White House

As other Democratic candidates close in on Biden, Trump tries to ‘soften up the front-runner’

President calls former VP a ‘reclamation project’ after sluggish debate performance

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s sluggish performance at last month’s Democratic debate has not escaped President Donald Trump’s notice. (Getty Images file photos/Composition by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)

Democratic White House front-runner Joe Biden has slipped in the polls, but President Donald Trump has only intensified his attempts to discredit and disqualify the former vice president.

In the last five days alone, the president has dubbed his potential 2020 rival “sleepy” and “a reclamation project,” suggesting in one tweet that “some things are just not salvageable.” He has asserted that China and other countries are “begging” for a President Biden so they can get back to trade tactics that “ripped us off for years.”

Trump has also alleged that as a Delaware senator and vice president, Biden — whose late son Beau Biden served in Iraq as an officer in the Delaware Army National guard and who ends his speeches with some version of the words “May God protect our troops” — “deserted our military, our law enforcement and our health care.”

And Trump has told his followers that Biden, if elected, would be “substantially raising everyone’s taxes.” He’s also accused Biden of adding “more debt than all other presidents combined.” (The latter assertion is false. Senators and vice presidents cannot single-handedly rack up federal debt.)

It appears Trump smells blood in the political waters.

And that’s because Biden — who regularly attacks the president as a threat to America’s democracy and values — has dropped in several polls since a rocky performance in the Democratic presidential debate last month. He has since admitted to being unprepared for a broadside from California Sen. Kamala Harris over his past opposition to federally mandated busing and his comments about working with segregationists on legislation early in his Senate career.

Still a threat

Biden was on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, working to make inroads with Hispanic lawmakers, some of whom fault the Obama administration for not following through on a promised overhaul of immigration laws. 

“I would say there was tension in the room,” California Rep. Lou Correa said after a private breakfast Biden had with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Biden, however, “said the right things,” committing not just to work on the issue but to get it done, Correa said. 

GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said Trump and his campaign team are focusing on Biden because when it comes to the voters the president needs to win a second term, they find Biden harder to disqualify than the other Democrats.

“That’s seniors, that’s working-class whites, that’s Cubans and conservative Hispanics, and that’s suburban females. Joe Biden has the most potential to perform well with each of those groups,” said O’Connell, also an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. “When you look at what the president’s doing, it makes perfect sense through that particular lens. … He’s trying to soften up the front-runner so the other Democratic candidates can take him down.”

[Pelosi: Debt limit vote possible before August recess]

A senior White House official did not dismiss that description of the president’s tactics when approached on Wednesday.

Arindam Mukerjee of Philadelphia made the two-hour trek to Washington last week to take in Independence Day in the nation’s capital. He said he is not a Trump supporter, adding that he wishes the president would not be so harsh when mentioning his political rivals in tweets or public remarks.

“But I do think it’s effective,” he said near the Washington Monument on July 4. “I do worry that it works for him. There is a certain segment of the population that believes all the hyperbole that he says. I mean, even Republicans know he’s putting on a show, but they don’t seem to care. They’ll support him no matter what.”

Then again, the president’s tweets could backfire. Some voters interviewed by CQ Roll Call during a recent swing through Pennsylvania and in Washington on July 4 said they wanted Trump to stop tweeting or switch to a softer tone. Polls also suggest Biden remains the most attractive candidate for Democratic voters considering how to oust Trump. Recent surveys gave him leads between 6 and 10 points in head-to-head matchups against Trump

‘Cuts out the media’

Also in D.C. for July Fourth was Ohio resident Joel Guthrie, whose white hair poked out from under his red “Make America Great Again” cap as drizzle fell about an hour before U.S. military bomber and fighter aircraft, helicopters and even Air Force One flew over the National Mall as part of Trump’s unprecedented Independence Day spectacle. He said the president should continue going after his opponents on Twitter because “it cuts out the media.”

“See, the media translates what he says into what they want us to hear,” he said. “President Trump is a tough leader, and he should do what he needs to do. I think he’ll win in 2020, and the tweets help him talk directly to us.”

After last month’s debate, Biden and his wife, Jill, sat for a lengthy interview with CNN to try to stop the political bleeding. Jill Biden told host Chris Cuomo she thinks voters “didn’t buy” Harris’ criticism of her husband — but polls suggests otherwise.

[Pete Buttigieg, youngest of 2020 hopefuls, was unwilling to wait his turn in 2010 too]

For instance, a post-debate Morning Consult survey found 31 percent of Democratic primary voters saying they would support Biden, a drop of 7 points from before the debate. Among black primary voters, the former vice president was at 38 percent, falling 8 points from a pre-debate poll. (Biden still led the crowded field, among all voters and black voters, in the Morning Consult survey.) Harris, meanwhile, climbed up to third place among both groups after the debate, Morning Consult found, with only Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders separating her and Biden. 

Another survey, from Emerson Polling, showed Biden losing 4 points since early June — while extending his lead over his Democratic rivals. Harris picked up ground, climbing 8 points to 15 percent. Sanders lost substantial ground, according to Emerson, dropping from 27 percent to 15 percent.

The debate exchange with Harris and its fallout prompted not only the CNN interview but a Biden apology on Sunday at a campaign event in South Carolina, an early primary state where African Americans make up around 60 percent of Democratic primary voters. 

“Was I wrong a few weeks ago to somehow give the impression to people that I was praising those men who I successfully opposed time and again? Yes, I was. I regret it,” Biden said. “I’m sorry for any of the pain or misconception I may have caused anybody.”

Harris did not fully accept his apology, however, saying there remains “a point of disagreement between he and I.” On Sunday, she added this: “We cannot rewrite history about what segregationists were doing at that time on a number of issues, including opposing busing.”

But, as he often does via his preferred means of communications, the president had already weighed in with a tweet: “Sleepy Joe Biden just admitted he worked with segregationists.”

Stephanie Akin contributed to this report.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.