March 29, 2023

President Joe Biden is following a strategy of asymmetrical warfare as the 2024 presidential race takes shape.

Through the early maneuvering, the leading Republican candidates, particularly former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis are trying to ignite a procession of culture-war firefights against what DeSantis calls “the woke mind virus.”

With the exception of abortion rights, Biden, by contrast, is working to downplay or defuse almost all cultural issues. Instead Biden is targeting his communication with the public almost exclusively on delivering tangible economic benefits to working-class families, such as lower costs for insulin, the protection of Social Security and Medicare, and the creation of more manufacturing jobs.

While the leading Republican presidential contenders are effectively asking voters “Who shares your values?” or, in the harshest versions, “Who shares your resentments?,” Biden wants voters to ask  “Who is on your side?”

The distinction is not absolute. Trump, DeSantis, and the other Republicans circling the 2024 race argue that Biden’s spending programs have triggered inflation, and insist that lower taxes, budget cuts, and more domestic energy production would spur more growth. And in addition to their unwavering defense of abortion rights, Biden and his aides have also occasionally criticized some of the other Republican cultural initiatives, such as DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill banning discussion of sexual orientation in early grades.

But the difference in emphasis is real, and the contrast illuminates the core of Biden’s vision about how to sustain a national majority for Democrats. He’s betting that the non-college-educated workers, especially those who are white, who constitute the principal audience for the Republican cultural offensive will prove less receptive to those divisive messages if they feel more economically secure.

“We need to reforge that identity as the party that gives a damn about people who feel forgotten, who have really tough lives right now,” says the Democratic strategist Mike Lux, who recently released a study of political attitudes in mostly blue-collar, midsize “factory towns” across the Midwest. “That’s the central mission. And that’s why I think Biden is right to be focusing on those economic issues first.”

But other Democrats worry that Biden’s economy-first approach risks allowing Republicans such as DeSantis to define themselves as championing parents while advancing an agenda that civil-rights advocates believe promotes exclusion and bigotry. They also fear that Biden’s reluctance to engage more directly with Republicans over the rollback of rights raging through red states risks dispiriting the core Democratic constituencies, including Black Americans and the LGBTQ community, that face the most direct consequences from restrictions on how teachers and professors can talk about race or bans on gender-affirming care for minors. These Democrats have grown even more uneasy as Biden lately has moved toward Republican positions on immigration (with new restrictions on asylum seekers) and crime (by indicating that he would not block congressional efforts to reverse a reform-oriented overhaul of Washington, D.C.’s criminal code.)

“Not engaging in culture wars does not mean that Democrats win: It means that we forfeit,” says Terrance Woodbury, chief executive officer and founding partner of HIT Strategies, a Democratic consulting firm that focuses on young and minority voters. The group’s polling, Woodbury told me, shows that “not only do Democratic voters expect Democratic leaders to do more to advance social and racial justice” but that “they will punish Democrats that do not.”

My conversations with Democrats familiar with White House thinking, however, suggest that Biden and those around him don’t share that perspective. In that inner circle, I’m told, the dominant view is that the best way to respond to the culture-war onslaught from Republicans is to engage with it as little as possible. Those around Biden do not believe that the positions Republicans are adopting on questions such as classroom censorship, book bans, LGBTQ rights, and allowing people to carry firearms without a permit, much less restricting or banning abortion, will prove popular with voters beyond the core conservative states.

More fundamentally, Biden’s circle believes that voters don’t want to be subjected to fights about such polarizing cultural issues and would prefer that elected officials focus more on daily economic concerns such as inflation, jobs, and health care. Those around Biden largely share the view expressed by the Democratic pollster Guy Molyneux, who studied public attitudes about key GOP educational proposals in two national surveys last year. “People don’t really want either side of these culture wars to win; they want to just stop having these culture wars,” Molyneux told me. “They really see a lot of this as a diversion.” A national survey released this week by Navigator, a Democratic polling consortium, supports Molyneux’s point: When asked to identify their top priorities in education, far more voters cited reducing gun violence and ensuring that kids learn skills that will help them succeed than picked “preventing them from being exposed to woke ideas about race and gender.”

Biden hasn’t completely sidestepped the culture wars. After mostly avoiding the issue earlier in his presidency, he’s been relentless in his defense of abortion rights since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer. (Earlier this year, Vice President Kamala Harris commemorated what would have been the 50th anniversary of Roe with a speech in Tallahassee, Florida, where she targeted DeSantis’s signing of legislation banning abortion there after 15 weeks.) When DeSantis signed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill last year, the White House also criticized him. And most recently in Selma, Alabama, Biden has also issued tough criticisms of the red-state laws erecting new hurdles to voting.

Yet the Biden administration, and especially the president himself, have mostly kept their distance from the surging tide of bills advancing in Florida and other red states rolling back a broad range of civil rights and liberties. Tellingly, when Biden traveled to Florida last month, it was not to condemn DeSantis’s agenda of restrictions on classroom teachers or transgender minors, but to defend Social Security, Medicare, and the Affordable Care Act; the only time he mentioned DeSantis by name was to criticize him for refusing to expand eligibility for Medicaid health coverage under the ACA.

