How Joe Biden ‘Wrestles With the Alligator’
He’s banned from Twitter and Facebook, yet Donald Trump continues to be the dominant figure in Republican—and American—politics. Multiple times per day, his super PAC blasts out his pouty statements, a range of dictations that can be trivial or seemingly end a prospective GOP primary campaign. According to White House aides I’ve spoken with, the strategy from President Joe Biden on down remains the same: Don’t engage with Trump’s game. Don’t even say his name.
As Anita Dunn, one of Biden’s closest advisers, put it to me last week, “We don’t think he’s much of a factor of conversations outside the Washington press corps.” Most Americans, she argued, “are not spending a lot of time listening to the former president.”
A back-and-forth with Trump is like “wrestling with an alligator,” another top Biden aide told me, adding that the administration’s aim is to “look for the right moments to contrast approaches to issues, but not get into a daily wrestling match.” The prevailing strategy is not to ignore Trump or just hope for the best, but “to treat him like a crazy person who’s pushing conspiracies, not as an equal.”
Biden’s determination to rise above the fray—not just with Trump, but on a host of other contentious issues—has frustrated many vocal Democrats, who warn that he is oblivious to the danger on the horizon. Doesn’t he get it? Why isn’t he ripping Republicans apart on voting rights? How come he hasn’t declared open war on the filibuster and anyone still standing up for it?
White House aides tell me Biden is watching the news, reading the clips, taking in earfuls from leaders in Congress and beyond. He gripes privately about the filibuster, aware that the parliamentary procedure is, in many minds, what’s standing between him and the FDR-size agenda he now aspires to accomplish. He looks at next year’s midterms and sees that historical trends, supercharged by gerrymandering and new red-state voting restrictions, threaten not just whatever legacy he hopes to build for his own presidency, but democracy itself.
Still, the president doesn’t want to throw all his energy into a fight with Trump, or a fight over an initiative like the For the People Act, the Democrats’ favored election-reform bill. Many top White House aides (as well as more Democratic senators than have said so publicly, despite voting for it) see the legislation as full of problems that wouldn’t hold up to a Supreme Court challenge. Plus, the votes aren’t there for it to pass in the Senate. As for the filibuster, Biden believes that not only would coming out against the bill publicly be counterproductive, but that doing so would end all hope of getting any other legislation through the Senate.
Biden believes that this is precisely the kind of elitist trap Democrats fall into time and again, to their own detriment. The more energy and airtime Democrats devote to eliminating the filibuster, the less energy they’re putting into talking up the expanded child tax credit or working toward the passage of a historic infrastructure bill. He believes voters are going to care much more about the money in their pockets than the less tangible issues of government reform. I’ve been hearing Biden say this since January 2017: Democrats inadvertently enabled Trump’s victory because they’d stopped improving people’s lives. “What I’ve learned in my entire career in politics, you can do anything with somebody and get them to move as long as you don’t change their standard of living downward,” he told me.
When dealing with both Trump and the Democratic Party’s left flank, Biden thinks he can de-escalate fights by not waging them head-on. He still believes in a pre-Twitter approach to governing whereby, when change actually occurs, it doesn’t always happen in public, or as quickly as many voters want. Scrapping the filibuster won’t matter if nothing else can pass the Senate and Biden has a failed presidency; protecting small margins in elections won’t matter if Democrats don’t deliver on other priorities and lose House races next year by 5 or 10 percent.
This may end up seeming naive if Republican obstructionism and new voting impediments help rout Democrats in the 2022 midterms. Many of the most vocal Democrats think that’s exactly what’s coming. In their view, Biden may win a few more votes of support for his infrastructure bill, but that could come at the cost of larger initiatives such as eliminating the filibuster and making Washington, D.C., the 51st state.
Last week in Philadelphia, Biden gave a fiery speech in which he called voting rights “the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War.” But he laid out no new strategy to preserve them. Two days later, Senate Democrats announced a framework for infrastructure spending that comes closer than expected to Biden’s original goal, and no Republican senators who were part of the bipartisan negotiations have bolted.
“I understand why the press, among others, is skeptical that I can actually get this deal done on infrastructure, and on human infrastructure. I’ve watched and listened to the press declare my initiative dead at least 10 times so far. I don’t think it’s dead; I think it’s still alive. I still think I’ll be able to get what I’ve proposed,” Biden said, with a calm smile on his face at a press conference on Thursday, though even Democratic senators aren’t confident that the deal will hold long. Then, yesterday morning, Biden tried pushing back on criticism around inflation and weak growth. “Our economy has come a long way over the last six months,” Biden said. “It can’t slow down now.” His poll numbers keep coming back strong, despite pundits writing off his presidency as “boring.”
But the funny thing is, even as Biden and his aides try to ignore Trump, they want people to remember life under Trump. When Biden is criticized for falling just short of his July 4 vaccination target, or for higher-than-expected unemployment numbers, his team wants people to recall Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic and all the unnecessary lives lost on his watch. They just don’t want people paying attention to Trump himself.
On July 10 in Dallas, the former president spoke for an hour and a half at a Conservative Political Action Committee conference, rambling through all the familiar themes of his postpresidency: the horrors of critical race theory, his version of his achievements in office, America’s supposed descent into a haven of socialism and weak borders under Biden, and, of course, the supposedly stolen election. The crowd cheered and chanted for him. The next morning, Trump was on Fox News, musing to host Maria Bartiromo about a conspiracy that the Capitol rioter who was shot and killed trying to come onto the House floor was in fact killed by the security team for one of the Democratic leaders. Among his supporters, and within the right-wing echo chamber, Trump is still king.
But other parts of the American electorate—and the mainstream media that enabled his rise in 2015—appear to have stopped thinking about him.
The day after Trump’s Fox appearance, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki took 40 minutes of questions—about the administration’s lack of answers on the uprising in Cuba, about its inability to articulate a message after the assassination of the Haitian president, about its problems with vaccine hesitancy. Along with her big, color-coded binder of policy references, Psaki tends to come with a Trump-deflating and -deflecting zinger in mind if she’s asked about him. She was ready that morning—but no one brought him up.