning the blood” had made it into Biden’s stump speech, in which Trump plays a featured role.
“Trump has said if he returns to office, he’s going to go after all those who oppose him and wipe out what he called the ‘vermin’ — quote, the ‘vermin’ in America. A specific phrase with a specific meaning. It echoes language you heard in Nazi Germany in the ’30s. And it isn’t even the first time,” Biden told guests at a San Francisco fundraiser on Wednesday. “Trump also recently talked about, quote, ‘the blood of America is being poisoned’ — ‘the blood of America is being poisoned.’ Again, echoes the same phrases used in Nazi Germany.”
Schale pointed out that warning about Trump and offering a steady, even boring, alternative has already worked for Biden, when he beat him in 2020.
“The threat of a second Trump term is what drove Joe Biden to get back into politics, so seeing him lean into Trump shouldn’t surprise anyone,” Schale said.
That year, in the context of a full term of Trump chaos capped off by the COVID pandemic, when Trump regularly offered his off-the-cuff thoughts ― during one April news conference, he famously proposed injecting disinfectant as a possible treatment to kill the virus ― Biden offered a return to normalcy and decency.
That simple message worked, even in a Democratic primary in which voters wound up choosing not the candidate they necessarily liked best, but the one they believed swing voters in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan would like best. Those were the three historically Democratic states that Trump had won in 2016 to become president. Four years later, all three swung back to Democrats, with Biden winning Georgia and Arizona as well.
Four years later still, that same approach appears to be Biden’s strongest argument with Americans still complaining about high inflation followed by high interest rates: that he represents traditional American norms and values while Trump ― in the aftermath of his failed coup and its resulting criminal prosecutions ― is a would-be autocrat driven by anger and revenge.
“Campaigns are always about choices. Biden is the anti-Trump. That’s the choice,” said Stuart Stevens, a prominent Republican consultant who left the party when it embraced Trump. “I believe it’s never too early to start setting the dynamic that will win a race.”
The same recent polling that shows Biden’s overall weakness also shows that he performs best against Trump among the Republicans running and worst against former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Despite this, Republican voters appear to be favoring Trump for the nomination again, although less strongly in those states that vote first in the primary calendar.
It’s unclear what effect, if any, Biden’s engagement with Trump might have on the coming Republican contests.
Haley, for example, frequently argues that Trump cannot win the general election. In the first GOP presidential debate, she called Trump “the most disliked politician in all of America.”
Consultants for both parties said they doubted that GOP primary voters would take their cues from Biden or his campaign. “If you think that Biden attacking Trump is going to move GOP voters from Trump to [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis or Haley, you’re delusional,” said one Republican pollster on condition of anonymity.
In any case, Stevens said, Biden is doing the smart thing by engaging now. “I always ask myself when it’s election night and we are waiting for the returns, what do I wish we had done more of?” he said. “I don’t think there is a danger for the Biden campaign focusing on Trump too much.”