ORLANDO — Republicans demonized former President Barack Obama for eight years on their way to reclaiming Congress and the White House. They’re not looking to revive that strategy against Joe Biden.
Instead of launching personal attacks on “Uncle Joe,” a politician many Americans have known for decades, Republicans are hoping to puncture Biden’s popularity without getting down in the mud. They aim to yoke him to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, progressive Democrats and a “radical” liberal policy agenda — all of which, Republicans know, poll lower with the American people than the president.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that Biden’s “policies are going to be our road to comeback” and warned his party against trying to villainize Biden, a longtime creature of the Senate.
“He’s one of the most decent people you ever want to meet. He and Jill are very good people. And you disagree with people you like. So I don’t see where it helps us trying to get into a food fight with him,” said Graham, a top Trump ally.
The GOP is more likely to take back the House next fall than the Senate, given the latter’s staggered map, and Republicans are only starting to chip away at a president who governs in precisely the opposite manner to his incendiary predecessor, Donald Trump. In Orlando, where the House GOP held a three-day retreat to start plotting its path back to the majority, Republicans coalesced around a midterm message that hits Biden on immigration, policing, climate change and raising taxes.
“That will have a negative impact on not just his popularity, but on the country's economy, at a time when we're just starting to come out of Covid,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) told reporters at the retreat, referring to policy items on Biden’s wishlist. “As people see what he's doing — and it's Nancy Pelosi, it's AOC, it's that socialist wing of the party that's driving the agenda — that's not what he ran on.”
The GOP’s reluctance to make Biden into a bogeyman stems from both a confidence that his policies are unpopular enough on their own and, for some Republicans, a personal relationship with the president. But not taking the opportunity to more concretely define Biden — something Trump also struggled to do during the 2020 campaign — could backfire for Republicans.
It’s also a stark contrast from the GOP’s approach toward Obama, who faced racist “birtherism” accusations and was already grappling with Tea Party demonstrations around the country within his first 100 days in office. And the fixation on Hunter Biden that energized anti-Biden conservatives during last year’s presidential campaign isn't part of GOP leaders’ current strategy.
“They are having a hell of a time trying to put a negative label on him,” said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), of Biden. “It’s a real dilemma.”
Biden is hovering above 50 percent approval, but even that might not be enough to save Pelosi’s control of the House. A president with an approval rating of more than 50 percent typically loses 14 seats in his party’s first midterm, according to Gallup. The GOP only needs to flip five seats to seize back power in 2022, and they’ll likely have forthcoming redistricting on their side. If Biden dips below 50 percent, things could get even worse.
So far, Biden’s approval ratings are significantly higher than Trump’s, but lower than Obama’s, according to recent surveys from Pew, the Washington Post and Reuters. His $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid bill has proved popular, and there are early indications that more spending on infrastructure could also win public support. Biden is expected to tout both the Covid and infrastructure plans during his first joint address to Congress on Wednesday night.
Yet senior Republicans aren’t sweating Biden’s job approval ratings. Scalise called them “stagnant” and argued there’s a “honeymoon period” for any new president. Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), head of the House GOP’s campaign arm, expressed confidence that the president's numbers would start to “deteriorate.” And House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (D-Calif.) said Biden’s sub-50-percent approval on handling of the border, as well as his marks on the economy, could spell trouble for the president.
“They really ought to be worried,” McCarthy said of Democrats in an interview with POLITICO.
Republicans have settled on attacking Biden as a moderate candidate who's now governing as a liberal, led around by progressive senators like Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). But compared with their relatively nuanced criticisms of Biden, House Republicans are far more comfortable going after Pelosi. It's a return to one of the GOP’s greatest hits, recalling their “Fire Pelosi” rallying cry following the 2010 passage of Obamacare — a slogan that's getting a reprise.
During a private presentation to the House GOP in Orlando, Emmer revealed internal polling that showed Pelosi is one of the least popular politicians in the country, with her numbers dropping further in the last two months, according to a source in the room. The National Republican Congressional Committee chair noted that her numbers were particularly low in the Midwest, though YouGov data shows Pelosi still polls higher than Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer or Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Meanwhile, internal polling from the National Republican Senatorial Committee in February showed a narrow majority offering a favorable view of Biden but Schumer and Pelosi underwater. A plurality of respondents in that survey said they’d support a GOP candidate as a check on Biden’s agenda over a Democrat who would help approve it. The rest of the polling focused on portraying Biden’s policies as unpopular.
“We can have disagreements, but we need to make sure that we're unified and in one place. We're seeing it at this conference, which is: firing Nancy Pelosi and stopping the socialist agenda,” Emmer said in an interview. “Everybody is unified on that.”
The desire to make Hunter Biden a political liability for the president hasn’t totally disappeared in the GOP, especially among the Trump wing of the party. On Monday, a group of Republicans called on Biden’s ATF nominee to probe reports that the Secret Service intervened in an investigation involving Hunter Biden’s gun. But aside from Hunter, Republicans can’t seem to find a bad thing to say about the president.
Freshman Rep. Carlos Gimenez (R-Fla.) raved about an exchange he had with Biden over the Floridian's former career as a firefighter during a White House meeting on infrastructure, calling the moment “heartfelt.” Summarizing Republicans’ dilemma, another GOP lawmaker said that “it’s hard to hit someone who reminds you of your grandpa.”
“He’s likable, he’s relatable … they’re not having him omnipresent,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, of the White House’s strategy. Still, Thune added, Biden will be “judged by his policies. And I think that’s what’s going to [happen] eventually, whether people like him personally or not.”
Everett reported from Washington. Olivia Beavers contributed to this report.
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