WASHINGTON — For more than 2½ years, it was rare for President Biden to publicly utter the name of the person he replaced. Donald Trump usually was “the former president,” “my predecessor,” or simply “the other guy.”
But in the past month, Biden has “Trump” on the brain and the tip of his tongue. Over the course of three events during a fund-raising swing in the Boston area last week, Biden fired that name into the crowd a total of 34 times as he blasted Trump for his record in office, his attempt to overturn the 2020 election, and his plans if he returns to the White House.
“It’s not hyperbole to suggest you’re the reason why Donald Trump is not only a former president but a defeated former president,” he told supporters at the Shubert Theater before a concert by James Taylor. “Which makes him, yes, a loser.”
With amped up rhetoric and an almost singular focus, Biden and his campaign have been going after Trump far more aggressively the past several weeks before any Republican primary votes even have been cast. The president’s abandonment of his disdain for citing Trump by name is emblematic of a shift to a general election strategy and comes after some disconcerting polls numbers for Biden, a burst of controversial statements by Trump, and alarming reports about the former president’s plans if he wins another term.
“Trump is going to be the nominee, so start now on reminding people of the contrast,” said Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Trump’s recent rhetoric has only fueled that argument.
After Trump said late last month he was “seriously looking at alternatives” to the Affordable Care Act, the Biden campaign immediately sprang into action to defend the health care law that Biden helped pass while vice president in the Obama administration.
The Biden campaign quickly produced a TV ad with a nurse talking about Biden’s efforts to make health care more affordable and saying “the last administration’s policies were so troubling.” Then the campaign organized a media conference call with former House speaker Nancy Pelosi and North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, both Democrats, saying that Trump wants to take away Americans’ health care.
“Health care is a great opportunity to compare the best of Biden to the worst of Trump,” Cooper said.
There was a similarly aggressive response last week after Trump made more controversial remarks, during a town hall on Fox News. Asked if he would promise that he “would never abuse power as retribution against anybody,” Trump responded, “Except for Day One.” The Biden campaign quickly highlighted the comment and campaign officials addressed it Wednesday at a news conference in Alabama before the Republican presidential primary debate there.
“Trump is providing daily ammunition to remind voters about how dangerous he is,” said Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist, specifically pointing to Trump’s 91 criminal indictments. “Biden world is moving into more of a campaign rhythm and the evidence of that is that you’re starting to see very rapid responses to Trump’s stumbles.”
A Trump campaign spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
The Biden campaign wants to frame the election as a stark choice, said spokesman Ammar Moussa.
“The American people chose light over darkness and hope over fear in 2020 when Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by 7 million votes, and we’re going to do the work to ensure voters understand the enormous stakes of next year’s election,” he said in a written statement.
Biden apparently has decided he can’t do that without actually saying Trump’s name after avoiding it for most of his presidency.
“Biden had committed himself to expunging the words Donald Trump from his vocabulary and (wishfully) from public discourse, as if he would unintentionally increase his predecessor’s power by innocuously incanting his name,” Franklin Foer wrote in his book released in September titled “The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden’s White House and the Struggle for America’s Future.”
A president avoiding the name of his predecessor isn’t unusual, but Biden took it to another level. He declined to say “Trump” even in making routine comparisons to the previous administration. He also avoided Trump’s name in speeches where he was a focus. Biden didn’t say his name at all in his speech at the Capitol on the first anniversary of the insurrection, referring to him only as “the former president.”
“I did not want to turn it into a contemporary political battle between me and the [former] president,” Biden said when reporters asked why he didn’t use Trump’s name. “It’s way beyond that.”
Biden took office while the country was still struggling with the COVID pandemic so it made sense to focus on bipartisan governing and avoid mentioning the divisive Trump, said Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg. It also was unclear Trump would run again so “elevating someone who may not even be a candidate makes no sense.”
Biden largely stuck to that strategy even after Trump announced his candidacy a year ago and cemented a gigantic lead in Republican polls. At a Sept. 20 New York City fund-raiser, Biden didn’t say Trump’s name once, according to the White House transcript. He referred to him as “my predecessor,” “the former guy,” “the other guy,” and “the guy I was running against.”
But on Nov. 5, polls from The New York Times and Siena College showed Trump leading Biden in five of the six battleground states that determined the last election. The news, combined with Biden’s continued poor approval ratings, rattled many Democrats.
Then, two days after state and local elections around the country, Biden appeared ready to make up for lost time. He used Trump’s name 14 times at a Nov. 9 fund-raiser in Chicago. Less than three weeks later, at a Colorado fund-raiser, Biden doubled his use of Trump’s name to 28.
The new strategy of directly naming and targeting Trump shows the campaign believes it’s time to elevate the likely Republican nominee, said Matt A. Barreto, who conducted polling for the 2020 Biden campaign and continues to poll for the Democratic Party.
“You have to stop making it only about you as the incumbent,” he said. “You need to make it about your opponent.”
Nathan Gonzales, editor of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan publication that covers presidential and congressional campaigns, said the New York Times battleground polls “should have been a wakeup call that this is a serious race” and that Democrats need to go after Trump aggressively.
“Trump is going to be relentless and non-aggression usually doesn’t go well against him,’ Gonzales said.
The Biden campaign has gotten additional ammunition from recent news reports about what a second Trump term might look like, including one last month by The Washington Post that Trump and his supporters were developing plans that included investigating or prosecuting outspoken critics and political opponents while also potentially using the military to quell protests.
“Part of why I think national polls have been challenging for Biden is that so much of the focus has been on Biden,” Greenberg said. “And what we know is that when more of the focus is on Trump, and also the notion of a choice between Trump and Biden, that the landscape looks a lot better.”
Biden is fond of saying, “Don’t compare me to the almighty, compare me to the alternative.” And he’s no longer resistant to naming names.
“Donald Trump and his MAGA Republicans are determined to destroy American democracy,” Biden said at a fund-raiser in Boston’s Seaport district last Tuesday, one of 13 mentions of his likely 2024 opponent’s name. “And the former president makes no bones about it.”