Analysis: An ‘all-in’ Biden bets on insurgent approach

COLUMBUS — First lady Jill Biden avoided directly invoking the question that’s come to define her husband’s reelection bid: whether President Joe Biden is mentally and physically capable of serving another four-year term.

But her eight-minute remarks to a crowd of hundreds in Columbus on Monday highlighted another strategy that’s shaping the campaign. As the president fights to extend his political life, he’s betting that reframing the race as an us-against-the-world fight will pay off.

“Joe has made it clear he’s all in,” Jill Biden said after chants of “four more years” died down. “I’m all in, too. And I know you are, too, or you wouldn’t be here today.”

Since his dismal performance last month in the CNN debate in Atlanta, the president and his campaign have attacked “elites in the party,” the “bedwetting brigade” and the “self-important podcasters” sparking panic in the party.

He’s casting himself as an insurgent incumbent by painting the small but growing ranks of liberal pundits, wealthy donors and congressional Democrats demanding he step aside as the gasps of an establishment bent on usurping the people’s will.

“I don’t care what those big names think,” he told MSNBC on Monday. “They were wrong in 2020. They’re wrong in 2022 about the red wave. They’re wrong in 2024.”

President Joe Biden poses for a photo Sunday with a supporter at a campaign rally in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Credit: AP

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Credit: AP

Now a campaign that frames Biden as the only Democrat who can defeat former President Donald Trump is gambling that supporters will swallow their fears about his physical and mental health if its means holding off Trump.

“We love an underdog and, once again, Joe Biden is running a campaign like an underdog. And that’s where he runs best,” former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Biden adviser, told the Politically Georgia podcast. “Any great politician runs like they’re 20 points behind.”

Even Biden’s most stalwart supporters aren’t sure the strategy will work. Some arrived in Columbus on Monday evening in need of reassurance. Judy Varnett, a retired nurse, lingered long after Jill Biden departed and left feeling more upbeat.

“We really needed the pep talk,” she said. “So many of my friends are discouraged and rethinking their choices. And I’m trying to remind them there’s no real choice except Biden.”

‘Not going anywhere’

His comeback strategy in Georgia, where he trails Trump by single digits in most polls, hinges on Black voters, the same constituency that helped rescue his candidacy in 2020 after poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire during primary season.

Not so long ago, media reports were full of critical coverage about whether Black support in Georgia was waning. While those concerns haven’t dissipated, Black elected officials remain the most important bulwark of Biden’s support.

“If they have to wheel him in or carry him in, I will still vote for him,” said state Rep. Billy Mitchell, a prominent Black legislator. “He’s been a great president. There’s no reason to abandon him.”

State Rep. Billy Mitchell, D-Stone Mountain, continues to support President Joe Biden's reelection bid despite his poor showing in last month's debate in Atlanta against former President Donald Trump. “If they have to wheel him in or carry him in, I will still vote for him,” Mitchell said. “He’s been a great president. There’s no reason to abandon him.” Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

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Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

The internal turmoil has turned otherwise rote events in Georgia into new tests of enthusiasm for Biden. The opening over the weekend of a DeKalb County campaign office took on a circuslike atmosphere, while Jill Biden was accompanied by a clutch of national reporters Monday for an appearance that a few weeks ago might merit scant attention.

Some spoke candidly about the price the infighting has exacted on the party’s psyche. Bob Christian already faced a difficult fight against GOP U.S. Rep. Rich McCormick in a district drawn to favor Republicans.

“The best argument for Joe Biden is Joe Biden’s success,” he said. “He had a disappointing debate and he is showing signs of decline. But we are way better off than we were four years ago. And all this talk of abandoning him will destroy our chances in November.”

Biden is giving his internal critics no wiggle room. He started Monday with an open letter to congressional Democrats that he was “firmly committed to staying in this race.” He ended it repeating a defiant message.

“I am not going anywhere.”