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Biden takes big break from habit of avoiding Trump talk

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© Getty Images President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump

President Biden has made a habit of not talking too much about his predecessor, former President Trump.

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That changed big time on Tuesday, when Biden gave a spirited voting rights speech in Philadelphia. Biden didn’t mention Trump by name but repeatedly criticized the man he unseated as president, slamming him for “the big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen.

“We continue to see an example of human nature at its worst. Something darker and more sinister,” Biden said in remarks from the Philadelphia speech directed toward Trump and his allies.

“In America, if you lose, you accept the results. You follow the Constitution. You try again. You don’t call facts ‘fake’ and then try to bring down the American experiment because you are unhappy,” he added in some of his more critical remarks toward Trump since he won office.

“That’s not statesmanship, that’s selfishness. That’s not democracy, that’s a denial of the right to vote,” he continued, calling the denial of free and fair elections “un-American.”

It was a rare attack on Trump from Biden, who seemingly has sought to turn the page on his predecessor.

Since taking office, Biden has made a habit of refraining from speaking about Trump, a strategy that some political observers say has been largely effective and on brand for Biden’s messaging. But some Democrats say it may be necessary to bring Trump back into the fold as next year’s midterm elections draw closer.

“As much as President Biden may prefer otherwise, there’s no choice but to make Trump and the GOP the foil,” said Democratic strategist Christy Setzer. “Trump and his supporters – including the vast majority of congressional Republicans – are fighting to take down democracy for good.”

“There are heroes and there are villains in that story, and unless we create a narrative about it, voters won’t know who is whom,” she added. “Advice for Biden and co.: Take the fight to them square-on. Don’t mince words and don’t think you’ll ever get credit for being bipartisan. Just do what’s right.”

Trump has been a powerful driver and fundraiser for Democrats who ran against him and his policies in both 2018 and 2020. When Biden ran for president, he repeatedly attacked Trump, saying the only reason he was running for the White House was to end the Trump presidency. He also centered his primary campaign on the argument that he was the Democrat best placed to defeat Trump, arguing it was too important a race to pass up and too important a contest for Democrats to nominate a riskier nominee.

But since taking office, Biden has largely sworn off the Trump talk, even generally avoiding the subject during the former president’s second impeachment trial earlier this year.

Last week, on the six-month anniversary of the insurrection on the Capitol, there was also no mention of Trump or even “the former president.”

“I’m tired of talking about Donald Trump,” Biden said during a CNN town hall in February. “For four years, all that’s been in the news is Trump. For the next four years, I want to make sure the news is the American people.”

The only time the president has talked about Trump is when he is asked about him point-blank by reporters during news conferences, including earlier this month when the former president’s top associate was indicted on tax fraud charges.

Some strategists say Biden’s messaging on all things Trump has been pitch-perfect and that he should continue the same tack.

“I don’t know if he sees the value in giving oxygen to Donald Trump,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne. “I know his election was about turning the page of the last four years, and giving additional light to Trump would be at loggerheads with that.”

Another Democratic strategist, Jamal Simmons, said Biden should highlight how he has made government function again without mentioning the four tumultuous years of Trump.

“It’s a long way to 2022, but today I’d expect Biden to talk about making government work for all Americans, with vaccines in arms, money in pockets and a growing economy,” Simmons said.

Biden’s approval rating has remained steady in recent months. A recent Gallup poll found 56 percent of Americans approve of his job performance, up 2 points from May. The approval ratings are largely reflective of his response to the COVID-19 pandemic and his handling of the economy.

Still, one of the lingering questions about the midterms is whether Democrats can hang on to independent and Republican voters, particularly in the suburbs. While Biden defeated Trump in the presidential race, Republicans gained seats in the House – indicating ticket-splitting by some voters.

William Howell, a professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, said that Biden likely views talking about Trump as counterproductive to advancing his agenda.

“I think he’s trying as best he can to fix the public’s attention on the work that lies ahead. There are huge challenges that the country faces, and we’ve got to find ways to productively meet them,” Howell said. “Stoking Democratic outrage while sticking it in the eye of Republicans, I don’t think he sees that as a productive pathway forward.”

Philippe Reines, the veteran political operative who served as Hillary Clinton’s longtime senior adviser, said no decisions need to be made yet because the race is still 16 months away.

“So even if the president and his team decide to engage, it likely won’t be evident until 2022,” he said.

“Ultimately, it’s not a binary choice. There’s a sweet spot somewhere in between,” Reines said. “The Biden campaign found it in 2020. They will find it again in 2022. And they will have something new they didn’t last year: a record of significant and important accomplishments. What’s-his-name’s accomplishments were pathetic and criminal.”

“As a result, in 2018 he lost the House,” Reines added, signaling his own optimism about 2022.

Morgan Chalfant contributed.

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