Biden tries to turn the tables on Trump’s use of a classic political attack line

President Joe Biden is opening a new line of attack against former President Donald Trump this week, flipping the script on the classic Reagan-era “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” question to remind voters of life during his predecessor’s tenure.

Ronald Reagan used the question to great effect in his race against then-President Jimmy Carter: In their lone debate of the 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan posed the searing question to voters in his closing statement, “It might be well if you ask yourself - Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Since then, it has often been used to attack incumbents running for reelection – but Biden appears ready to use the question to remind voters of how Trump’s term ended.

Biden campaign officials are making a concerted effort to refresh voters’ memories of Trump’s time in office, including his approach to the Covid-19 pandemic, as they prepare for a re-match against him in November. Trump’s campaign has sought to use the question to draw its own contrasts with Biden recently on the economy and immigration.

Biden previewed the new messaging push at a Dallas fundraiser Wednesday evening, saying “Speaking of Donald Trump, just a few days ago he asked a famous question in one of his rallies. Are you better off today than you were four years ago?’”

“Well, Don, I’m glad you asked that question, man,” Biden said.

He then ticked through the state of the US in March of 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic sent the country into isolation, crippled the health care system and economy, and eventually resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans while “Trump tried to downplay the virus,” Biden said.

“Covid had come to America. Trump was president,” he said. “Hospitals, emergency rooms were overcrowded. First responders were risking their lives. Nurses were wearing garbage bags because they couldn’t have the protection in the hospitals they needed. And there was a ventilator shortage.”

“Morgues were being setup outside, not just in the hospitals, and the loved ones were dying all alone. You couldn’t even say goodbye to them,” Biden continued. “Unemployment shot up to 14% and the stock market crashed. Grocery store shelves were empty.”

Biden also took aim at Trump for his treatment of racial justice protestors in the wake of George Floyd’s death along with his role in the January 6, 2021, insurrection before turning the page to how the country has recovered from the pandemic during his own presidency.

“So let me ask you. Does anyone here want to go back to 2020?” he said. “When fear ruled our lives when Trump was president? I don’t think so.”

Biden’s campaign followed those fundraiser remarks with a new digital ad around the issue on Thursday. The 40-second digital spot features a social media post of Trump posing the same question while showing images of empty shelves in grocery stores, and Trump, speaking from the White House podium, touting his administration’s response against images of people in hospitals.

The ad concludes with a boldfaced, “Yes.”

It’s the latest effort by the Biden campaign to remind voters of Trump’s time in office as they anticipate a close race against the former president in November. Recent polling has reflected a tight contest between the two men on the national level and in key battleground states.

On Thursday at a fundraiser in Houston, Biden joked about Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, building on his remarks Wednesday that Americans are better off on his watch than they were four years ago.

Biden reminded a crowd of donors that Trump suggested Americans “inject bleach” as a cure.

“I think he must have done it,” he said, according to pool reports from the off-camera fundraiser, prompting laughter. “He told us, ‘Hit the body with the UV light,’ which I’m confident he does.”

Trump made those comments early in the pandemic in April 2020 during a televised press briefing at the White House, questioning whether disinfectants could be used to treat the virus and musing whether there’s “a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning.”

At the same briefing, Trump said, “There’s been a rumor that – you know, a very nice rumor – that you go outside in the sun or you have heat and it does have an effect on other viruses,” before asking coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx “to speak to the medical doctors to see if there’s any way that you can apply light and heat to cure, you know, if you could.”

Earlier this year, Biden campaign officials said they believed many undecided voters still did not think a Biden-Trump face-off would occur in November. But they think many voters are now beginning to pay more attention to the race as Trump has formally secured his party’s nomination.

One of the challenges for the Biden campaign going forward is reminding voters who felt anxious about Trump’s presidency of that period in time. Biden seemed to acknowledge that challenge as he met with campaign workers and volunteers in Reno, Nevada, this week and lamented the “nostalgia” some voters have for the Trump presidency.

“In the coming months, Kamala and I will be making the case how Americans are better off than four years ago,” Biden said at the annual Gridiron Club Dinner in Washington, DC, on Saturday. “How we got so much though the pandemic, turned around the economy, reestablished America’s leadership in the world all without encouraging the American people to inject bleach.”

“All without destroying the economy, embarrassing us around the world or itching for insurrection,” he added. “Look, I wish these were jokes but they’re not.”

Reagan pioneers a classic campaign question

The 40th president used the line as a zinger in the closing statement of a 1980 presidential debate as he faced off against an unpopular incumbent in Carter.

“Is it easier for you to go buy things in the store than it was four years ago. Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago” he continued. “Is America as respected throughout the world as it was? Do you feel that our security is as safe? That we’re as strong as we were four years ago?”

“If you don’t agree, if you don’t think that this course that we’ve been on for the last four years is what you would like to see us follow for the next four, then I could suggest another choice that you have,” he said.

One week later, Reagan defeated Carter in a landslide, winning 489 electoral votes.

While Biden is trying to turn the tables on Trump’s use of the phrase, he – like Carter in 1980 – is still dealing with his own popularity issues, including pessimistic views on his handling of the economy. A CNN poll conducted by SSRS in January found only 35% of Americans said things in the country today are going well, though it marked an improvement from the 28% who felt positively about the state of affairs last fall.

The Trump campaign has leaned into the phrase as well with the former president posting on Truth Social this week, “ARE YOU BETTER OFF THAN YOU WERE FOUR YEARS AGO?”

But some Republicans appear to see the limits to using that phrase, especially as the calendar turns toward spring when it harkens back to the tumult of the early 2020 Covid-era. When Alabama Sen. Katie Britt delivered the Republican response to the State of the Union, she instead told voters to think back to the start of Biden’s presidency, not Trump’s term: “Just ask yourself, are you better off now than you were three years ago?”

Meanwhile, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who lost to Trump in 2016, leaned into the Reagan-era question to troll her former opponent on social media.

“Multiple indictments and half a billion dollars in civil liability later, pretty much the only person who can say they were better off four years ago is Donald Trump,” she wrote on X.

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