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    'A loser': With new bag of taunts, Biden tries to get under Trump's skin

    By Joey Garrison and Michael Collins, USA TODAY,


    WASHINGTON ― During a stop at Mary Mac's Tea Room in Atlanta last Saturday, President Joe Biden downplayed polls showing him losing his reelection and reminded a room of supporters the race isn't just about him, "it's about the alternative as well."

    Then he got to his favorite five-letter word that starts with "L" − this time adding a new twist − to hit former President Donald Trump .

    "My opponent is not a good loser. But he is a loser," Biden said, igniting laughter and applause from the friendly audience.

    In a race against the ultimate flamethrower and bully, Biden is increasingly turning to his own bag of insults, one-liners and zingers to troll Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee.

    The needling reflects a fight-back strategy aimed at getting under Trump's skin by reminding voters of some of the former president's personal and professional low points.
    President Joe Biden speaks to supporters and volunteers during a campaign event at Mary Mac's Tea Room in Atlanta, Georgia on May 18, 2024. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS, AFP via Getty Images

    "Loser" − a reference to the 2020 election that Trump lost to Biden but refused to accept − has become Biden's new favorite name for Trump.

    Biden has started regularly recounting how Trump as president famously suggested Americans inject disinfectant to treat COVID. "Just inject bleach," Biden said in Detroit on Sunday. "I think that’s what he did. That’s why he’s so screwy."

    Another time Biden joked that Trump "missed" with the bleach, and "it all went to his hair!"

    And at a May 11 campaign fundraiser in Seattle, Biden referred to "Sleepy Don," a jab at reports of the former president − who has long called Biden "sleepy Joe" − falling asleep during court appearances for his hush-money trial in New York.

    The taunts are meant to trigger Trump and show Biden standing up to the former president.

    Yet in a race in which Trump continues to consume most of the oxygen − particularly as the media remains glued to the drama of his trial − it's unclear whether the president's attacks are packing much of a punch. It's also debatable whether Biden, who has built his political brand on notions of empathy and decency, is the right messenger for the punchlines.

    "The problem is, in some ways, Joe Biden's just too nice a guy to be the one doing that," said Drew Westen, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University who consults for Democrats on messaging. "People get maybe a momentary chuckle from it, but it doesn't hit the same way as when Trump uses those kind of low blows."
    President Joe Biden wears sunglasses given to him by supporters after speaking on the PACT Act, which expands coverage for veterans exposed to toxic substances, at the Westwood Park YMCA in Nashua, New Hampshire, on May 21, 2024. MANDEL NGAN, AFP via Getty Images

    Biden pokes at Trump's Bibles, debts and Truth Social stock

    Biden will have a chance to use some of his material − if he so chooses − directly on Trump at the first of two debates with Trump hosted by CNN on June 27.

    At moments in recent speeches and other public remarks, Biden sounds like a late-night comedian.

    One of Biden's go-to jokes at the expense of the former president involves telling a story about running into a "defeated-looking man" who tells the president is "crushed by debt."

    "I had to say to him, 'I’m sorry, Donald, I can’t help you,'" Biden said at the same Seattle fundraiser, along with other recent remarks, in a poke at Trump's mounting legal obligations from civil court judgements and court fees.

    Biden has mocked the Trump's "God Bless the USA Bible" that the former president is selling for $59.99.

    "He described the Dobbs (Supreme Court) decision as a 'miracle," Biden said last month in Tampa, Florida. "Maybe it's coming from that Bible he's trying to sell. I almost wanted to buy one just to see what the hell is in it."

    And he's laughed about the financial struggles of Trump's social media site Truth Social .

    "If Trump's stock in the Truth Social, his company, drops any lower, he might do better under my tax plan than his," Biden said last month in a speech in Scranton, Pa.

    Westen, author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation," said Trump typically doesn't respond to attacks against him but to "shame and to shaming."

    "He does it to everybody else, but they don't do it back to him. It seems like the goal is to get under his skin, make him angrier, and to activate that shame dynamic," Westen said.

    Insults are a tradition in US politics

    Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung responded to Biden's quips in a statement to USA TODAY: “Crooked Joe and his failing campaign have no idea what’s about to come their way."

    Cheung added that "aside from trying to explain away losing his memory" and "shuffling his feet like a short-circuited Roomba," the Biden campaign will have to "take responsibility for their out-of-control border, runaway inflation, and surging crime rates that are hurting every American.”

    Insults and name-calling in American politics, of course, are nothing new. In the early days of the Republic, insulting one's political opponent was common practice.

    Former President John Adams detested former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, and more than once, referred to him in letters as a “bastard brat.”

    Throughout the 19 th century, presidents mostly left it to newspapers or underlings to insult political opponents, according to William Bike, a political historian and author of a how-to guide on political campaigning.

    A newspaper publisher called Lewis Cass, a Democratic presidential candidate in 1848, “pot-bellied, mutton-headed, cucumber-soled Cass.” A congressman in 1855 called President Franklin Pierce a “pimp.” Newspapers in 1868 called Republican presidential candidate Ulysses S. Grant “a drunkard,” “a man of vile habit” and a “bungler”— and Grant was a war hero. In 1884, a newspaper called Democratic presidential candidate Grover Cleveland “a moral leper.”

    When the U.S. became an international power at the end of the 19th century, however, politicians began to view themselves more as international statesmen and toned down the rhetoric through much of the 20th century, Bike said.

    They still hurled insults at each other, he said, but they were cleverer about it. “To err is Truman,” went one line of attack against President Harry Truman.
    President Joe Biden speaks to supporters and volunteers during a campaign event at Mary Mac's Tea Room in Atlanta, Georgia on May 18, 2024. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS, AFP via Getty Images

    Presidential campaign rhetoric took a mean tone again with the arrival of the Reagan era in 1980, Bike said. Although he is considered a more genteel politician, President George H.W. Bush, who served as Ronald Reagan’s vice president, turned the word “liberal” into an insult, pinning the label on his Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis in 1988.

    Any show of political restraint vanished 2016, when Trump mocked Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton as “Crooked Hillary,” “the Devil” and fired up his supporters with chants of “lock her up.” Clinton was slightly more restrained – but not much. She called Trump “unfit to serve” and his supporters a “basket of deplorables.”

    Bike said it is clear that Biden is trying to turn the tables on the hypersensitive Trump and goad him into striking back.

    “Trump has been on the insult track since during the 2020 campaign and all during the Biden presidency, calling him ‘Crooked Joe,’ ‘the worst debater,’ the ‘worst president in the history of the United States by far,’ etc.,” Bike said. “But Trump himself generally has been thin-skinned when it comes to insults, so Biden has lately been trying to get Trump’s goat by tossing his own insults at the former president.”

    So far, Biden's approach has done little to change the dynamics of the 2024 election, with most polls showing Biden trailing Trump in key battleground states and nationally .

    But Bike said Biden’s strategy is two-fold: Showing that Democrats are not afraid to go toe-to-toe with Republicans and hoping to provoke Trump into saying something so outlandish it will his damage campaign.

    “If insulting Trump achieves either of these results, it’s a good strategy for Democrats,” Bike said.
    Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump attends the annual Lincoln Reagan Dinner hosted by the Minnesota Republican party on May 17, 2024 in St. Paul, Minn. Scott Olson, Getty Images

    Reach Joey Garrison on X @joeygarrison and Michael Collins @mcollinsNEWS.

    This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'A loser': With new bag of taunts, Biden tries to get under Trump's skin

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