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Biden’s closing argument: Republicans would trash the economy

Amid voter anxiety, Democrats are warning that the GOP would gut Medicare and Social Security, shut down the government and send the economy into a tailspin

President Biden and first lady Jill Biden return to the White House after a tree-planting ceremony this week. (Tom Brenner/for The Washington Post)
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President Biden, in an 11th-hour effort to shift the debate over inflation and the economy, has begun warning voters that government shutdowns, entitlement cuts, debt defaults and general chaos loom if Republicans take control of Congress.

With the president’s agenda hanging in the balance in the final days before the Nov. 8 elections, Biden and other leading Democrats are seizing on the fear of disorder in an attempt to turn their liabilities on the economy into a political weapon.

President Biden rallied supporters and called out prominent Republicans at Democratic National Committee headquarters on Oct. 24. (Video: The Washington Post)

“Hear this closely: The Republicans have made it clear that if they win control of the Congress, they will shut down the government, refuse to pay our bills, and it’ll be the first time in our history America will default — unless I yield and cut Social Security and Medicare,” Biden said Monday in a speech to the Democratic National Committee. “There’s nothing — nothing — that will create more chaos, more inflation and more damage to the American economy than this.”

GOP threatens debt ceiling brinksmanship

In a speech at the White House on Wednesday, Biden acknowledged that it has taken his administration some time to address cost-of-living issues and said, “I appreciate the frustration of the American people.” But he warned that the ideas embraced by his opponents have a proven record of failure.

“There are two very different ways of looking at our country — one is, as I’ve said before, the view from Park Avenue, which says, ‘Help the wealthy and maybe that’ll trickle down to everyone in the country,’” Biden said. “The other is from Scranton or Claymont or thousands of cities across the country like the place I grew up.”

As these comments suggest, Biden has settled on a closing message that paints an increasingly dire picture of life should “ultra-MAGA” or “mega-MAGA” Republicans come into power, attempting to seize on Republicans’ own promises to use congressional votes on budgets and debt to force major spending cuts.

During a speech this month at a Volvo factory in Hagerstown, Md., Biden spent more time criticizing the GOP than talking about his own economic plans, lamenting that voters did not yet know about Republicans’ platform on the economy. With razor-thin majorities in the House and the Senate, Democrats risk losing control of both chambers if a handful of seats flip to the opposing party.

“When it comes to the next Congress, this isn’t a referendum — it’s a choice,” Biden said, a refrain he has repeated several times over the past few weeks.

While his shots at Republicans are becoming more pointed, the president is continuing to tout his efforts to help the middle class. He makes regular visits to factory sites to highlight the jobs he says his agenda has created, including a trip Thursday to Upstate New York, where Micron Technology has announced plans to build a $100 billion semiconductor plant.

His speech Wednesday was focused on administration efforts to eliminate so-called “junk fees” charged by banks, airlines and other businesses that Biden said often catch consumers off guard.

Biden’s new tone reflects the success Republican candidates have found in blaming the president and his party for the high price of food and gas, as well as for perceived increases in crime and illegal immigration. Polls and analysts are increasingly predicting a strong Republican showing on Nov. 8, prompting Biden to search with growing urgency for ways to change the dynamic.

While Biden’s attacks have grown fiercer as the election has drawn nearer, the strategy of calling out Republican economic plans traces back several months to this spring, when Biden seized on the release of an 11-point policy document by Republican Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), according to a Biden adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy.

The plan from Scott, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, calls for taxing low-income Americans who pay no federal income tax and for “sunsetting” all federal laws every five years, potentially putting mandatory spending programs such as Medicare and Social Security at risk.

Rick Scott's scorched-earth style

Branding such policies part of the “ultra-MAGA” agenda — a reference to former president Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan — Biden sought to contrast his own efforts to get things done with the proclamations of “extremist” Republicans. White House aides say the message was able to connect with voters and credit it with helping Biden notch a string of legislative victories this summer.

The president is increasing his attacks now in part because Republicans have continued to lay out new positions that the White House believes would be unpopular with voters, said the Biden adviser familiar with the administration’s strategy.

