April 30, 2024 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Joe Biden is the most combative Democratic nominee in decades

The other side of “abnormal politics.”

Courtesy of MSNBC, via screenshot.
Courtesy of MSNBC, via screenshot.

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I want to bring your attention to the subtext beneath every discussion of “abnormal politics” in this year’s presidential election. That subtext is always about Donald Trump. He’s the abnormal one, not Joe Biden. This is understandable. After all, he’s the only candidate in our lifetimes who has openly said he wants to be a dictator “on day one” and warned of a “bloodbath” if he loses. 

But “abnormal politics” also applies to Biden, to wit: I have never seen a more combative Democratic nominee, incumbent or challenger. Perhaps the last liberal warrior was Vice President Hubert Humphrey, in 1968, before I was born, or maybe President Lyndon Johnson before him. What’s certain is everyone is used to seeing a Republican “punch” a Democrat. No one* is used to seeing a Democrat “punch back.” 

Consider last weekend’s main event, the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. I couldn’t believe Biden’s opener: “I want to thank you for the warm welcome, but please. Not so loud. Donald is listening. ‘Sleepy Don’ – I kinda like that. I might use that again.”

This is, of course, a reversal of Trump’s own insult for Biden. He’s been calling Biden “Sleepy Joe” since at least the 2020 election. But then the former president went to court in Manhattan two weeks ago, to face fraud charges, and he fell asleep. He kept falling asleep. Biden could have retrained himself. He could have taken the high road, which is what most expect of Democrats. He didn’t. And it was glorious. (Notably, Trump has not used “Sleepy Joe” since his trial started.)

But the president didn’t just pick on Trump for the sake of picking on him, the way Trump picks on anyone he deems subhuman. Biden told this tidy joke, fully conscious of the dominant issue of the election so far: “I’m campaigning all over the country — Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina. I’ve always done well in the original 13 colonies.”

And: “It’s been a year since I delivered this speech, and my wife, Jill, who is with me tonight, was worried how I’d do. I told her: ‘Don’t worry. It’s just like riding a bike.’ She said: ‘That’s what I’m worried about.'”

Then, after laughing at himself, Biden unleashed this one, summing up in one joke about his age the profound, and profoundly asymmetrical, choice ahead of us. “The 2024 election is in full swing,” he said, “and yes, age is an issue. I’m a grown man running against a six-year-old.”

Putdowns at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner are only the latest evidence underscoring my point. Since January, the president’s campaign people, and the nominee himself, have taken to regularly referring to Donald Trump as a liar and loser, even a coward.

Here’s campaign spokesman Michael Tyler on Trump’s role in reviving an 1864 law banning abortion in Arizona (it has since been repealed): “Trump lies constantly — about everything — but has one track record: banning abortion every chance he gets. The guy who wants to be a dictator on day one will use every tool at his disposal to ban abortion nationwide, with or without Congress, and running away from reporters to his private jet like a coward doesn’t change that reality.”

Last week, in a speech in Florida on restoring Roe, Biden said “it was Trump who ripped away the rights of women in America.” Biden added: “He said there has to be punishment for women exercising their reproductive freedom … Maybe it’s coming from that bible he’s trying to sell. I almost wanted to buy one just to see what the hell is in it.”

Biden has even dabbled in the rhetoric of violence. In accepting the endorsement of the North America’s Building Trades Unions, he “repeatedly torched his likely Republican opponent as a callous businessman who turned firing people into entertainment as part of his long-running reality show ‘The Apprentice,’” the AP reported

Then Biden said this: Trump “looks down on us. I’m not joking. Think about it. Think about the guys you grew up with that you’d like to get in the corner and just give him a straight left. I’m not suggesting you hit the president. But we all know those guys growing up” (my italics). 

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Biden’s combativeness isn’t for Trump alone. He’s saving some for the press corps, especially the Times. It has made a fetish of his age. Biden hasn’t sat for an interview with the paper, something that has personally insulted publisher AG Sulzberger, according to Politico

“All these Biden people think that the problem is Peter Baker or whatever reporter they’re mad at that day,” one Times journalist told Politico. “It’s AG. He’s the one who is pissed [that] Biden hasn’t done any interviews and quietly encourages all the tough reporting on his age.” Evidently, “only an interview with a paper like the Times can verify that the 81-year-old Biden is still fit to hold the presidency.”

As if mocking Sulzberger, Biden sat for a very long interview last week with satellite radio host Howard Stern. Then, at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Biden said: “Of course, the New York Times issued a statement blasting me for ‘actively and effectively avoiding independent journalists.’ Hey, if that’s what it takes to get the New York Times to say I’m ‘active and effective,’ I’m for it.” And then this kiss off: “I have higher standards. I do interviews with strong, independent journalists, who millions of people actually listen to, like Howard Stern.”

When it comes to “abnormal politics,” Donald Trump gets all the attention. But let’s remember the flip side. If anyone has seen such a combative Democratic nominee, it’s been so long they’ve forgotten what it looks like. For better or worse, Joe Biden is changing that.

*I don’t remember Joe Biden being this aggressive as a challenger during the 2020 campaign, though he was plenty aggressive. So was Hillary Clinton. But neither seems to match what I’m seeing now.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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