Most White Houses wait for their midterm election shellacking or thumping to shake up their message and strategy shop.
The President, who ran in 2020 as a prophet of national unity, and spent the first year of his administration reaching across the aisle – a process that yielded a rare bipartisan infrastructure law – is done turning down America’s political inferno.
In recent days, Biden has switched on a rhetorical blowtorch and blasted Republicans as followers of ex-President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” demagoguery. And after a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion suggested the greatest liberal defeat of the modern era is looming – the abolition of the constitutional right to an abortion – Biden questioned which basic rights the right-wing high court majority fashioned by Trump will strip next.
The President, meanwhile, on Thursday named a new White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre. Biden’s new top spokesperson will replace Jen Psaki, who is reportedly heading for a TV job with MSNBC. Psaki has been one of the undoubted media stars of the administration. But her departure means a fresh face at the podium and a statement of history that will likely please the Democratic base since Jean-Pierre, currently Psaki’s deputy, will be the first Black and out LGBTQ person to do the job. Jean-Pierre’s family includes her partner, CNN national correspondent Suzanne Malveaux, and their daughter.
Biden is also bringing Anita Dunn, an outside adviser and one of the most respected Democratic consultants and communications experts, into the West Wing full time, CNN’s Jeff Zeleny and Kaitlan Collins reported. Dunn will be expected to sharpen Biden’s messaging tactics going into the midterm election in November. And she will be in place to try to chart the President’s early 2024 campaign and rebuild his image if Republicans take over Capitol Hill and subject the White House to the agony of constant investigation.
Biden is trying to give Democratic candidates a platform
In sharpening his midterm message and his assault on Trumpism, the President is doing exactly what party leaders must going into elections – offer their candidates a rationale for power and a counter to their opponents’ attacks.
But changes of message and personnel only go so far. The midterms are becoming a referendum on Biden himself after an administration that started strongly but began to sink under the most unprecedented slate of crises to face any President of the modern age.
Events on Thursday alone underscored just how difficult it will be for a President, whose approval ratings have dipped to 41% in the latest CNN poll, to revive a term that had majority support less than a year ago.
It was a brutal day on Wall Street, as the Dow Jones Industrial Average crashed more than 1,000 points, reversing a rebound the day before as the market struggles to make up its mind on the Federal Reserve’s strategy to fight soaring inflation, which is the crisis that appears to be hurting the administration the most.
As Biden leads the West in an effective proxy war with Russia after its invasion of Ukraine triggered the biggest military conflagration in Europe since World War II, a new foreign policy crisis is emerging that could again test his authority. CNN’s Barbara Starr reported that North Korea may be preparing its first underground nuclear test in nearly five years. The detonation could come as early as this month, three sources said. It would not be a surprise if Kim Jong Un, bristling that the US President is refusing to replicate Trump’s vanity summits, scheduled the blast for around Biden’s upcoming trip to South Korea. Such a scenario would give Republicans another data point for their misleading, but still potentially effective campaign trope that US enemies see Biden as weak.
In more bad news for the administration on Thursday, a CNN poll showed that only 26% of Americans are at least somewhat confident the administration is prepared to handle any increase in the number of migrants seeking to enter the US that might result from the ending of Title 42 – a pandemic-era border restriction that the administration had hoped to phase out this month. The administration’s plans were temporarily blocked by a federal judge in Louisiana.
Immigration has emerged as a huge political weakness for the White House heading into the midterms. The issue leaves it exposed to Republicans exaggerating the border crisis on the right and liberals who complain that Biden has not done enough to lift hardline Trump restrictions.
And Democrats under threat in November are frustrated that the administration has prevaricated on border issues.
Even Sen. Maggie Hassan, whose home state of New Hampshire is thousands of miles from the southern border but who is likely facing a tough reelection, said in a recent video from a section of wall in Arizona that she would push the White House to keep Title 42 in place until it had a plan to secure the border.
Threatened Democratic senator ‘not satisfied’ on inflation
Moderate Democrats are also expressing frustration at the administration’s failure to do more to control inflation – as prices of basic goods and gasoline surge – even if outside factors, like the war in Ukraine and supply chain clogs brought on by Covid-19 lockdowns in Asian manufacturing hubs, are mostly to blame.
“I’m not satisfied because, you know, prices for Arizonans are still too high. They need to work on it,” Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly told CNN’s Manu Raju Thursday. The first-term Democrat is among the most endangered incumbents in the fall.
Jared Bernstein, a member of Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, said on CNN’s “New Day” on Thursday that people need to be “nuanced” when they assess an economy that features both the highest cost of living in 40 years and a near 50-year low unemployment rate. But nuance is the first casualty of political campaigns, and Republicans have an easy opening given high prices to claim Biden has wrecked the economy.
The President’s toughened tone went up a notch when he appeared in the White House on Wednesday to claim credit for slashing the federal deficit – an achievement to be sure, but one that might not placate voters hit by high gas prices. Biden singled out a plan put forward by Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who heads the GOP’s Senate campaign committee, that the President said would raise taxes and put cherished entitlements like Social Security and Medicare at risk.
“It’s a MAGA agenda all right. Let me tell you about this ultra-MAGA agenda – it’s extreme, as most MAGA things are,” Biden said, riffing off Trump’s signature slogan.
“Under this new plan, this tax plan, the ultra-MAGA agenda, while big corporations and billionaires are going to pay nothing more, the working class folks will pay a hell of a lot more,” Biden said.
Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, who knows a vote-loser when he sees one, has rebuked Scott’s plan. But if Republicans won’t play the nuance game in their messaging, Biden won’t either.
The President also lashed out at the conservative majority on the Supreme Court after Politico published a draft opinion by Justice Samuel Alito that suggested the top bench is poised to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. Biden argued that by rejecting Roe’s finding that a right to privacy existed in the Constitution, the court could target all other basic rights that many Americans may take for granted.
“This is about a lot more than abortion,” Biden said.
“What are the next things that are going to be attacked? Because this MAGA crowd is really the most extreme political organization that’s existed in American history, in recent American history,” he said.
An anti-Trump campaign may fizzle
Biden’s invoking of Trumpism may not be coincidental since the ex-President’s enduring influence in the Republican Party is reflected in the spectacle of GOP primary candidates battling for his endorsement. And after all, Biden did handily beat Trump in 2020, fair and square, whatever the defeated, twice-impeached, one-term former President says.
Still, rooting a midterm election campaign on the idea that all Republicans share Trump’s extremist, anti-democratic tendencies is a risk. Such a strategy failed for Democrats last year, when Virginia’s Glenn Youngkin captured the governor’s mansion. The Republican pioneered a campaign targeting rising prices and concern among parents over education after a year of pandemic lockdowns and conservative complaints about how schools dealt with race and transgender issues.
For all his visibility, Trump isn’t on the ballot this year and voters are squarely focused on the economy. But given Democrats’ uphill midterm battle, a White House message that targets MAGA-world extremism and seeks to capitalize on threats to abortion rights may be Biden’s only bet.