The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden takes aim at a GOP triumvirate: Scott, Johnson, McCarthy

The president is targeting a trio of Republicans in his midterm rhetoric — a GOP campaign chief, a vulnerable senator and the would-be speaker.

President Biden and first lady Jill Biden before a Rose Garden event Wednesday on the Americans With Disabilities Act. (Tom Brenner/For the Washington Post )

President Biden stood in the Rose Garden, removing his aviator sunglasses and squinting into the sun before delivering a set of blistering remarks aimed at congressional Republicans and plans that he argues could jeopardize programs like Social Security and Medicare.

“I know you think I’m probably exaggerating,” he said, before displaying his evidence.

“There’s a pamphlet — a pamphlet,” he said, holding it up as the supportive crowd chuckled. “ ‘Twelve Point Plan to Rescue America,’ by Senator Scott of Florida. Okay?”

Over the course of five minutes, the president sought to ridicule a trio of prominent Republicans and cast a spotlight, this time not on the existential threat to democracy that he believes is posed by Donald Trump, but on the policy rollbacks that he forecasts will come if a different set of Republicans are empowered.

First it was Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, head of the committee trying to boost Senate Republican candidates. Then it was Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, perhaps the most vulnerable Senate Republican. Finally, it was House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the Californian and would-be speaker.

For a large portion of Biden’s presidency, he has sought to limit harsh partisan rhetoric as he courts a handful of Republicans to help enact his agenda. But as he shifts into a rawer campaign mode, he has started fine-tuning his attacks on this particular trio of Republicans who, while well-known to political junkies, are not exactly household names.

It’s a familiar role for Biden, who despite his professions of bipartisanship feasts on the political warfare that campaigns can bring. He often smiles as he delivers his barbs, his voice dripping with a can-you-believe-these-guys sarcasm.

The mission may be a little more complicated this year. Biden’s approval ratings are low and he is not the most desired commodity on the campaign trail.

He initially planned to deliver this week’s comments on Social Security and Medicare in Florida, Scott’s home state and a haven for elderly people who rely most heavily on those programs. The Democratic nominee for governor, Charlie Crist, was scheduled to join him, but the party’s nominee for U.S. Senate, Val Demings, was not. Ultimately the trip was canceled because of Hurricane Ian.

Targeting of the Republican trio has become a staple of Biden’s speeches, especially to partisan audiences.

“This is a different breed of cat. This is not — this is not your father’s Republican Party,” Biden said at a Democratic fundraiser Wednesday night, where he again mentioned Scott, Johnson and McCarthy. “There’s an awful lot of Republicans I admired … These are MAGA Republicans and a different breed.”

The three have put forth plans that Biden argues would take much-needed benefits from Americans, which they deny.

Biden has for months highlighted Scott and his proposal to “sunset” all federal programs after five years, meaning they would expire unless renewed. “If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again,” Scott says in his proposal.

Earlier this month, Scott tweeted a photo of himself outside the White House, writing that Biden had wanted to get more copies of his Rescue America plan. “So I stopped by the White House today to make sure he did,” Scott wrote. “Thanks for spreading the word, Joe!”

The White House eagerly hit back. “Couldn’t agree more, Rick,” Biden wrote on Twitter, urging people to read Scott’s plan and providing a link. “Thanks for stopping by.”

Some top Republicans have suggested that Scott’s approach is unwise — “That will not be part of the Republican Senate majority agenda,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said when Scott’s plan was released — but that hasn’t stopped Biden from trying to make Scott the face of the GOP.

And if the Florida senator wanted to draw more attention to his plan, Biden was happy to do so on Tuesday. Scott’s plan does not specifically say Social Security or Medicare will expire, but it recommends that “all federal legislation sunsets in 5 years.”

“Senator Scott has proposed the plan where Social Security, Medicare — every five years on the chopping block,” the president said, holding up the pamphlet. “It means every five years, you either cut it, it reduces, or completely eliminate it.”

Scott has said he’s not trying to eliminate either program, and that his proposal is aimed at reining in federal spending by eliminating unneeded programs.

Asked for response to Biden’s comments, his office pointed to the storm in his home state. “Senator Scott has been entirely focused on Hurricane Ian,” communications director McKinley Lewis said.

Over the past few weeks, Biden has added new lines focused on Johnson. “And then along comes Ron Johnson of Wisconsin,” he’ll say, often prompting boos from the crowd. “God love him.”

He points to Johnson’s calls for repealing the Affordable Care Act and his proposal that federal programs must be reauthorized annually. “He thinks waiting five years — every five years is too long to wait. Not a joke. These are actually in writing, okay?” Biden said. “He wants to put Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block every single year in every budget.”

Johnson quickly took issue with that characterization. “Democrats may have broken a record for the number of lies told about me in one day,” Johnson wrote on Twitter following Biden’s remarks. “I want to save Social Security, Medicare and Veterans benefits. The greatest threat to these programs is the massive, out-of-control deficit spending enacted by Biden and Dems in Congress.”

Now that McCarthy has unveiled a House Republican plan called “Commitment to America,” he has joined Biden’s GOP trio of targets. One of the plan’s top goals is repealing the Inflation Reduction Act, Biden’s sweeping legislation that includes such items as letting Medicare negotiate for lower prices on prescription drugs.

“All those things that I mentioned we’re going to do, they get rid of all of them — all of them — with the repeal,” Biden said. “I have a different idea. I’ll protect those programs.”

McCarthy’s office pointed to an earlier response when Biden first criticized the plan.

“Under Biden & House Democrats’ watch, wages are down while crime and illegal border crossings are up,” McCarthy tweeted at the time. “They have NO plan to fix it but offer plenty of excuses. House Republicans, with our Commitment to America, have a plan for a new direction to get America back on track.”

White House aides suggest that Biden will continue focusing on Johnson, Scott and McCarthy.

“Those are the three that have been very vocal about the GOP agenda,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Wednesday. “Those are the three that have been very vocal about putting Medicare and Social Security on the chopping block.”

One Republican leader, however, has largely been spared Biden’s criticisms. He has often refrained from attacking McConnell, who served with him in the Senate for more than two decades and with whom he has a record of working together. “I think Senator McConnell is a rational Republican,” Biden said in May, suggesting they could come to an agreement on gun policy, which they did.

“Mitch, I don’t want to hurt your reputation, but we really are friends,” he said during the National Prayer Breakfast earlier this year, motioning toward McConnell. “And that is not an epiphany we’re having here at the moment. You’ve always done exactly what you’ve said. You’re a man of word, and you’re a man of honor. Thank you for being my friend.”