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The Political Logic of Biden v. DeSantis
It's unusual for the Biden White House to go after Republican politicians, here's why their fight with Ron DeSantis makes strategic sense
President Joe Biden has focused on lowering the temperature in Washington. He doesn’t take the bait from reporters. He evades cultural sideshows even when there might be a political upside to engaging with some of the Right-Wing carnival barkers. The Biden communications team is quick to highlight praise from Republicans or bipartisan accomplishments on the Hill. This approach is a welcome change after a president that woke up in the morning looking to pick fights with every person under the sun. It’s consistent with the message of unity that put Joe Biden in the White House.
That’s why it was surprising to see Biden head to a podium in the White House for the specific purpose of calling out Republican governors for mishandling the pandemic. Biden said to these governors:
Please help. But if you aren’t going to help, at least get out of the way. The people are trying to do the right thing. Use your power to save lives.
Not exactly an ad hominem attack, but definitely a change in tone and approach. With remarks like these, you never know if it was part of a plan or an ad-lib from an overly tired or overly enthusiastic president. But in case there was any doubt, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki took to Twitter to hit back at Ron DeSantis after the Florida Governor responded at a press conference.
Psaki’s tweet was shared by top White House aides like Chief of Staff Ron Klain. On Friday, Psaki tripled down at the White House press briefing when she hit DeSantis for fundraising off of his opposition to local mask mandates in schools.
There’s no question that the pushback on Republican governors, and DeSantis in particular, is part of a strategy. The only questions are why they are doing it and is it a good idea (Spoiler Alert: It’s a good idea).
Why Getting Tough with DeSantis Makes Sense
To date, the Biden political and communications operation has been incredibly disciplined and adept at tuning out the noise and turning the other cheek. I am interested in the decision to get more aggressive with Republicans when they are trying to pass a big infrastructure bill. Here are the reasons why I think Democrats are becoming more assertive (and why it makes sense):
DeSantis et al Deserve It: I went on a rant about this during last week’s Pod Save America but to be blunt, fuck these people. DeSantis and other Republicans are not simply avoiding the right thing. They are stopping localities, schools, and businesses from practicing humanitarianism. DeSantis signed an executive order banning local schools from implementing mask mandates for students. Texas Governor Greg Abbott banned businesses from implementing vaccine mandates for their employers and customers. They are killing their constituents. Plain and simple. As President of the United States, Joe Biden holds responsibility for the health and safety of those citizens as well. He should not — and cannot — sit by silently while these politicians offer up their citizens as human sacrifices.
Apply More Pressure: One primary reason to call out these Republican governors is that applying political pressure forces them to reconsider their actions. In some ways, this is a long shot. DeSantis has presidential ambitions, and he has clearly decided that spreading lies about COVID is the best path to the Republican nomination. But right now, Biden controls the political argument. According to a Florida Politics poll, 62 percent of Floridians disagree with DeSantis about mask mandates for children in schools. Biden is also better liked than DeSantis at the moment with a 48 percent approval rating compared to DeSantis’s 44 percent rating. The Florida Governor will continue to get plaudits from the Fox News crowd for irresponsibility, but the glare of the spotlight from the White House could raise the pressure from voters, stakeholders, and businesses in Florida.
Provide Air Cover: There are a lot of people, cities, and businesses in Florida and elsewhere that want to do the right thing. In some cases, that means explicitly defying an order from the governor. There are local electeds in both parties that want to push back publicly and legislatively. Having the President of the United States validate their instincts on national TV makes it easier to take the leap. Vaccination is a game of inches. Because of the exponential spread of viruses, every single person vaccinated makes a difference. Every single person that wears a mask makes a difference. So even if Biden (and common sense and common decency) cannot force DeSantis to change course, he can convince some people in those states to get vaccinated and protect themselves with masks. That will help everyone.
Call Out the Perpetrators: President Biden’s number one job is to get the pandemic under control. Everything else flows from that priority. His agenda and political standing depend on putting COVID behind us. While he is the president and the most powerful person in the country, he cannot do it alone. And Biden certainly cannot succeed if the Republican governors of some of the biggest states in the country are going out of their way to make the pandemic worse. Biden’s comments about Facebook and other social media “killing people” by allowing misinformation about the COVID vaccine to run rampant still hold true.WH Press Sec. Jen Psaki on headline "Team Biden's war on DeSantis is all about kneecapping a successful GOP governor": "Our war is not on DeSantis, it's on the virus, which we're trying to kneecap. He does not seem to want to participate in that effort …"
Sure, we can say “the buck stops here” as President Harry Truman once did, but the public needs to know who is to blame as the pandemic continues to simmer. In the fall of 2011, President Obama turned around his reelection campaign by more aggressively calling out Congressional Republicans’ efforts to sabotage his economic campaign. Joe Biden must do everything he can to control the pandemic, but he must also let people know who is getting in the way.
Biden’s unity message and above-the-fray persona have worked for him, but it was inevitable that he was going to get in a fight or two. With the midterms looming, Biden must leverage his popularity and his platform to draw sharper contrasts between himself and the opposition. Picking a fight against Ron DeSantis — the embodiment of everything Republicans have done wrong during COVID and a likely opponent in 2024 — seems like a great place to start.