Since the midterm election, Biden has centered his public appearances on cutting ribbons for infrastructure projects and new clean-energy or semiconductor plants funded by the troika of massive public-investment bills he signed during his first two years; defending Social Security and Medicare; highlighting lower drug prices from the legislation he passed allowing Medicare to bargain for better deals with pharmaceutical companies; and combatting “junk fees” from airlines, hotels, and other companies. In his State of the Union address last month, Biden spoke at length about those economic plans and what he calls his “blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America” before he mentioned any social issues, such as police reform, gun control, and abortion. The budget Biden will release today advances these themes by proposing to extend the solvency of Medicare by raising taxes on the affluent.

The emphasis was very different in marquee appearances last weekend from Trump and DeSantis. Trump, in his long monologue on Saturday at CPAC, accused Biden of exacerbating inflation and promised to pursue an all-out trade war with China. But those comments came deep into a nearly two-hour speech in which Trump blurred the boundary between calling on his supporters to engage in a culture war and an actual civil war, when he promised to be their “retribution” against elites and “woke tyranny.”

When DeSantis spoke at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, northwest of Los Angeles, last Sunday, he delivered more of an economic message, attributing Florida’s robust population growth in part to its low taxes and low spending. But he drew a much more passionate reaction from his audience later when he denounced the “woke mind virus,” recounted his stand during the coronavirus pandemic against “the biomedical security state,” and pledged to “empower parents” against the educational establishment. DeSantis received his only standing ovation when he declared that schools “should not be teaching a second grader that they can choose their gender.”

To some extent, the heavy reliance by Trump and DeSantis on these cultural confrontations reflects their belief that GOP primary voters are much more energized now by social rather than economic issues. Yet it also represents the widespread GOP belief that distaste for liberal positions on cultural issues remains an insuperable barrier for Democrats with most working-class voters, including a growing number of Latino men. “Blue-collar voters don’t separate cultural concerns from economic fears,” the GOP strategist Brad Todd, a co-author of The Great Revolt, told me in an email. “They think big global companies are in cahoots with the left on culture, and they don’t put pocketbook concerns ahead of way-of-life concerns.”

Todd thinks Biden’s attempt to define himself mostly around economic rather than cultural commitments represents his desire “to jump in a time machine and go back to the Democratic Party of the ’80s.” Indeed, Biden, who was first elected to the Senate in 1972, came of age politically in an era when Republicans repeatedly used racially infused “wedge issues” to pry away working-class white voters who had mostly supported Democrats on economic grounds over the previous generation. Some Democrats see Biden’s recent moves to adopt more right-leaning policies on immigration and crime as a resurgence of that era’s widespread Democratic belief that the party needed to neutralize cultural issues, typically by conceding ground to conservative positions.

Like others I spoke with, Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, the vice president and chief strategy officer at Way to Win, believes that focusing primarily on economic issues makes sense for Biden now, but that he will eventually be forced to address the GOP’s cultural arguments more directly. Sublimating those issues, she argues, isn’t sustainable, because it is “hurting the very people” Democrats now rely on to win and because the Republican cultural arguments, left unaddressed, could prove very persuasive to not only working-class white voters but also Hispanic and even Black men. Ultimately, Fernandez said, Biden and other Democrats must link the two fronts by convincing working-class voters that Republicans are picking cultural fights to distract them from an economic agenda that mostly benefits the rich. “We have to put to bed this idea [that] we can have an economic message that doesn’t address the racial grievance and fear of change that is at the center of all this culture-war stuff,” argued Fernandez, whose group funds candidates and organizations focused on building a multiracial electoral coalition.

The debate among Democrats ultimately comes down to whether Biden is skillfully controlling the electoral battlefield or trying to resurrect a coalition that no longer exists (centered on working-class families) at the expense of dividing or demoralizing the coalition the party actually relies on today (revolving around young people, college-educated white voters, and racial minority voters). Several Democratic strategists told me that one obvious challenge with Biden’s trying to define the election around the question of which party can deliver the best economic results for working-class families is that polls throughout his presidency have found that more Americans would pick the GOP. “People still think that Trump economics was better for them than Biden or Obama economics,” Celinda Lake, who served as one of Biden’s lead campaign pollsters in 2020, told me.

To Lake, that’s an argument for Biden’s strategy of stressing kitchen-table concerns, because she believes the party cannot win unless it narrows the GOP advantage on the economy. But other Democrats believe today’s party is less likely to persuade a national majority that it is  better than Republicans for their finances than it is to convince them that the Trump-era GOP constitutes a threat to their rights, values, and democracy itself. Biden’s response to the Republican initiatives censoring teachers, rolling back abortion access, and threatening LGBTQ rights “simply cannot be ‘more jobs,’” Woodbury said. “If Democrats insist on fighting exclusively on economic terms, every poll in America shows they will lose.”

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