May 15, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Biden privately orders staff into campaign mode

Illustration of a power button with a campaign button moving back and forth from on to off.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

President Biden is telling White House aides to shift into campaign mode, people familiar with the conversations tell Axios — reminding them even small mistakes can be costly and demanding they take opportunities to highlight differences with Republicans.

Why it matters: His private exhortations over the past month are another indication he wants to make November's congressional and gubernatorial contests into choices between two competing acknowledgmentvisions, rather than a referendum on his two years in office.

  • They're also an acknowledgment of these midterms' high stakes.
  • A new Republican majority would stymie his presidency and instantly put the White House on the defensive with investigations.
  • Biden has already started to lawyer up, the New York Times reported last week.

What we're hearing: Starting in April, in several West Wing conversations with his team members, Biden began to impress upon them the need to avoid bureaucratic language and cut to the core of his party’s election message, sources said.

  • At the same time, officials want to highlight some of the administration’s signature programs, like the bipartisan infrastructure bill and $1.9 trillion in coronavirus relief spending.

What we're watching: Biden has been lashing out at Republicans for promoting "ultra-MAGA" policies.

He's also been zeroing in on Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, for his plans to raise taxes on some Americans who aren't currently paying any.

  • The leaked Supreme Court draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade has added internal urgency to the White House’s push and given the administration a clear issue to draw a contrast with Republicans.
  • With Anita Dunn's return to the West Wing as senior adviser, Biden has an in-house veteran to coordinate the messaging with outside groups and across the administration.

What they're saying: “President Biden has always said don’t compare me to the almighty, compare me to the alternative," said Michael Gwin, a White House spokesman.

  • "The president isn’t going to shy away from underscoring the contrast between congressional Republicans and the work he and his administration are doing to lower prices and make our communities safer and stronger.”

Between the lines: Biden's approach risks undercutting one of his key 2020 selling points to the American public — that a centrist Democrat could transcend the partisan bickering in Washington and find common ground with Republicans.

  • The president has been casting about for a Trump substitute all year and been reluctant to directly criticize Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a former colleague.
  • But over the last few months, Biden has grown more comfortable with the idea of running against Republicans — rather than trying to appeal to them.

Flashback: In Seattle in April, on a trip mixing policy and politics, Biden attacked the GOP. "This ain't your father's Republican Party,” he said, standing behind a lectern emblazoned with the presidential seal.

  • In early May, he trotted out the “ultra-MAGA,” line, tapping into sentiment wary of Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan.
  • Biden took it up a level in Chicago last week: “Look at my predecessor, the great MAGA king — the deficit increased every single year he was president."
  • In response, as the Washington Post notes, some Republicans are embracing the “ultra-MAGA” mantle.
  • On Friday, the White House encouraged congressional allies, in talking points obtained by Axios, to amplify Biden's message that Republicans didn’t support his police funding in the COVID-19 relief bill.

The bottom line: Biden confidants tell Axios he’s at his best delivering political zingers when he actually believes them.

  • His 2012 attacks against Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan were effective because they were authentic: Scranton Joe truly detested Ryan's budget proposals.
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