President Biden has embarked on a risky strategy by vilifying “MAGA Republicans” ahead of the midterm elections, according to political strategists who say the escalation in rhetoric may invigorate the Democratic base but is a turnoff for the average voter.
Battling persistently low approval ratings, a souring economy and soaring crime, Mr. Biden has abandoned his pledge to be a “president for all people” and has doubled down on campaign rhetoric casting his political opponents as anti-democratic extremists in his final push to salvage Democrats’ seats in Congress.
The strategy ignores centrist voters who are more likely to be swayed by policy positions and the state of the economy, said political pollster and analyst John Couvillon.
Although stoking fears and smearing Republicans may attenuate some Democratic losses in the midterms, the strategy could cost the party down the road, he said.
“It seems like what you have is a win-at-all-cost approach, which is to do everything you can to make your base happy,” Mr. Couvillon said. “But I see that as a short-term strategy that is not a sustainable one. He may think he is getting short-term victories now, but he still has two years to govern. And if voters think that all you’re doing is just constantly banging up against the opposition, I think that’s going to cost him votes in 2024.”
Mr. Biden shows no sign of cooling the political tensions that have begun to boil over.
The president kicked off the Democrats’ fall campaign push by labeling former President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” political agenda as “semi-fascism” during a Democratic National Committee fundraiser.
Days later, during a prime-time address before the dramatically lit backdrop at Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, Mr. Biden framed the midterm elections this year as an eternal battle for “the soul of America.”
He accused “MAGA Republicans” of refusing to recognize free and fair elections, talking about violence in response to political policies they don’t like and working to thwart “the will of the people.” Mr. Biden tore into Trump loyalists for refusing to accept the outcome of the 2020 election. “Democracy cannot survive” under their belief system, he said.
The president insisted that he wasn’t painting Republicans with a broad brush, but rather targeting Mr. Trump’s followers who he said “dominated” and “intimidated” mainstream Republicans.
“MAGA Republicans have made their choice. They embrace anger. They thrive on chaos. They live not in the light of truth but in the shadow of lies,” Mr. Biden said.
When pressed last week after his remarks in Philadelphia about whether he thought all Trump supporters deserved to be labeled as threats to the country, Mr. Biden said he drew the line at those who refused to accept the 2020 election results and those who called for the use of violence.
“I don’t consider any Trump supporter to be a threat to the country,” Mr. Biden said. “People voted for Donald Trump, support him now. They weren’t voting for attacking the Capitol. They weren’t voting for overruling an election. They were voting for a philosophy he put forward.”
The president’s attempt to clarify his remarks has done little to quell the criticism.
“It’s completely antithetical to claim on one day that MAGA Republicans are a threat to equality and democracy and then to say, ‘I don’t consider any Trump supporters a threat to the country,’” said Richard Vatz, a professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson University. “There’s no way to reconcile those two points.”
In a nationwide survey by the Trafalgar Group in the days after Mr. Biden’s speech in Philadelphia, 56.8% of respondents said the speech was a “dangerous escalation in rhetoric designed to incite conflict among Americans.”
Just 35% of those polled viewed the rhetoric as “acceptable campaign messaging” in an election year.
Among third-party and independent voters, 62.4% viewed the speech as dangerous, compared with 31.2% who said it was acceptable campaign rhetoric.
Nonetheless, the White House has stood by the escalation in rhetoric.
“It wasn’t divisive,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday when pressed on Mr. Biden’s remarks in Philadelphia. “The way that we saw the speech is that he was talking to the majority of the country who agree that we have to protect our democracy.
Mr. Biden used his Labor Day campaign speeches this week to hurl more criticism. He told supporters in battleground Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that Mr. Trump and his loyalists pose a threat to their freedoms.
“This is not your father’s Republican Party,” the president told a group of steelworkers gathered at his union hall address in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania. “This is a totally different party, man. These guys are different. It’s clear which way the new MAGA Republicans are. They’re extreme. And democracy is really at stake.”
Mr. Couvillon and Mr. Vatz say the escalation in partisanship ahead of the midterms is a reflection of a broader hollowing-out of the middle in political discourse.
“I don’t remember many politicians who have changed as radically as Joe Biden,” Mr. Vatz said. “I don’t see any difference in the rhetoric now between Trump and Biden. I really think that they are supporters of each other’s rhetoric in a sense.”
Still, Mr. Couvillon said, no politician can be successful without building broad support.
“You have a group of people in politics who only contemplate playing to the base and demonizing the opposition without really understanding that politics is all about building and maintaining coalitions,” he said. “Presidents do best when they stay above the fray.”