Biden’s Messaging Struggle, From Trump To Shrinkflation

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — My opponent wants to end our democracy, rule as an autocrat … and by the way, did you notice my administration is cracking down on those outrageous airline luggage fees?

Such is the whiplash-inducing messaging from President Joe Biden’s White House and campaign as he seeks reelection, veering from warnings that his coup-attempting opponent would literally end the constitutional republic to boasts about how he is taking on snack food manufacturers who shrink their packages but charge the same price for them.

Often both elements ― the small-ball and the apocalyptic ― are present in the same speech, as they were in December, when Biden spoke before an audience of donors in a living room overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Biden mentioned his expansion of the Affordable Care Act, his work to eliminate lead pipes from homes and the building of a high-speed rail line between Las Vegas and Los Angeles and then, minutes later, warned that the United States as we know it could end next year. “I truly believe the future of American democracy is at stake,” he said. “Not a joke.”

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an authoritarianism researcher at New York University, acknowledged the seeming discordance of emphasizing more mundane issues when the country’s core principles are on the line. “Maybe he fears fatigue in the public,” she said.

Michael Fanone, one of the 140 police officers assaulted by Trump supporters at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, said Biden’s team is failing to explain to Americans the gravity of the situation.

“Donald Trump is not just a threat to democracy because he talks about grabbing pussies and speaks in hyperbole — he is a threat to democracy because of the things he tried to do as president of the United States,” Fanone said. “All those other issues are important, but they’re meaningless unless we have our democracy.”

Both the White House and Biden’s campaign say Biden has, in fact, made the ongoing assault on democracy the organizing principle of his tenure to date.

“An animating feature of this presidency has been about the preservation of democracy and our democratic, small-d institutions,” said White House communications director Ben LaBolt. “But it’s important to be responsive to the day-to-day needs and wants of the American people.”

Typical voters are deeply frustrated by things like access to health care and the “junk fees” charged by banks and airlines, he said. They want to see corporations who take advantage of consumers held accountable. And to a senior paying $35 a month for insulin, rather than several hundred dollars, drug price cuts aren’t “small ball,” he added — they’re a major quality of life improvement.

That analysis, in fact, is shared by political consultants across the spectrum, who say that Biden must show Americans what he is doing for them, not just warn what Trump will do to them, if he wants to win in November.

“When it comes to putting democracy on the ballot, does it resonate with the typical voter? No,” said Gunner Ramer, political director for the anti-Trump group the Republican Accountability Project. “Swing voters aren’t particularly happy with the economy.”

Left unstated in such advice, of course, is a disquieting understanding: that a significant slice of Americans, likely not a majority but certainly enough to swing an election, would not be that bothered if the United States were to transition to an autocracy, run by a “strongman” promising to just get things done.

“A significant share of the electorate is sympathetic to autocracy ― maybe 20 to 25% ― or, at a minimum, doesn’t have a problem with it,” said Jonathan Weiler, a University of North Carolina political scientist and co-author of “Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics,” a 2009 book that predicted the rise of someone like Trump.

And on this question, Weiler is joined by the only American president who tried to remain in power after losing his election: Trump himself.

Asked in a recent interview whether he understood why Americans were so upset by his talk about a dictatorship, Trump flatly rejected that premise. “I think a lot of people like it,” he told Time magazine.

From Charlottesville to Jan. 6

In his 2020 campaign, Biden made Trump’s anti-democratic impulses and his open admiration for dictators a key part of his argument against the Republican incumbent. Biden cited Trump’s assertion that there were “very fine people on both sides” of a violent, neo-Nazi protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 as the moment that spurred his decision to run, and portrayed the remark as an example of what he called Trump’s fundamentally anti-American values.

In a January 2020 essay published in Foreign Affairs, Biden used the word “democracy” 16 times, promising to “reinvigorate our own democracy” in order to reclaim America’s role in countering autocracy around the world.

Just one year later, after having lost reelection by 7 million votes, Trump gave stunning proof to Biden and other critics’ most dire warnings: He attempted a coup, which failed when his vice president refused to go along with it and the police and National Guard eventually wrested control of the Capitol away from the mob Trump had riled up into attacking it.

From that day forward, Biden’s warnings about Trump and his allies’ continuing threat to American democracy became not merely speculative, but grounded in historical fact, with abundant archival video.

Yet as Biden’s reelection effort has coalesced, the existential peril that the country’s foundational principles continue to face has not been the singular foundational pillar of the campaign.

Biden’s recent speeches have instead focused more on his various achievements in office: passage of major legislation like a $1.2 trillion infrastructure law and a $280 billion package to invest in high-tech research and manufacturing, capping the cost of Medicare insulin prescriptions and going after airlines for charging travelers extra to check bags or seat families together, among other kitchen-table policies.

