Dems want Biden to start swinging at Republicans. Allies aren’t sure he can.
Joe Biden spent much of his first year in office proving he could still work across the aisle. Now, with the second year approaching, Democrats want him to turn up the heat on Republicans.
WIth the bipartisan infrastructure bill signed into law, Democratic lawmakers and party leaders say Biden needs to relentlessly hammer GOP lawmakers for opposing his economic priorities and hampering progress on the pandemic and inflation.
“The president is in an awkward position [because] to get things done outside of reconciliation will require Republicans,” said Robert Gibbs, who served as press secretary under former President Barack Obama. “But sooner or later, Joe Biden has to make this more than a referendum on himself and his presidency and instead make this a stark choice between two very different ideas and philosophies. Contrast with Republicans’ positions will be central to having a chance in the 2022 midterms.”
White House officials say they’re eager to make that contrast. In the coming weeks, Biden and administration officials will “make the case that Republicans are unanimously opposed” to the president’s social spending bill, said Kate Berner, deputy White House communications director. The administration also plans to label Republicans as being on the side of oil and gas companies that “are padding their profits” and a party “rooting” for price increases spurred by inflation “because [they] think it will help them politically,” Berner added.
“We're moving into a new phase,” said Berner, referring to the high stakes surrounding the passage of Biden’s social services bill in December. “We are going to make the stakes clear. And we’ll make it very clear who is on the side of cutting costs, combating price increases, and fighting inflation, and who is not.”
It has long been a point of tension within the president’s orbit as to how negative to go. A number of senior advisers in the West Wing, including chief of staff Ron Klain, have at times urged Biden to embrace more partisan political combat and call out Republicans when needed, according to three aides not authorized to publicly discuss private conversations.
But Biden has largely shied away from leveling broadsides at Republicans on Capitol Hill, though he’s been less sparing with his predecessor and GOP governors who’ve stood in the way of federal aid to combat the pandemic. Long-time Biden observers and confidants aren’t sure that the attack dog role suits him, or that he will commit to it.
“It’s not [Biden’s] style” to lambast Republicans, said John Podesta, Bill Clinton’s former White House chief of staff and founder of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress. “I think for the president it's not where he's comfortable.”
How Biden balances the pressure to go after Republicans harder and his inclination to play the role of unifier could very well determine his party’s fate in the midterm elections. A taste of his approach came a little more than a week ago when Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), head of the Senate GOP’s reelection arm, called inflation and the possibility of rising interest rates a “goldmine” for Republicans in their pursuit of Senate control.
The White House saw an opening to accuse Republicans of political callousness. But Berner cautioned that Biden was not going to take pot shots at the opposing party just for kicks. “Being president is different than being an MSNBC commentator,” Berner said.
“We believe, the president believes, that his presidency will be measured on what he gets done for families, not on what political line that hits Republicans garners the most retweets on Twitter,” Berner continued. “That doesn't mean that he's not going to be strong and aggressive and call out Republicans.”
Outside of the White House, Democrats argue that Biden’s willingness to make more aggressive attacks against Republicans will be key to their success in 2022. Not only do party members want Biden to highlight GOP opposition to popular components of his social spending plan, they want him to go after Republicans for pushing voter restriction laws and embracing former President Donald Trump’s lies of election fraud and revisionist Jan. 6 history.
The White House has defended Biden’s tactics in pursuing voting rights and election reform legislation, arguing that every time he talks about the subject he notes the GOP’s blockade and its attempts across the country to restrict voting access. But Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), a longtime Biden ally, said it’s not enough. “The time on voting rights is very precious now,” Casey said. “I think we should message more on voting rights because it actually has an urgency.”
“This is about taking away the right to vote for millions of Americans, and that's unacceptable. And so there's got to be a way to have a carve out for the filibuster,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), adding she hopes and expects Biden himself to weigh in on the Senate’s 60-vote threshold. “I'm confident he's gonna do everything he can.”
Retiring Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said Democrats need to “go on an all out attack against Republicans.” He called for Biden, Democratic leaders and surrogates to visit every competitive Republican congressional district — excluding the 13 Republicans who voted for the infrastructure bill — and say “this is what your district is getting and this is what your member voted against.”
“We just need to keep pounding [Republicans] and we don't do it,” Yarmuth added. “We want to talk about policy.”
The White House and outside allies have pledged to barnstorm the country to tout the benefits of the infrastructure bill that directs $550 billion in new money to states across the country. But hounding Republicans is not Biden’s natural instinct.
During his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden had a mantra: He could create consensus across the two parties. And he's held tight to that idea during his 10 months in office.
“He doesn't have to get down in the ditches or throw red meat,” said Robert Wolf, the former chief executive of UBS Americas and an Obama economic adviser. “He can talk about what he’s done for everyone in America from vaccinations, to the Cares Act to the infrastructure bill.”
Over the summer, Biden’s counselor, Steve Ricchetti, told Hill Democrats that Biden and the party would benefit politically by securing a bipartisan deal. And recently, Mike Donilon, a senior adviser to Biden, said in an interview with POLITICO that the infrastructure bill, which garnered support from 32 Republicans, “was important partly just to have a bipartisan agreement that in and of itself had meaning.”
Behind closed doors, Biden does not mince words about his frustration with the Republican party, which he believes, due to Trump’s grip, has become a threat to the nation’s democracy itself. But he has warned off both Klain and the White House communications shop from too many direct swipes at the GOP when he tried to secure bipartisan support for his prized infrastructure deal, according to the three aides.
On occasion, however, Biden has let it rip, such as when he campaigned in Virginia for former Gov. Terry McAuliffe last month. During the swing, Biden laid into Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin by contrasting the two parties in more explicit terms. “Extremism can come in many forms,” Biden said at the time. “It can come in the rage of a mob driven in an assault — driven to assault the Capitol. It can come in a smile and a fleece vest.”
Ahead of that stump speech, McAuliffe’s team provided the White House with their talking points and said Biden and White House officials took them much further.
“We were surprised,” a McAuliffe adviser told POLITICO. “We gave them our message guidance and they took it and ran with it.”
But emblematic of the ongoing debate within Democratic circles about how negative may be too negative, a person familiar with the president’s involvement said McAuliffe’s campaign was responsible for the tenor of the speech.
“The president had misgivings about the strategy,” the person said. “The speech messaging was 100% at their request. They were insistent on it.”