6 min read

Does Biden need to drop the script?

Politicians have a long history of making gaffes at fundraisers. Maybe Biden should lean into his.
Does Biden need to drop the script?
Photo by the White House

Good morning! It’s Thursday, February 22, 2024. Election Day is 257 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Before we start this morning, two corrections: I got two dates wrong in yesterday’s newsletter. Both parties will hold their Michigan primaries on February 27; the GOP will then hold caucus conventions on March 2 to award the remainder of the state’s delegates. President Biden is set to deliver his State of the Union address on March 7. My sincere apologies for the errors.

When politicians get comfortable, they tend to make mistakes. And, revealingly, the place many politicians seem to be most comfortable is at high-dollar fundraisers with wealthy donors.

Every cycle seems to bring yet another legendary political slip-up at a fundraiser: Barack Obama saying that small-town voters “cling to guns or religion” at a San Francisco fundraiser in 2008. Mitt Romney saying that “47%” of Americans are “dependent upon government” and won’t vote for him at a Boca Raton fundraiser in 2012. Hillary Clinton saying that half of Donald Trump’s supporters fall into a “basket of deplorables” at a Manhattan fundraiser in 2016.

These were all portrayed in the press as major “gaffes” — a favored word for when politicians say things they shouldn’t — and more specifically as “Kinsley gaffes,” a category named after longtime journalist Michael Kinsley, who famously said that “a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth.”

Note that this doesn’t mean that any of the above statements were literally true. But all of those fundraiser gaffes revealed something true about how these politicians viewed the world — and, in each of these examples, something true about how they viewed voters who did not support them.

Joe Biden — who frequently recites the line, “No one ever doubts that I mean what I say; the problem is sometimes I say all that I mean” — is no stranger to making gaffes, Kinsley or otherwise. And, like his political contemporaries, many of these accidental comments tend to come at closed-door fundraisers.

Since taking office, Biden has frequently gone off-script at donor events, whether by calling Chinese president Xi Jinping a “dictator” or referring to Trump as practicing “semi-fascism” or warning that the world could be on the brink of “Armageddon” due to the prospect of Russia using nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

But what if, in Biden’s case, he should be going off script more and not less?

Take last night, for instance. Here are three comments Biden made yesterday at a San Francisco fundraiser that you wouldn’t hear him making in public. (While presidential fundraisers are closed to cameras, a pool reporter is typically on hand to record the president’s remarks; the White House also releases transcripts after the fact.)

  • He called Russian president Vladimir Putin a “crazy SOB.”
  • He struck back at Trump for comparing his own criminal indictments to the death of Alexei Navalny. “If I stood here 10 to 15 years ago and said all this, you’d all think I should be committed,” Biden said.
  • He said that today’s Republican lawmakers are worse than segregationists. “I’ve been a senator since ’72,” he said. “I’ve served with real racists. I’ve served with Strom Thurmond. I’ve served with all these guys that have set terrible records on race. But guess what? These guys are worse. These guys do not believe in basic democratic principles.”

Each of these comments, predictably, led to backlash from their targets: the Kremlin called the Putin line a “huge disgrace.” Trump’s campaign suggested that Biden was “saying the quiet part out loud” by suggesting he should be committed. And House Speaker Mike Johnson said comparing Republican congressmen to Thurmond was “outrageous.”

But, maybe, these are the exact kinds of zingers Biden should be taking public, both to make his re-election arguments against Trump explicit and to hit back at lingering questions about his mental acuity. “Fundraiser Joe Biden would have an approval rating 2-3 points higher than Formal President Joe Biden,” Nick Field of the forecasting site Decision Desk HQ joked last night on Twitter.

There’s a great scene in Franklin Foer’s recent Biden biography, “The Last Politician,” where the then-VP tells a friend that, essentially, Obama was too posh to swear right. “Obama didn’t know how to say ‘fuck you’ properly,” Biden reportedly said, “with the right elongation of vowels and the necessary hardness of his consonants; it was how they must curse in the ivory tower.”

Maybe Biden needs to drop a few more “SOBs” — as he generally only does behind closed doors — to win a second term. Voters need to hear him in full “Kinsley mode”: offering an unvarnished view of how he views the world.

One way to think about this is that fundraisers seem to be the Trumpiest that Biden gets — at least rhetorically. He cracks jokes. He swears. He needles his opponents. Frequently, he tries to make light of his vulnerabilities, as he did last night when Nancy Pelosi quoted Aristotle. “I knew him well,” Biden cracked.

Oftentimes, according to press reports, when Biden speaks at fundraisers, he does so without notes. Contrast that with his public appearances, where it often appears that he is straining to read his Teleprompter. He squints; he stumbles — he looks his age.

To regain his mojo, perhaps Biden needs to inject a dose of Trump-like authenticity into his remarks — by dropping the script and speaking candidly, as he does at fundraisers. Often, these fundraisers are when he seems to be most clear about his own mission, speaking searingly about January 6th and Trump and Republicans.

Why don’t his advisers include these kinds of comments in his scripted remarks?

Matt Yglesias has speculated that it’s because fundraisers are also where Biden returns to his moderate instincts, such as at the event this month where Biden said, “I’m a practicing Catholic. I don’t want abortion on demand but I thought Roe v. Wade was right.” Such a comment — although it would likely be popular with the electorate — is anathema to Biden’s progressive staffers, Yglesias wrote, and therefore doesn’t make it out of the fundraising circuit.

That might be true. In all likelihood, they’re also afraid of “letting Biden be Biden” for other reasons — worried that he could spark international outcries, like he did with the Xi “dictator” remark, or show his age, like he did at a series of recent fundraisers where he mistakenly referred to 2021 conversations with long-dead leaders.

But his age is already showing. And, clearly, Biden’s campaign of caution isn’t working. Why not let Fundraiser Biden out of the lab?

More news to know.

The day ahead.

White House: President Biden will attend a campaign fundraiser in Los Altos Hills, California. Vice President Harris will hold a roundtable conversation on abortion in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Congress: The House and Senate are both out for the week.

Supreme Court: The justices have no oral arguments scheduled.

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