Updated May 5, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Biden banks on book ban opposition to energize voters

Copies of banned books from various states and school systems from around the U.S. seen during a press conference by House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries on March 24. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

President Biden is attempting to capitalize on the unpopularity of GOP-led book bans, pushing them alongside abortion rights and Social Security as key issues for his fledgling re-election campaign.

Why it matters: Biden's camp sees the restrictions as a window to counter what he's framed as MAGA extremism, per Democratic strategists.

  • The president, who has repeatedly appealed to the "soul of the nation" in major addresses, has emphasized what he describes as the threat to America posed by former President Trump, who announced his run for president in November.
  • The bans have targeted content that includes characters who are people of color or have LGBTQ identities, Nadine Farid Johnson, the managing director of PEN America's Washington office, told Axios.

State of play: For Biden, book bans help highlight just "how deeply out of touch the MAGA movement is with the rest of the country," Navin Nayak, president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, told Axios.

  • Republicans' focus on book bans — in states like Florida and Texas — underscores for voters the party only believes "in freedom if you're going to act in a way that they approve of," Nayak said.
  • Nayak pointed to other issues including abortion and voting rights issues that he said highlight the average American voter's aversion to some Republican-driven initiations.

Of note: Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, told Axios that book bans face "overwhelming opposition" from Americans.

  • Books bans test "off the charts," Lake previously told Politico, which reported on the Biden reelection campaign targeting the issue. She predicted that "Democrats up and down the ticket" would run on the issue.

What they're saying: "President Biden is focused on protecting Americans' personal freedoms - the freedoms that are fundamental to who we are," Biden campaign spokesperson Kevin Munoz said in a statement to Axios.

  • "MAGA extremists are trying to take those freedoms away - they are trying to ban books, dictate what health care decisions women can make; make it more difficult to vote; and tell people who they can love," Munoz said.

Catch up quick: Biden mentioned book bans in some of his earliest campaign promotions following his re-election campaign announcement in late April, which also highlighted topics such as gun control, voting rights and health care.

  • One of his early campaign spots claims Americans' basic rights are "under attack by an extreme movement that seeks to overturn elections, ban books and eliminate a woman’s right to choose."

Biden administration officials have highlighted the rise of the bans, too.

  • Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, following the recent release of data that found eighth graders' U.S. history scores dropping, said in a statement: "Banning history books and censoring educators from teaching these important subjects does our students a disservice and will move America in the wrong direction."

Meanwhile, pro-literacy advocates have called out the rash of bans as "the broadest attack on First Amendment rights in schools" in modern history, Johnson told Axios.

  • While conservatives pushed book bans during the McCarthy era as well as the 1970s and '80s, the modern bans differ in scope and intensity, Johnson said.

By the numbers: Book bans jumped 28% in the first half of the 2022-23 school year compared to the prior six-month period, a PEN America report found.

The uptick conflicts with voter sentiment, with multiple polls finding Americans disagree with or outwardly oppose them.

  • A Fox News poll released in late April found that 60% of American voters— including 48% of Republicans — see book banning as a "major problem" in schools.
  • Opposition to book bans is true "remarkably across the board” in terms of demographics, Lake said.

The big picture: Experts told Axios book bans could help to mobilize key groups, including suburban and swing voters — with whom neither Biden nor the Democratic party enjoy overwhelming approval ratings, Nayak pointed out.

  • "I think it's an effective strategy for Biden and any Democrat because it really is the Achilles heel of this right-wing agenda, because people are so solidly against it," Lake said, predicting that other Democratic candidates would also run on the issue.

Background: Democrats fared better than expected in the 2022 midterms, and saw voters back protections for abortion rights, repudiating GOP efforts to restrict the procedure.

  • "Couple this issue with abortion and you have a very, very strong wedge that could cost the Republicans seats in Congress," Lake said.

Axios' Sophia Cai contributed to this report.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with comment from the Biden campaign.

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