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Biden used to keep quiet about Trump. Now Biden's invoking his name to raise alarms

President Biden speaks to reporters before boarding Air Force One at Pueblo Memorial Airport in Pueblo, Colo., on Nov. 29.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds
AFP via Getty Images
President Biden speaks to reporters before boarding Air Force One at Pueblo Memorial Airport in Pueblo, Colo., on Nov. 29.

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, when not a lot of people were paying attention, former President Donald Trump posted on his social media site that Republicans should "never give up" on repealing and replacing Obamacare.

It would be easy for something like this to get lost amongst the torrent of memes and complaints about his legal travails that Trump posts at all hours. But Biden and his team weren't about to let that happen.

Monday, when people were paying attention again, Biden slipped a jab at Trump into an unrelated speech.

"My predecessor has once again, God love him, called for cuts that could rip away health insurance for tens of millions of Americans," Biden said.

The past week of political conversation about health care is a case study in how the Biden campaign intends to draw contrasts with Trump and amplify the former president's words to motivate Democrats and persuade independent and moderate Republican voters.

With Trump polling far ahead of other candidates in the Republican nominating contest, Biden has begun openly discussing the fact that he expects a 2020 rematch. And his campaign has been ramping up efforts to draw contrasts with Trump.

Case in point: the Trump post about Obamacare. Republicans have largely stopped talking about repealing the Affordable Care Act because it's gotten popular, and going after it was seen as a political loser. So of course the Biden campaign seized on it when Trump entertained reviving his failed effort to repeal and replace the law.

By Tuesday morning, the Biden campaign put together a press call with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi discussing "the dire threat to the health and wellbeing of American families posed by Donald Trump."

Late that night, perhaps seeing all the coverage, Trump had more to say, posting among other things, "Obamacare sucks."

But the campaign wasn't done there. They rallied outside groups to discuss the potential effects of a repeal on young people and communities of color. Thursday, they released a new ad to air in swing states, all about President Biden's work to lower health care costs.

Michael Tyler, the communications director for the Biden campaign, said Americans need to know what Trump is promising to do in a second term.

"Talking about rounding up Latinos, banning Muslims, rooting out his political enemies like 'vermin,' echoing the rhetoric that we've seen from folks like Hitler and Mussolini in the past," said Tyler, listing just some of Trump's recent pronouncementsand proposals. "When he does that, we are going to raise the stakes for folks."

As the Biden campaign sees it, the former president's extreme ideas are barely breaking through with voters, thanks to a combination of Trump fatigue and a fractured media environment. So, they are working to give Trump a signal boost. This is a pretty dramatic shift from a couple of years ago when Biden world treated Trump like Voldemort of Harry Potter book fame, the one who must not be named. Now, Biden himself is not only naming him, but regularly using stark language about the dangers of a second Trump term.

"Donald Trump and his MAGA republicans are determined to destroy American democracy," Biden said at a fundraiser in New York.

Trying to make a reelection campaign about a choice is a strategy as old as time. And it's an absolute necessity for Biden, says pollster Christine Matthews.

"Everyone can see the latest polls, so if it is a referendum in 2024 on Joe Biden, he will lose," said Matthews, who runs Bellwether Research and does polling for moderate Republicans.

She said a lot of people tuned out after Biden was inaugurated and have forgotten the chaos and instability that were Trump's trademarks.

"Right now the hazy veil of memory is benefitting Trump," she said. "People are looking back and it's a little fuzzy but it seems like gosh, things weren't as expensive."

Voters say they are worried about inflation, the state of the world and the president's age and all of that is weighing down Biden's approval. But that's also where a contrast can help. Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, says party volunteers recently went out knocking on the doors of people who are not normally Democratic voters, asking them what they care about and how they'd feel about Trump winning again.

"However upset people are with whatever is bothering them at this moment, there are so many people who do not want that guy to get back into the White House," said Wikler.

Biden needs to harness what Wikler called an "anti-MAGA" coalition. That is, not just Democrats.

In 2020, among voters who disliked both Biden and Trump, in the end they tipped in favor of Biden. Currently polls show Trump winning with the "haters" said Matthews. What Biden's campaign is doing now is trying to remind all those voters why they ended up supporting Biden in the first place, and working to persuade them to do it again.

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Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.