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‘One existential threat’: In shift, Biden gives Trump a tongue-lashing

Dems have ‘obligation to share what we know about Trump,’ strategist says

President Joe Biden speaks to House Democrats an issues retreat in Leesburg, Va., on Feb. 8.
President Joe Biden speaks to House Democrats an issues retreat in Leesburg, Va., on Feb. 8. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — President Joe Biden has sharpened his campaign message, more and more often calling out his likely general election foe, Donald Trump, by name.

This pivot includes calling out the former commander in chief and GOP presidential front-runner for spearheading efforts to block a bipartisan border security and immigration package on Capitol Hill.

“I understand my predecessor is in Eagle Pass today. So here’s what I would say to Mr. Trump,” Biden said Thursday in Brownsville, Texas, during dueling trips he and Trump took to the U.S.-Mexico border. “Instead of playing politics with the issue, instead of telling members of Congress to block this legislation, join me or I’ll join you in telling the Congress to pass this bipartisan border security bill.

“We can do it together. You know and I know it’s the toughest, most efficient, most effective border security bill this country has ever seen,” he added, his voice rising. “So instead of playing politics with the issue, why don’t we just get together and get it done? Unless you remember who the heck you work for. We work for the American people, not the Democratic Party, the Republican Party.”

Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist and author of “Hopium Chronicles” on Substack, called Biden’s shift “smart for two reasons.”

“First, Trump is the nominee of the Republican Party, and the election will be about him,” Rosenberg said in an email. “Second, we have an obligation to share what we know about Trump and his agenda so voters can understand what they are signing up for if they vote for him.”

The 81-year-old Biden also used an appearance last week on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” to try flipping the script on criticisms about his age made by the 77-year-old Trump and other Republicans.

“You gotta take a look at the other guy. He’s about as old as I am. But he can’t remember his wife’s name,” the president quipped with a grin, referring to what some saw as a forgetful flub late last month at a Conservative Political Action Conference event where he appeared to refer to spouse Melania Trump as “Mercedes.”

Biden then trotted out a new line aimed at taking voters’ focus off his age: “It’s about how old your ideas are. Look, I mean, this is a guy who wants to take us back. He wants to take us back on Roe v. Wade. He wants to take us back on a whole range of issues that [for] 50, 60 years, they’ve been solid American positions.”

It’s not just the seeking-reelection president who has shifted to a message — after he and his top aides spent much of their first two years in office avoiding using his predecessor’s last name — that is more aggressive in making their case that Trump is unfit for office and calling him out by name.

His campaign aides also have ramped up their direct verbal assaults on the 45th president. “Nothing new. No solutions. Still racist,” Biden campaign Communications Director Michael Tyler said in a Thursday evening statement, referring to a Fox News interview Trump conducted during his Lone Star State visit.

“Still the guy who killed the bipartisan deal that would’ve actually secured the border. Also, violent crime was worse when he was president — and he’s clearly in his feelings about it,” Tyler added. “Oh, by the way, still the guy banning abortion.”

But, notably, there is another group also talking about Trump to just about anyone who will listen: congressional Republicans.

Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., on Thursday told reporters Trump has shown “strength” on immigration while Biden has displayed “weakness.”

“The side-by-side image of these two presidents could not be a greater contrast. One president was building a wall, President Trump,” said the Louisiana Republican, who recently visited Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida. “He was cracking down on those trying to cross the border illegally. He was supporting our [Customs and Border Protection] agents. He used his executive authority to stop illegal immigration.

“And the current president, Biden, is doing exactly the opposite of all those things. He stopped construction on the wall. He halted deportations,” Johnson added in an example of how Republicans invoke Biden the way Democrats have started more vocally invoking Trump. “He ceded operational control to the cartels and the traffickers and he did everything he could to incentivize, incentivize illegal immigration.”

The more aggressive approach has hit Trump, by name, on issues beyond the border. In a separate Thursday statement, Biden 2024 spokesman James Singer called out what he dubbed “Trump’s out-of-step reproductive care agenda.”

“Donald Trump and his MAGA allies in Congress are once again demonstrating just how out of touch they are with the overwhelming majority of the American people,” Singer said, referring to an Alabama court ruling that led some medical providers to cease providing in vitro fertilization services. “As voters support IVF and expanding access to fertility treatments, Donald Trump paved the way for MAGA Republicans to rip them away.”

The latter was a reference to Trump appointing three conservative justices to the current Supreme Court, which ended the federal abortion rights granted by Roe vs. Wade. White House aides and Biden campaign staffers have been dropping that attack line more often.

But the most notable part of the Team Biden messaging pivot has been from the president himself, who long referred to his likely general election foe as “the other guy.” And when Biden has reverted to that moniker, his warnings about a potential President Trump 2.0 have been more dire.

“As I walk out of meetings, a head of state will find an excuse to come up close … and say, ‘You’ve got to win.’ Not because I’m so special,” Biden told Democratic donors during a Feb. 21 event in California, before contending nine other world leaders have said that — and added this: “‘You’ve got to win because my democracy is at stake, if the other guy wins.’”

What’s more, Biden was able to use the office’s bully pulpit on Feb. 6 to deliver an anti-Trump campaign message from the ornate State Dining Room.

One day later, during several pricey fundraisers in New York City, Biden really leveled the boom on Trump.

“There is one existential threat: it’s Donald Trump,” Biden said during a Feb. 7 fundraiser featuring around 20 donors at the Upper West Side residence of former Goldman Sachs Managing Director Larry Linden, now a philanthropist and climate activist. “He’ll try to undo everything we’ve done. Make no mistake. … We can’t let that happen.”

Another notable aspect of the messaging shift has been Team Biden’s attempts to, in voters’ minds, tether GOP lawmakers — many facing reelection in November — to his likely general election foe.

The president has described most congressional Republicans as subservient to Trump, saying he “never thought I’d see something like I’m seeing now.” About Senate Republicans’ opposition last month to a border and immigration package they had demanded, Biden said they were “walking away because they’ve got Donald Trump calling and threatening them.”

White House aides also have gotten in on the act. Andrew Bates, in a Feb. 21 memo, contended that Johnson “killed the toughest, strongest border security legislation in decades, siding with fentanyl-traffickers over the Border Patrol Union as soon as Donald Trump sounded alarms that the bipartisan deal would hurt his political interests by helping families.”

Often, it has been at big-dollar fundraisers that the president has laid into Trump the hardest — like at one before a group of about 200 people inside a ballroom at the swanky Mandarin Oriental hotel in New York City.

“How can anyone, especially a former president, wish for an economic crash that would devastate millions of people?” he said of Trump’s recent comments suggesting he would prefer the economy to tank before he might be elected again.

“He didn’t want to be Herbert Hoover. I got bad news. It’s too late,” Biden told donors. “There are two presidents in American history who left office with fewer jobs than when they came into office: Herbert Hoover and, yes, Donald ‘Herbert Hoover’ Trump.”

That’s a twist. Typically, Trump is the one doling out the derisive nicknames.

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