Steven V. Roberts: Joe Biden’s big bet

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 14, 2022

If you want to understand Joe Biden’s emerging political strategy, just listen to Mike Rounds.

Rounds is a conservative Republican senator from South Dakota who voted with Donald Trump 90% of the time. But he has a stern warning for Republicans who suck up to Trump by embracing his lie that the 2020 election was “stolen” by the Democrats.

“The election was fair — as fair as we have seen,” Rounds said on ABC. “We simply did not win the election, as Republicans, for the presidency. … If we simply look back and tell our people ‘don’t vote, because there’s cheating going on,’ then we’re going to put ourselves in a huge disadvantage.”

Biden is betting that Rounds is right: that Republican fealty to Trump and his sick obsession with the last election will place them at a disadvantage — both in November and in 2024, when Biden could well be running for a second term while Trump heads the GOP ticket.

This calculation explains Biden’s decision to change his tone — and break with historic precedent — to deliver two speeches that directly and decisively attacked his predecessor.

“The former president of the United States of America has created and spread a web of lies about the 2020 election,” Biden thundered on the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. “He’s done so because he values power over principle, because he sees his own interests as more important than his country’s interests and America’s interests, and because his bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our Constitution.”

Biden and Rounds are looking at the same numbers and reading them the same way. Trump is — and always has been — a minority figure in American politics. He received barely 46% of the vote in 2016 and won by a hair — a shift of about 80,000 votes in three states would have defeated him. Four years later, he received virtually the same percentage in losing to Biden. His favorable rating has never broken 50%, and his current popularity hovers at about 42%, with 52% viewing him negatively.

This is what Biden is counting on. Few Democrats thought Biden would make an exciting or inspiring president. The core passion that drove Democrats to the polls was more negative than positive: a loathing for Trump, not a love for their own leader. And Biden focused squarely on that terror, endlessly describing the election as Armageddon, a battle for “the soul of the nation.”

Once in office, however, Biden tried to govern in a different way: as a healer, not a hater. He seemed convinced that he could work with Republicans on bipartisan projects. He did have two notable successes: a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package last March, and the $1 trillion infrastructure bill in November.

But those were the easy wins; even Republicans like to spend federal money, especially when they don’t have to raise taxes to pay for the outlays. On just about every other issue — from immigration reform and climate change to voting rights and drug prices — Biden has encountered implacable Republican opposition that continues to thwart his legislative agenda.

He compounded his problems with a series of mistakes — a grievous miscalculation in Afghanistan, a slow response to surging inflation, a failure to grasp how upset parents were with closed schools and disrupted lives. His own approval ratings have plunged into Trump territory, and a growing number of Democrats have voiced their disappointment with his leadership.

He needed a villain. He needed to reframe the debate, to change the question voters were asking themselves. Instead of “Do you favor Biden?” he wants them to think, “Do you fear Trump?”

You could even argue that Biden’s focus on his predecessor is designed to goad him, to provoke him into becoming more visible, more vituperative — and more easily demonized. The president went out of his way to brand Trump with the word he hates most: “loser.” As Lawrence O’Donnell put it on MSNBC, that’s a label “the president had to know would go straight into Donald Trump’s heart.”

Mary Trump, The Donald’s estranged niece, agreed, saying, “I thought it was masterfully done and exactly, as you say, along the lines of a psy-op.”

Perhaps. But this we know for sure: Biden hopes, and Rounds worries, that a Republican party led by Trump will lose again. That’s why Biden’s speeches mark more than a change in tone: They mark the beginning of his reelection campaign.

 Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington
University.  Email him at