When Joe Biden kicked off his 2020 presidential campaign he said his reason for running was “the battle for the soul” of the country. When he won the presidency he vowed that once taking office he would lead the nation to “build back better” from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Heading into the 2022 midterm election and beyond, however, Biden and Democrats might be finding renewed purpose in a phrase once widely attributed to former Boston mayor Kevin White.
As the Globe reported on the front page on May 22, 1979, White held an impromptu news conference announcing he would run for a fourth term as mayor. By then there were already four other candidates in the race.
“I am hoping the public will get a view of the other candidates,” White said. “Don’t compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative.”
Biden has long loved that quote and has repeated it often. Former president Barack Obama also used the phrase during his reelection campaign in 2012.
But during a seemingly strategic shift last week to scrap unity talk and directly confront former president Donald Trump as he marked the anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection, Biden may have previewed his mantra for the next year or even for his reelection.
Besides, Democrats have largely been fighting amongst themselves since August. Back then, they were trying to use their very slim majorities to pass a large infrastructure bill and a larger spending package for families and the climate. If they could get both moderates and progressives to agree on that pair of bills, it would have set a framework for a number of other bills like voting rights or even for nuking the Senate filibuster altogether.
Of course, what happened was different. While Democrats did pass an historic infrastructure package, they didn’t pass anything beyond that. And there is no sign of any other major bill even standing a chance of passing anytime soon, except perhaps a very watered down bill relating to voting backed by a number of Republicans.
So with a legislative agenda stalled, Biden might decide to move beyond talking about specific bills and onto cultural issues and broader themes, much like the Republican Party has already done for years.
Thus, when Biden delivered a forceful speech on the anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol last week, he didn’t call for national healing or unity for all Americans. Instead, he put a marker down in a very political speech about who was to blame. For example, Biden said the word “they” 37 times in the speech. And he wasn’t shy about defining who it was he was referring to.
“The former president’s supporters are trying to rewrite history. They want you to see Election Day as the day of insurrection and the riots that took place here on Jan. 6 as a true expression of the will of the people,” Biden said. “Can you think of a more twisted way to look at this country, to look at America? I cannot.”
Three bits of background context also help explain Biden’s shift to “compare me to the alternative” mode.
First is that Biden is certainly not the almighty at the moment. While his numbers have ticked up in recent weeks, the FiveThirtyEight polling average for his approval rating is at 43.1 percent, with his disapproval at 51.5 percent.
Any incumbent with polling numbers like that probably does want the public’s attention elsewhere.
Second, Biden isn’t exactly wrong that Republicans are focused on false allegations about widespread voting fraud. In the process they are also undermining American democracy by giving foreign countries like Russia and China talking points to sell around the world.
Third, creating an “us versus them” dynamic may also help keep moderate Democratic senators like Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin from leaving the Democratic Party, and encouraging them to work more with fellow Democrats on passing bills.
The shift for Biden to now focus on the alternative, as White would say, could be among the most important moves of his presidency.