Campaign spokesperson Charles Lutvak said Biden has spoken about the threat to democracy repeatedly, and that it is a key part of his message. “We are running against a would-be dictator pledging to cut taxes for the billionaires and shiv the middle class, while gutting women’s freedom to make their own health care decisions on the way,” he said. “We can, will, and must talk about the full range of threats Trump poses to the very core values that our country was founded on.”

Lutvak and others note that Biden has, indeed, given several landmark speeches focused almost exclusively on American democracy.

On the first anniversary of the Capitol assault, Biden spoke from the scene of the insurrection and told America: “We’re engaged anew in a struggle between democracy and autocracy.”

Eight months later, heading into the 2022 midterms, Biden gave a prime-time address from Independence Hall in Philadelphia, in which he sounded the alarm about Trump and the cadre of election-denying candidates he had recruited for Senate and governors’ races. “Too much of what’s happening in our country today is not normal. Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic,” the president said.

And in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, on the third anniversary of Trump’s coup attempt, Biden told his audience: “This is not rhetorical, academic, or hypothetical. Whether democracy is still America’s sacred cause is the most urgent question of our time, and it’s what the 2024 election is all about.”

In his everyday speeches, though, Biden has been more likely to talk about everything but the

At a March 19 campaign speech in Phoenix, Biden referred to Trump four times, attacking him for the way he disparaged Latinos, his tax cuts and his openness to Social Security cuts — without a word about Jan. 6.

In an April 24 speech to the Building Trades union, Biden hit Trump for having inherited his wealth, for favoring tax cuts that benefit the rich, for opposing unions, for claiming that wind turbines cause cancer, for mismanaging COVID, for denying climate change, for increasing the national debt and for leaving office with fewer jobs than when he entered. But he never brought up Trump’s attempt to remain in office despite losing the 2020 election.

And in a speech the following day in Syracuse to tout a resurgence of microchip manufacturing in the United States, Biden only mentioned Trump a single time, and that was to mock him for perennially touting “infrastructure week” but never delivering.

That lack of singular focus incenses former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh. After all, the Republican-turned-independent says, if, in a constitutional republic, your opponent is now currently talking about ruling as an autocrat, should not that be the one overriding message, all day and every day?

“This is a one-fucking-issue campaign: ‘I am your one line between our country and the end of democracy,’” said Walsh, who unsuccessfully challenged Trump for the GOP presidential nomination in 2020. “Win or die with that. The vast majority of Americans don’t want authoritarianism.”

Social scientists who study autocracies, though, aren’t quite so confident that Americans would straight-up reject a potential dictator who promises lower gasoline and grocery prices, and other tangible benefits.

Indeed, a recent Pew poll found that a quarter of Americans believe that an autocracy is a “very good” or “somewhat good” form of government, while another 28% think it’s only “somewhat bad.” Going even further, 15% of Americans surveyed said they think military rule would be good, and another 23% believe it would be only “somewhat bad.”

Weiler said the ones in the “somewhat bad” camps most likely have not thought the question through and are probably not that attuned to politics to begin with. “For this group, the Biden campaign believes that showing them how government can deliver in concrete terms to make their lives better is the best way to appeal to them, a kind of pocketbook approach to campaigning,” he said.

Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson said that younger Americans have struggled through the Great Recession and then the COVID-19 pandemic, and that Biden may, as a starting point, need to persuade them about democracy’s intrinsic benefits.

“People who are under 50 have never seen a democracy that actually works for them. He is trying to emphasize that democracy can work for ordinary Americans, and also to remind everybody that this is a flight for the existence of democracy,” she said.

And Ben-Ghiat, whose book “Strongmen,” analyzes Trump in the context of the notorious dictators of the 20th century, said she, too, understands that many voters do not engage in intellectual comparisons between democracy and autocracy, which is why it is critical for Biden to reach them in other ways.

“He’s not somebody who doesn’t get it. He does get it,” she said of Biden. “We know that voters sometimes don’t think about big abstract things. They think about the price of gas and other things.”

That tactic is one Biden himself appreciates. In an October interview with ProPublica, the president noted that he won his first race for the Senate in 1972, the same election that saw Richard Nixon win reelection to the White House in a national landslide. The lesson he took away was that Democrats had a tendency to engage too much with party elites, and not enough with their core voters.

“A lot of the guys that I grew up with in Claymont, Delaware, in Scranton, Pennsylvania — they feel like they’re not being respected. Not so much by policy ― just by the failure to talk about their needs,” he said, explaining his rationale to speak about basic economic matters.

At the same time, Biden continues to make the hard sell on democracy for its own sake paired with warnings about looming authoritarianism to select audiences — including the journalists who cover him and Trump.

“Every single one of us has roles to play, a serious role to play in making sure democracy endures — American democracy. I have my role, but, with all due respect, so do you,” he told journalists gathered at the White House Correspondents Association dinner late last month. “So, tonight, I’d like to make a toast: to a free press, to an informed citizenry, to an America where freedom and democracy endure.”



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