Jan 30, 2024 - Politics & Policy

After three years, Biden goes all-in on the T-word

Joe Biden, wearing a blue jacket and a blue and white stripped shirt, smiles as he leaves the White House.

Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

President Biden deliberately avoided the word for nearly three years, using euphemisms like "the other guy" and "my predecessor." Now his speeches are peppered with it: "Trump."

Why it matters: Biden's subtle shift in rhetoric is a clear sign his team is in general election mode — and wants to frame the race for the White House as a choice between Biden and Donald Trump, more than as a referendum on Biden's presidency.

Driving the news: Biden began making a point of mentioning the former president by name in late November, and the mentions have become more frequent since then, according to a review of his speech transcripts.

  • In a speech Saturday in Columbia, S.C., Biden went all out, saying "Trump" 22 times — calling him a "loser" twice and "Donald 'Herbert Hoover' Trump."

Zoom in: Biden's shift has come as polls have shown him trailing Trump — and as Democratic strategists have urged Biden to attack his predecessor more forcefully.

  • Biden had decided early in 2021 that he didn't want to say Trump's name publicly because of his personal disdain for the 45th president — and as a strategy to try to lower the nation's temperature after Trump's divisive presidency, former aides say.
  • "The president has a visceral dislike and distrust of what Trump represents," former White House communications director Kate Bedingfield, now a CNN contributor, told Axios.
  • "So not constantly invoking him and putting him front and center was a way of having him hopefully move out of the center stage of our politics," Bedingfield said. "Having Trump front and center doesn't really yield bipartisan success, which the president achieved in 2021, 2022."
  • She added that Biden's rhetorical shift toward mentioning Trump "makes sense in the ebb and flow of the term, because now we are on the doorstep of the general election."

Former Biden press secretary Jen Psaki told Axios that it was a "conscious decision for the start of the presidency, but a re-election campaign against the same guy is obviously a different moment. You adjust and adapt and change in every White House, based on what the moment calls for."

  • The only other time when Biden mentioned Trump by name with some frequency was in the final weeks before the 2022 midterms.

Zoom out: Biden isn't alone — the Democratic National Committee, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democrats also largely avoided using Trump's name before recently changing gears.

  • ​​As the Los Angeles Times wrote last March: "Pelosi takes pains never to mention former President Trump by name. 'Don't write that down,' she says after letting the T-word slip out during lunch. 'Just say she burped.' "
  • Pelosi — who chairs the Biden campaign's national advisory board — now is also mentioning Trump by name more often, telling MSNBC last week, "I'm not going to spend too much time on Donald Trump's cognitive disorders."

What they're saying: "Every time crooked Joe Biden utters Donald Trump's name, Americans will be reminded of how much better their lives were under his leadership that led to low gas prices, record-low mortgage rates, a secure border and peace around the world," Karoline Leavitt, the Trump campaign's national press secretary, told Axios.

  • The Biden campaign pointed to its recent comments hitting Trump.
  • "MAGA Republicans have coalesced behind Donald Trump — an extreme, dangerous, and … losing candidate who has cost their party election after election," campaign co-chair and former Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) said last week.
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