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Why Biden isn't Talking about Trump (Yet)
Despite some consternation from pundits, a Biden campaign assault on Trump makes no strategic sense at this point
During the NFL season opener on Thursday night, the Biden campaign will air a new television ad. And like all of the campaign's previous ads, this one will not mention Donald Trump.
According to Politico, there is “considerable unease among Democrats” about the fact that President Biden spends very little time arguing against Donald Trump. Former Representative Tim Ryan expressed these concerns to NBC News:
“What Trump has done is so egregious, so beyond the pale that I think we all have to take a very firm and aggressive and hostile stand against him,” former Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio said, because Trump and 18 others charged with him in Georgia “literally tried to end the United States as we know it.”
“There needs to be a unifying approach here,” Ryan added. “It’s natural the president would lead that.” Without forceful pushback, Ryan said, Trump’s incessant attacks on Biden over his four indictments could seep into the public consciousness.
This is not a concern I hear much from Democrats who work within the Democratic Party apparatus, on Capitol Hill, in the party committees, or on campaigns. I do encounter it online, on cable panels, and among people who are rightfully anxious about the looming election with the fate of democracy on the line.
On a surface level, it’s a fair concern. Donald Trump is almost certain to be Joe Biden’s opponent by next spring. Donald Trump has been charged with 91 felonies; and is out there attacking Biden with malicious and false attacks every single day. So why wouldn’t Biden and his campaign hit back — especially when Trump’s political position seems to be strengthening as the criminal charges pile up?
To their credit, NBC News reporters give Team Biden the opportunity to explain their strategic rationale in some detail. According to his aides, Biden is adopting the same approach that President Obama took with Mitt Romney during his reelection campaign. From the perspective of someone who worked on that campaign, let me explain why it’s the right strategy for Biden.
Disentangling Two Types of Trump Attacks
The conversation about if, when, and how the Biden campaign should engage with Trump has conflated two issues — should Biden talk more about the indictments and should he attack Trump more generally? On the former, the case against talking is clear. Yes, Biden sincerely believes in the importance of restoring the independence of the DOJ, but as I wrote recently, there are also more practical concerns:
The main reason Biden is not commenting right now is that he and his team understand how the traditional political media works. The media looks to criticize both sides, and there is nothing they love more than criticizing a politician for hypocrisy. If the President, his campaign manager, or a junior staffer were to make even one offhand comment on the upcoming trials, the press would descend on the President with the force of a thousand jackhammers. This media freakout would prevent the Democrats from getting their message out and help give voters skeptical about the indictments a reason to stick with Trump.
Not commenting on the indictments does not prevent Biden from engaging with Trump on a whole host of issues — including abortion, the economy, and even the threat Trump poses to democracy. Biden does periodically engage with Trump. Take for example, this video on Twitter last week:
Biden does not ignore Trump, but it’s fair to say that no one in American politics talks about Trump less than Joe Biden. Biden is not talking about Trump right now in the late summer of 2023. This doesn’t mean he won’t aggressively take him on next year. There are reasons to wait — and they are the same reasons Barack Obama decided to hold back from engaging with Romney at this same juncture in the reelection campaign.
Build a Foundation
The efficacy of political attacks is dependent on the credibility of the person delivering the attack. If we care about the polling this far out (and there are reasons not to!), it paints a clear picture: President Biden must work on his own coalition. The primary reason for the close race in these hypothetical matchups with Trump is the President is underperforming with Democrats and others who voted for him in 2020. To borrow a Biden-ism, most people have not tuned into the election and are therefore judging the President against the “Almighty” instead of the “alternative.” As more voters begin to think about the campaign as a choice between Biden and Trump, those numbers will likely improve. But that doesn’t mean the President can neglect to build a foundation to effectively engage with Trump. The electorate is concerned about the President’s age and his handling of the economy — addressing those issues must come before launching a bunch of attacks against Trump. This is exactly why the Biden Campaign is running a multi-million dollar television and digital ad campaign highlighting his economic accomplishments. This campaign targets core parts of the Biden coalition, including Black and Latino voters.
Political campaigns are all about making very difficult resource allocation decisions — how do you spend your time and money? Everything is zero sum. You have to make tough calls. Rebuilding Biden is a higher priority right now than tearing down Trump.
Don’t Needlessly Elevate Trump
This seems funny now, but Mitt Romney was the candidate that we wanted to run against least — and it wasn’t even close. We preferred to run against Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich or one of the other non-Romney candidates. If we had to run against Romney, we wanted the longest, most divisive GOP primary possible. A long primary meant more time to prepare for the general election while Romney was distracted. This is why Obama never attacked Romney during the primary. That may seem counterintuitive, but the Democratic president attacking Romney would elevate him above the rest of the Republicans. Romney could use those attacks to argue (correctly!) that he was the candidate Obama most feared. Launching a full-front assault would have been cathartic and silenced some of the peanut gallery that kept popping off in Politico, but it would have undermined our preferred outcome of a protracted Republican primary.
Looking at the polling today, it seems Trump will wrap up the nomination quickly — but he may not. It would very much be to President Biden’s advantage for it to extend into Super Tuesday, the day after Trump’s trial for overturning the election is set to begin in Washington, D.C. Attacking Trump now fast-forwards to the general election, which helps Trump and hinders Biden.
Biden may not run a perfect campaign. Even so, a perfect campaign does not guarantee a win. We should prepare for another nailbiter for all of the marbles. On the specific question of dealing with Trump in September of 2023, I think the Biden Campaign is getting it right.