Biden issues a 2024 warning to Republicans

Joe Biden rarely mentions Donald Trump by name. That was the case in his speech at the Capitol yesterday, even though the president pinned the blame squarely on his predecessor, who, he said, isn’t “just a former president, he’s a defeated former president.”

Asked after the speech why he didn’t used the T-word, Biden said that “he did not want to turn it into a contemporary political battle between me and the president. It’s way beyond that. It’s way beyond that.”

The irony of Biden’s “he who must not be named” policy is that the president is at his most animated and politically potent when he is talking about his predecessor.

I don’t agree with Jacob Heilbrunn’s contention that yesterday’s address was the most important of Biden’s presidency. But he is right when he says that Trump “offers precisely what most American presidents crave but usually don’t receive — a cartoonish enemy that they can rally the nation against.”

And you sense that with Biden this is as personal as it is political. Talking about Trump just fires him up more than a disquisition on vaccine mandates or climate change.

In its adulation for Biden’s tone yesterday, even the New York Times noted that Biden’s “bet that he could move the country past the divisiveness of his predecessor by restoring a sense of normalcy to the White House, practicing the traditional brand of politics he learned over decades in the Senate and as vice president… didn’t work.”

Biden is an underwhelming and unpopular president other than when he is given the opportunity to emphasize the differences between himself and his predecessor. In a zero-sum contest — whether on the football field, the battlefield, or in the political arena — it’s usually a good idea to do what your opponent least wants you to do. And avoid doing what they are crying out for you to do.

When it comes to choosing their presidential candidate for 2024, Republicans are also choosing which version of Biden they will be running against. And they should be in no doubt about the fact that a Trump re-run boosts the chances of four more years of Biden. The former president’s status as 2024 frontrunner is the first bullet point on a list of reasons why Biden’s chances of re-election are underrated.

In the build-up to the January 6 anniversary, there was much fulminating over poll numbers that showed widespread support for Trump’s election falsehoods. But the real message to Republicans from those surveys should be that the 2020 relitigation to which the former president is committed is very much a minority interest.

That doesn’t mean Trump can’t win again, of course. In a choice between two unpopular candidates, someone has to. But Trump’s 2020 preoccupations most certainly aren’t a recipe for mobilizing a winning coalition of voters. And the president’s speech yesterday was a reminder that the GOP’s chances will be an awful lot better in 2024 if their candidate is someone other than he who Biden refuses to name.

*** Sign up to receive the DC Diary in your inbox on weekdays ***

An underwhelming jobs report

Bad news economic news kicks things off in Washington today, with underwhelming job numbers undershooting expectations and underscoring the Biden administration’s challenging in-tray. Economists had expected the US economy to gain around 400,000 jobs last month. The actual figure is half that size, with 199,000 added in December. And that number does not capture the period when the Omicron variant was spreading rapidly at the end of the month.

A-listers pile the pressure on Manchin

Spare a thought for West Virginia senator Joe Manchin. A few weeks after White House chief of staff Ron Klan ordered Jen Psaki to “release the dogs” on him for refusing to support Build Back Better legislation, Politico reports that Manchin is on the receiving end of an A-list charm offensive.

Former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, as well as TV superstar Oprah Winfrey, have been calling Manchin to make the case for a change to the Senate filibuster in order to advance Democrats’ proposed changes to election law through the legislature. Count me skeptical about the chances of this star-studded pressure campaign having the desired effect on the West Virginian lone wolf.

Tucker vs Ted

Ted Cruz upset some corners of the right in a Senate hearing on Capitol security this week when he called January 6 a “violent terrorist attack on the Capitol where we saw the men and women of law enforcement… risk their lives to defend the men and women who serve in this Capitol.”

Among those triggered by Cruz’s choice of words was Tucker Carlson, who criticized the Texas senator on Wednesday. In a demonstration of the Fox host’s influence, Cruz decided it was worth groveling to Carlson on his show last night. Cruz told Carlson he misspoke and apologized for inadvertently helping Democrats who “are trying to paint everyone as a terrorist.”

“It would be ridiculous for me to be saying that the people standing up and protesting to follow the law were somehow terrorists,” he said. “I was talking about people who commit violence against cops.”

But that wasn’t good enough for Carlson. “I don’t believe you,” he said.

Cruz hasn’t always been so sheepish about calling the January 6 attack terrorism. In fact, he did so the very next day, in a written statement: “The attack at the Capitol was a despicable act of terrorism and a shocking assault on our democratic system.” Did he misspeak then too?

What you should be reading today

Cockburn: Lin-Manuel Miranda marks January 6… with a Hamilton song
Francis Pike: What’s happening in Kazakhstan?
Elle Gyges: January 6 and the coddling of the conservative mind
Jane Ferguson, New Yorker: Afghanistan has become the world’s largest humanitarian crisis
John F. Harris, Politico: We are in a new civil war… about what exactly?
David B. Rivkin Jr and Andrew M. Grossman, Wall Street Journal: The vaccine mandate case may mark the end of the ‘work-around’ era

Poll watch

President Biden Job Approval
Approve: 42.4 percent
Disapprove: 54.5 percent
Net approval: -12.1 (RCP Average)

Should lawmakers be allowed to trade stocks?
Yes: 5 percent
No: 76 percent
Don’t know: 19 percent (Trafalgar)

Sign up to receive the DC Diary every weekday here.