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Biden shifts from defending his record to warning about Trump

‘Americans are craving a plan, not ... pointing out your opponent’s flaws,’ former GOP aide says

President Joe Biden walks to Marine One at the White House en route to Philadelphia on May 29.
President Joe Biden walks to Marine One at the White House en route to Philadelphia on May 29. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — In a tactical shift, President Joe Biden has gone from using appearances to defend his own record and plans for four more years to warning about policies Donald Trump has vowed to implement if he gets a second term. Trump, meanwhile, has continued a largely grievance-based campaign.

“I have the wounds all over my body. If I took this shirt off you’d see a beautiful, beautiful person but you’d see wounds all over me,” the twice-impeached and once-convicted former president told evangelicals in Washington on Saturday. “I’ve taken a lot of wounds, I can tell you. More than I suspect any president ever.”

Biden often wraps official White House events with criticism of Trump on everything from abortion access to trade to immigration to taxes to health care to preserving democracy. And at campaign events, Biden focuses remarks at big-dollar fundraisers by going into detail about what he believes Trump returning to power would mean for the country.

For instance, during a June 18 campaign fundraiser in the upscale Washington suburb of McLean, Va. — the last time the president is due in public before his debate with Trump on Thursday — the president said Trump’s name 17 times. Biden wanted those writing big checks to his campaign to have a clear view of how he thinks about a second Trump term.

“The next president could [nominate] possibly two or more Supreme Court justices in the next four years. That would mean, if Trump wins, there would be five or more MAGA-appointed justices that could determine the future for decades to come,” Biden said to boos.

“I said in 2020, we’re in a battle for the soul of America. And here we are in 2024, and what we’re fighting for is clear. It’s freedom, in the literal sense. Freedom, democracy, America,” he added.

Biden began talking more about Trump’s own words than about his own second term this spring, and that was followed by the former president’s May 31 conviction on 34 felony charges of falsifying business records. After trailing Trump in most national polls for months, two surveys released last week — one by Morning Consult and another by Fox News — put the incumbent ahead by 1 percentage point and 2 percentage points, respectively. A CBS News survey released Sunday put Trump up 1 point nationally.

Part of Biden’s approach is centered on warnings about Trump’s and his surrogates’ calls to substantially remake the Justice Department and other federal entities by firing thousands of career workers and replacing them with loyalists.

For instance, last week Biden warned supporters of an “all-out assault Donald Trump is making on our system of justice … that is being supported by the Republican Party.”

‘Undo everything’

His message that a vote for the Biden-Harris ticket would block team Trump’s hard-line proposals also gets specific on policy matters.

Speaking to the McLean audience at former Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s home, Biden ticked off a list of goals he has for his own second term — many of which involve building on his first term. The list included creating more jobs, lowering housing costs, bringing down inflation and prices, “taking on corporate greed” and continuing his “Bidenomics” agenda to “change the economy and grow [it] from the middle out.”

“All I’m going to say is Trump has made it clear: If he wins, he’s going to undo everything we’ve done,” the president said.

Biden often touts his administration’s efforts to lower the cost of prescription drugs. But Trump, he contended, wants to “give power back to ‘big pharma’ to rip [off] the American people and charge whatever they want for the medicines they need badly,” he said, adding: “It’s outrageous.”

The approach also covers health insurance, with Biden contending last week that Trump “still wants to get rid of the Affordable Care Act that provides millions of Americans with preexisting conditions who have no other alternative to get health care the ability to get it.”

In contrast, Biden vowed in his possible second term that he would expand the Barack Obama-era health law that is so reviled by Republicans — though they have yet to propose major legislation that would both repeal and replace it. Trump has promised his own proposed plan since 2015; almost a decade later, however, he has not produced one.

Biden has offered a bottom-line assessment, as he did last week, of Trump’s second-term policy ideas. “Everything Trump is proposing, from new taxes for the super-wealthy [to] the biggest tax cuts [for] corporations … to a huge new consumer tax in front of giant 10 percent tariffs on every product … coming to America,” he said. “That’s going to drive up inflation.”

‘Reshuffled the deck’

William Galston, a former Clinton White House aide now with the Brookings Institution, said there is “little for the Biden campaign to lose in shifting to making Trump the focal point of their message.”

“It was pretty clear that the time Biden spent focusing on his own record and plans wasn’t moving the needle,” Galston said during a Friday telephone interview. “The campaign didn’t like the hand they were holding, so they reshuffled the deck and got a new one. … The closer they can stick to what Trump has actually said, as opposed to Republicans not directly affiliated with Trump’s campaign, I think the more effective the strategy could be.”

But Aaron Cutler, a former senior leadership staffer for then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said voters “are often more inspired by a clear, positive vision for the future,” adding: “It’s good to ‘feel your pain,’ but it’s even better to have a plan.”

“President Biden’s defensive approach is clearly not working. According to the polling data, he’s uninspiring and underperforming. … President Trump’s first term was marked by significant achievements that resonated with many Americans — record-low unemployment rates, tax cuts, a strong stance on border security, and a focus on deregulation that fueled economic growth,” Cutler said in an email.

“In contrast, relying too heavily on criticizing President Trump’s potential second-term plans might highlight a lack of substantive accomplishments and future plans from the Biden administration,” Cutler added. “I just think Americans are craving a plan, not a strategy of pointing out your opponent’s flaws.”