Trump’s ‘dictator’ remark puts 2024 campaign right where Biden wants it

All three people said the stakes have escalated in the president’s mind as he’s watched the Republican Party remain in Trump’s thrall despite Jan. 6 and the revelations about what his predecessor has in store for the future.

“It’s coming back full circle — that in the president’s mind, this is the moral authority for the race. This is an existential threat. This is the reason he ran initially, and the reason — with Donald Trump running — he’s running again,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster for Biden’s campaign in 2020.

“The president has always believed that it was his duty to get the nation beyond Trump,” said one of the three people close to him, who spoke with Biden about his views on Trump and was granted anonymity to speak about private discussions. “He had hoped 2020 would have done it but it didn’t. So he has to do it again.”

Some Democrats have urged the reelection team to highlight other issues. This past weekend, a group of the party’s governors used its annual retreat to urge Biden to focus on issues like abortion, not Trump.

But while the Biden camp will continue to draw issue-specific contrasts, the president himself has made clear he wants to frame the election ahead as a battle for democracy itself. The GOP frontrunner continues to provide ample opportunity for Biden to return to this familiar theme.

This issue fueled Biden’s successful 2020 run, which he deemed “a battle for the soul of the nation.” And despite pushback from some Democrats, Biden leaned in hard again on that argument during last year’s midterms, warning that the extremist “MAGA Republicans” posed a threat to the republic’s foundation and rights.

Biden’s candid remarks Tuesday at a string of Boston fundraisers both reflected another example of the president saying something unscripted that surprised staff but also a window into his true thinking, according to the three people close to him.

“If Trump wasn’t running, I’m not sure I’d be running,” Biden said. “But we cannot let him win.”

Biden then struck a grave tone, warning that he’s “running against an election-denier-in-chief,” who is “determined to destroy American democracy.”

“Trump’s not even hiding the ball anymore,” Biden told the crowd. “He’s telling us exactly what he wants to do. He’s making no bones about it.”

As early as 2021, Biden began having repeated conversations with allies that he would need to run again to prevent Trump from reclaiming the Oval Office. And like he did in 2020, Biden has steadfastly believed that he was the only Democrat who could beat him — though on Wednesday, he noted “probably 50” others in the party could beat Trump next year.

“Folks have forgotten a lot of anxiety that they had about a second Trump term in 2020,” said Brandon Weathersby, the presidential communications director at American Bridge 21st Century, a top Dem super PAC. “And I believe as he continues to talk about his plans — and again, be very explicit about his plans to install an authoritarian regime — that does make it that much more salient for voters as we talk about it, and as we try to lay out the choice for voters in November.”

Since declaring his candidacy in 2019, Biden has repeatedly touched on the idea that the nation’s democracy was under attack — and believed that voters would respond. His triumph in 2020 and the Democrats’ strong 2022 showing has validated that approach, his campaign believes. And Biden believes that he is the best candidate to deliver that message again next year.

Trump’s latest remarks, Lake said, once again raised “the salience [of the issue], and whether [Trump] realizes it or not: America doesn’t want a dictator.”

During the 2020 campaign, there was some idle chatter in Biden’s campaign of making a one-term pledge, becoming a “transitional” president who would rid the nation of Trump and then usher in a new era of Democratic leaders. But those ideas were dismissed even before Biden took the oath of office. And while Biden has never said so explicitly, many people around him believe he might have not sought reelection had Trump been off the playing field. But at this point on the calendar, Biden would almost certainly still run even if Trump suddenly bowed out, according to those close to him.

After Trump’s town hall comment, the Biden campaign flooded social media with warnings and organized an event to bracket the GOP primary debate in Alabama that would include denouncements of the former president.

“Democrats are gonna seize on this … the campaign immediately condemned the comments. The other groups that are working in concert to elect Democrats around the country have amplified this rhetoric as well,” said Weathersby. “These are Trump’s own words. I think you will continue to see more elevation of those words, and making clear that this is the choice — unless something drastic happens in the Republican primary — this person is going to be the Republican nominee.”

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