Biden’s warnings of a potential default on U.S. government debt are perhaps his sharpest so far, coming after several top Republicans raised the prospect of using the debt ceiling as leverage in future policy negotiations. Under the current system, Congress must approve the debt even for obligations it has already incurred — and if it does not do so, economists say the resulting default would jolt the economy.

“They’ll threaten the very foundations of the American economy if we don’t meet their demands,” Biden said Friday.

Biden — who often tells audiences he’s “not making this up” — has implored voters to look specifically at what Republicans have said on the economy.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who could become speaker if the GOP wins the House, suggested last week that his party would be willing to use a debt-limit vote as leverage to force policy changes.

Rep. Jason T. Smith (R-Mo.), a top contender to lead the House Ways and Means Committee, said voters expect Congress to use “every tool” to combat inflation, strengthen the economy and achieve other goals. “The debt ceiling absolutely is one of those tools,” he said in a statement to The Washington Post.

As Republicans have rolled out a number of policy positions in recent weeks, Biden has expanded his criticism and offered more dire predictions about what would happen if Democrats lose control of Congress.

He has said the GOP would blow up the deficit with tax cuts for the wealthy, increase inflation by rolling back his signature Inflation Reduction Act, and target popular programs such as Social Security and Medicare for steep cuts.

Republicans have said Biden is simply trying to change the subject from his own shaky economic record and the steep inflation Americans have experienced under his watch.

The White House notes that during Biden’s tenure, the economy has created millions of jobs, the federal deficit has shrunk significantly, and Democrats have passed bills to tackle the costs of prescription drugs, energy and more. But those arguments have had limited effect on anxious voters.

Few GOP candidates have responded directly to Biden’s latest attacks, perhaps a sign that they do not feel vulnerable on an issue on which voters generally trust Republicans more than Democrats.

Doug Heye, a Republican strategist who worked for House GOP leaders during the debt ceiling battles between Congress and President Barack Obama, said Biden’s warnings of impending disorder ring hollow because so many Americans are already dealing with historic inflation.

“This doesn’t appear to be something that will be salient to voters,” Heye said. “He’s still talking about ‘in theory’ versus ‘in practice,’ when what families have gone through over the past couple of years has been chaotic for them.”

The shift in rhetoric from Biden comes as a growing number of Democrats have called on party leaders to drive a more pointed economic message ahead of the midterms. This year, Biden and many Democratic candidates believed that the Supreme Court ruling rolling back abortion rights; hearings by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol showing threats to democracy; and other issues would be more decisive for voters.

But those issues have faded somewhat from headlines, while the economy has continued to be a source of angst for voters, spurring more Democrats and their allies to push the White House to tailor its messaging to counter Republican arguments on inflation and a potential recession.

“In my view, while the abortion issue must remain on the front burner, it would be political malpractice for Democrats to ignore the state of the economy and allow Republican lies and distortions to go unanswered,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wrote this month in an op-ed for the Guardian. Sanders argues that Republicans’ policies promote a vast wealth gap between the super rich and everyone else.

White House aides say Biden will continue to tout his economic record while calling out Republicans for their proposals, contending that the two messages are mutually reinforcing. The president also plans to continue to draw a contrast between himself and his foes on other issues, ranging from abortion to democracy to civil rights, an adviser said.

Biden campaigned for president on his ability to work in a bipartisan fashion, and he has passed a number of bills with Republican support. But as the election nears and many Republican nominees continue to deny the 2020 election results, he has been more willing to cast the opposition as a party of extremists.

This summer, Biden denounced “MAGA Republicans,” saying “they’re a threat to our very democracy” and accusing them of moving toward “semi-fascism.” In a speech last month, he clarified that he was not talking about all, or even most, Republicans.

In the weeks since, as Biden’s attacks have shifted to the economy, the president has cast a wide net in describing the risks he felt the country would face if the GOP succeeds in November’s elections.

“We have to remind people what the Republicans are for, this new Republican Party,” Biden said Friday during a reception for Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s Democratic candidate for Senate. “This is not your father’s Republican Party, as I said. This a different group of people.”