Mar 14, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Biden eyes chance to bully Trump on TikTok and China

Illustration of a donkey and an elephant speaking into a shared speech bubble filled with the Chinese flag

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

With an anti-TikTok bill flying through the House, Senate Democrats are debating whether to give President Biden what he's wanted for three years: An opportunity to bully former President Trump on China.

Why it matters: Biden has used his presidency to stake out hawkish positions toward Beijing. But he's never had the chance to clearly distinguish his approach from Trump's.

The big picture: Trump rode a wave of anti-China sentiment to the White House and then promptly launched his trade war against Beijing. He later tried to ban TikTok and WeChat.

  • But Trump appears to have changed his mind. He's now opposed to the House-approved bill that would force ByteDance, TikTok's Chinese owner, to sell the popular platform or be banned in the U.S.
  • Trump told CNBC he thinks a TikTok ban would help his "enemy" Facebook, and its owner, Mark Zuckerberg.
  • That flip-flop gives Biden a chance to show he's more willing to stand up to China than Trump. The White House also has made national security arguments for forcing a sale.

Zoom in: There are clear political pros and cons for Democrats to try to delete TikTok.

  • The party learned from Trump that there's little downside to hitting Beijing. Trump started a trade war. Biden has extended it.
  • But some Democrats fear a backlash among young voters if they mess with TikTok, which has more than 150 million users in the U.S.
  • The decision is now in the hands of a 73-year-old senator — Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) — who uses a flip phone. Biden says he'd sign the bill.

Driving the news: By a 352-65 vote, the House moved to force Beijing-based ByteDance to make the difficult choice between divesting from TikTok or removing it from U.S. phones.

  • The first option is unappealing to ByteDance.
  • The second option is terrifying to young people who live their lives through TikTok.

Between the lines: Schumer is signaling that he doesn't want to step in front of the anti-TikTok train and will defer to his committee chairs.

  • At least one of them, Intelligence Committee Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.), was quick to come out in favor of the House bill and issued a joint statement with the panel's ranking member, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
  • Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the Commerce Committee, was noncommittal, saying she would talk "to my Senate and House colleagues to try to find a path forward."

State of play: In challenging China, administration officials argue that Biden has been more strategic and surgical than Trump — and in some cases more aggressive.

  • Biden called President Xi Jinping a "dictator" last June. A few months earlier, Trump called him "brilliant."
  • Biden has kept Trump's controversial tariffs on some $300 billion in Chinese imports in place, with plans to announce some increases in the coming weeks.
  • His Commerce Department has imposed several rounds of export controls on high-powered semiconductors to thwart China's military on AI and quantum computing.

The bottom line: For a campaign that needs to make inroads with working-class voters in the Midwest, moving to the right of Trump on China has obvious appeal.

  • But it's also crucial for Biden to reach — and motivate — young voters.
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