Feb 20, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Biden needs a Trump substitute

Illustration of an elephant on top of a hydraulic lift
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Searching for a strategy to avoid a 2022 midterm disaster, advisers to President Biden have discussed elevating a unifying Republican foil not named Donald Trump.

Why it matters: Biden confidants worry that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is too unknown, that Biden won't demonize Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell because of their longstanding and collegial relationship and that elevating Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis could backfire.

  • Biden isn't on the ballot in November. But if voters see the elections as a referendum on the last two years, it could hurt Democrats across the ticket and cost their party control of Congress.
  • Biden advisers and Hill allies told Axios voters are more likely to side with the president if he's compared to an alternative.

Between the lines: Team Biden's muscle memory is to elevate and focus on the best foil Democrats have ever been gifted — Trump.

  • But as Terry McAuliffe's loss in the Virginia governor's race showed last fall, running against an out-of-office Trump won't cut it with voters.
  • Biden advisers know they need to bring Republicans back into the fray and interrupt the ceaseless news cycles about Democratic infighting. They want to avoid inside baseball stories about the president as a legislative tactician dealing with recalcitrant moderate senators.

What we're hearing: DeSantis is an obvious target who has been discussed among Biden confidants as a potential foil for the president.

  • But some Biden advisers are reluctant to contest every midterm race on DeSantis' signature issue — COVID-19 — because the Biden administration's approaches on vaccine and mask mandates may be a political liability with some swing voters.
  • Biden will likely still invoke Trump when the setting makes sense — as he did on his Jan. 6 anniversary speech — but advisers do not expect him to run the Trump-obsessed McAuliffe playbook.

What they're saying: Since the Democrats' drubbing in Virginia last fall, vulnerable House Democrats have been warning against talking too much about the former president. Today, there's close to a consensus that Democrats can't hold Congress by focusing on Trump.

  • "It would be a mistake to run against Trump in the 2022 elections," close Biden ally, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), told Axios.
  • Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) told Axios: "I wish that we could just find one face that we could point to, such as with Donald Trump... maybe a composite." She said, "I'd like us to do a much more effective job of really drawing the contrast between Republicans and Democrats."
  • Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told Axios: "Mitch McConnell is well known... He is, for sure, no Donald Trump, I want to make that 100% clear... but he is a figure that does represent a sharp difference from the Biden agenda."
  • One Biden adviser told Axios that Democrats should contrast their own efforts to steer the country through COVID with Republican efforts to obstruct them because "elections are about choices."

In recent months, Team Biden has been discussing alternative strategies to sharpen the contrast with Republicans.

  • "One of the problems is our messaging has been driven by governing, not by campaigning, and we need to move into campaign mode," said Celinda Lake, who polled for Biden during the 2020 campaign and continues to work with the Democratic National Committee.
  • "If you're trying to negotiate on the Hill, it's hard to draw contrast," she said. "If you're trying to win the November 2022 elections, you must draw a contrast."

Lake, like others Axios interviewed, said Democrats won't get far by raising one individual foil — not even a figure as polarizing as Trump.

  • She advocates drawing a broader contrast with the "MAGA faction" — including Republicans "who supported the violent insurrection" and now want to pardon Jan. 6 rioters.
  • "That's a much better foil than just talking about picking one obscure congressional leader that nobody will know anyway, or a future presidential nominee that nobody will know anyway," Lake said. "Trump is not on the ballot," Lake added. "And these 'MAGA faction' candidates are."

The big picture: Incumbent presidents presiding over boom times look for ways to turn elections into referendums. But White Houses facing a restless electorate prefer to talk about elections as a choice, hoping to be compared to a real-life alternative and not an amorphous standard.

  • Biden's approval rating has been in decline since the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan — and now hovers in the low 40s.
  • Some White House officials are optimistic that Biden's numbers may creep slightly upwards if the omicron variant is, indeed, the last wave of COVID-19. But it's not clear such a boost would come soon enough or be powerful enough.
  • Biden is plainly aware of the bleak national mood and knows that voters could punish him for it. "I understand the overwhelming frustration, fear, and concern with regard to inflation and COVID,” he said in a press conference last month. "I get it."

The bottom line: Biden may not find a truly effective GOP foil until after the midterm elections.

  • A GOP-controlled House would allow Biden to pick daily fights and present his policies as an alternative.
  • The last two Democratic presidents won re-election after losing the House in the mid-term election.
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