The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Semi-fascism’: Rhetoric reflects newly aggressive Biden strategy

With sharp attacks on the GOP and individual Republicans, Biden and the White House signal they will not rely solely on touting the president’s accomplishments during the midterm campaign

President Biden reiterated his more aggressive tone toward Republicans when he met with the press during his walk to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Friday. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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Throughout his presidency, Joe Biden has been cautious with his rhetoric, often avoiding any deep discussion of his predecessor — whom he initially would not even call by name, referring to him as “the former guy” — and generally skirting around the kinds of broad denunciations of the Republican Party that other Democrats gladly participated in.

But that Joe Biden has faded.

On Thursday night, he used newly ramped-up rhetoric in ways that the White House and Biden’s political advisers are signaling will be part of a no-holds-barred strategy for the midterms. The president accused the GOP of “semi-fascism” and said he doesn’t respect, and can’t work with, “MAGA Republicans” who he said “embrace political violence.” He hardened his assertion that democracy is under threat, and said the country could be facing the sort of test that comes every few generations, “one of the moments that changes everything.”

From a high school auditorium in Rockville, Md., Biden also mocked Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) for touting a local project he had voted against. White House aides spent the late afternoon using the official Twitter account — normally reserved for policy charts, press releases and fact sheets — to go on the attack. They went viral by naming Republicans, like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz, who had criticized student loan forgiveness while benefiting from their own business loan forgiveness. The tweets had more engagements and retweets than almost any other from Biden’s White House, or previous ones.

It all amounted to a clear sign that Biden and the Democrats will not rely solely on touting his legislation and other accomplishments, as some Democrats feared he would do, but will directly accuse Republicans of fascism and violence in an attempt to raise the stakes of the midterms to the survival of democracy itself.

“It’s not hyperbole,” Biden said. “Now you need to vote to literally save democracy again.”

To a constellation of Democrats who have urged Biden to use the full powers of the presidential bully pulpit, it was a welcome shift, and one that Biden advisers said voters would see more of.

“There are two Joe Bidens: There’s governing Joe Biden, and there’s campaigning Joe Biden,” said Celinda Lake, a longtime Democratic pollster who worked for his 2020 presidential campaign. “One of the things he is realizing is that to be effective in governing, you have to show some of the strength and set up the choice for voters.”

She said that in numerous focus groups, even those who voted for Biden had questioned whether he had the vigor to advance priorities that they cared about. “They have thought they weren’t seeing the strong fighter, the person they elected, and they attributed it to age and to weakness,” she said. “I hope we can anticipate more of this. People have been craving it.”

The shift also comes at a time when former president Donald Trump is facing increasing scrutiny in a way that often creates an odd split-screen of American politics. As the ex-president has faced investigations over his businesses, an FBI search of his home and congressional hearings into his actions, Biden has focused elsewhere. He has often received far less attention, but his allies hope that it shows he’s attempting to implement policies impacting large swaths of the country even as Trump garners cable news attention.

As an affidavit was released on Friday revealing that 184 classified files were found at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., in January, for example, Biden’s White House brought Bharat Ramamurti, deputy director of the National Economic Council, into the press briefing room to explain details of the student debt forgiveness plan.

But it was also clear that Biden’s more combative approach was no aberration.

As he was boarding Marine One outside the White House, reporters asked about claims that Trump had a standing order that all documents that he removed from the White House were automatically declassified.

Biden took on a sarcastic voice as he impersonated Trump. “ ‘I’ve declassified everything in the world. I’m president. I can do it all!’ ” he said. “C’mon!”

Biden has previously been willing to criticize Republicans, and his 2020 presidential campaign was largely about defeating Trump, who he argued was a unique threat to American values. But as president, he has often avoided taking on his GOP adversaries directly or personally.

That changed on Thursday, when Biden differentiated between Republicans he viewed as reasonable and those he did not. “I respect conservative Republicans,” he said. “I don’t respect these MAGA Republicans.”

Republicans criticized Biden for some of his rhetoric, with the Republican National Committee calling it “despicable” and others saying it was out of line. Pointing to the large number of Americans who voted for Trump, some suggested that Biden’s dismissing the Republican philosophy as “like semi-fascism” was similar to Hillary Clinton’s aside in 2016 that half of Trump’s supporters were a “basket of deplorables.”

But it was clear that Biden’s comments — a portion of which were made at a fundraiser where reporters were present, but TV cameras were not on — were delivered as intended. The White House defended the remarks Friday, including the line that much of the GOP has descended into “semi-fascism.”

“You look at the definition of fascism and you think about what they’re doing in attacking our democracy, what they’re doing and taking away our freedoms, wanting to take away our rights, our voting rights ― I mean, that is what that is,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “It is very clear.”

Biden himself, asked Friday what he had meant by “semi-fascism,” smiled broadly. “You know what I mean,” he said.

Biden advisers saw the events of Thursday night — which included a fundraiser that brought in $1 million and a rally that attracted 4,000 people, about double what they planned for — as the kickoff to the midterm campaign season. The president plans to visit Wilkes-Barre, Pa., next Tuesday to talk about gun crime, and advisers say he intends to travel a couple of times per week.

But while his approval ratings have ticked up recently, many candidates in the country’s most competitive races have avoided having Biden come to their states and districts. Still, they are hoping he can raise money and help frame the national debate.

That means more denunciation of Republicans, as well as proclaiming his own accomplishments. “You are going to just see a lot more of the same, because it is running on what he has gotten done, his vision and what he is fighting for,” said a Biden adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preview strategy.

Biden has long had a reputation as a bipartisan dealmaker and has boasted of working with staunch Republicans of yore, even those who are anathema to other Democrats, from Jesse Helms to Strom Thurmond. Many Democrats who ran against him in 2020 questioned his ability to directly take on a newer, more scorched-earth version of the Republican Party.

But throughout his career, Biden has relished the partisan warfare that comes every two years. It was one reason that President Barack Obama chose him as his running mate.

“Policy debates in the senate floor are one thing, but policy debates become political debates in November every two years, and that is his time to shine,” said Scott Mulhauser, a longtime Democratic consultant who served as Biden’s deputy chief of staff during the 2012 Obama-Biden campaign. “There is no one who loves throwing and landing a haymaker more than he does for a cause he believes in.”

And if Biden may at times court Republicans, there are other moments when he goes on the attack.

“We’ve pivoted,” Mulhauser said, “from the season of legislating to the season of politics and elections.”

Biden still touts his bipartisan legislation — including infrastructure spending, a law to aid veterans exposed to toxic burn pits and an effort to boost domestic semiconductor manufacturing — but his attempts to deal with Republicans in the current Congress have largely faded.

The president once predicted there would be an “epiphany” and an “altar call” among Republicans when Trump departed the scene, making them again open to bipartisanship. But on Thursday, he declared, “This is not your father’s Republican Party. This is a different deal.”

And Trump has not gone anywhere. “There’s been this great civil war in the Republican Party that’s played out, and it seems clear Trump won that civil war,” said Ben LaBolt, a strategist who worked in the Obama administration and has advised Biden’s team.

He added, “We’re approaching Election Day, that contrast is coming into view and the White House is saying: ‘We’re not going to pretend that this is on the level anymore.’ ”

Michael Scherer contributed to this report.