Biden says he’s an optimist. But his dire warnings about Trump have become central to his campaign

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BY JOSH BOAK AND ZEKE MILLER

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden ends nearly every speech by saying he’s “never been more optimistic” about the country’s direction. But lately he also has begun painting a vision of a catastrophic future for the United States — that is, if Donald Trump returns to the presidency.

Biden in recent days has accused the former Republican president of being “determined to destroy American democracy” and being out for “revenge” and “retribution.”

Biden’s reelection campaign is sending more emails with stark warnings: “Trump’s America in 2025: A Unilateral National Abortion Ban” and “Trump’s America in 2025: Mass Detention Camps.” Trump has proposed the largest operation to arrest and deport migrants in U.S. history. He has not endorsed a a federal ban on abortion.

Contrasting Biden and Trump was always going to be central to the Democratic president’s 2024 strategy. But there was a time when Trump only merited short and derisive mentions in Biden’s speeches, if Trump was mentioned at all.

Today, Biden’s campaign has sharply increased its references to Trump with just under a year until the election. The change reflects how, with Biden low in the polls, lukewarm Democratic voters might be more motivated by stopping Trump than hearing about investments in infrastructure and renewable energy.

Biden has acknowledged that many voters don’t feel great about the economy. Voters are frustrated by high inflation and have concerns about his age. At nearly 81, Biden is already the oldest person elected president.

Speaking on Wednesday to campaign donors in San Francisco, Biden argued that Trump was using the rhetoric of Nazis to demonize perceived political enemies after Trump recently pledged to to “root out” enemies he described as “vermin.” Moments later in his remarks, Biden returned to a usual refrain, saying, “I’ve never been more optimistic about our country’s future.”

There is a dissonance between Biden’s stoking of hopes for an ascendant America and his dark warnings that the country could fall under the sway of someone he labels a would-be despot. The campaigns sees the two messages as complementary.

“I don’t think they’re in tension. That’s literally the choice,” said Biden campaign communications director Michael Tyler. “These are two sides of the exact same coin, and it’s our responsibility to push on both on both sides.”

When asked about Biden’s comments and comparisons to Nazi rhetoric, Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung claimed that Biden is “tearing democracy to shreds.”

“It’s despicable and racist” for Biden “to make that disgusting connection” regarding Nazis, Cheung said. ”But I wouldn’t expect him to conduct himself in an honorable manner. He’s clearly suffering from a severe case of Trump Derangement Syndrome and should get professional help.”

To be sure, Biden took credit for Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s reelection after a campaign in which the Democrat often promoted federal spending on infrastructure and COVID-19 relief — two areas that Biden allies play up as accomplishments.

But it’s becoming conventional wisdom for Democratic strategists to argue that Biden needs to push Trump front and center with voters. Jim Messina, the manager of President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, wrote in Politico on Monday that voters would move to Biden once they are reminded “of the chaotic, lawless circus that was Trump’s presidency.”

Biden’s campaign is aiming to shift the political conversation to Trump and away from the GOP candidates who lag the former president in polls. Biden’s team also wants to spotlight what Trump would do in office, not just his myriad legal troubles.

“Our very democracy is at stake,” Biden said in his San Francisco speech. Trump “is running on a platform to end democracy as we know it, and he’s not even hiding the ball.”

There’s evidence to suggest that messages about safeguarding democracy can resonate with voters. AP VoteCast, a wide-ranging survey of U.S. voters, found half of voters in the 2022 midterm elections called inflation the single most important factor in thinking about the election, but the future of democracy came closely behind.

But voters for Democrats were especially focused on democracy issues. In congressional elections nationwide, Democrats won 6 in 10 voters who identified the future of democracy as their “single most important” factor, while about 4 in 10 backed Republican candidates.

The Trump campaign has countered with a messaging strategy that accuses Biden of being corrupt and destructive. Trump’s two impeachments and four major indictments are proof to his supporters of the former president’s persecution, while they claim without conclusive evidence so far that Biden profited from the business dealings of his son Hunter, who is being investigated by a special counsel.

“He’s a corrupt politician and he’s totally compromised,” Trump said as he campaigned in Fort Dodge, Iowa, on Saturday.

Polling does suggest that Republican attacks over Hunter Biden have raised questions for many Americans about the integrity of his father.

An October poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 35% of U.S. adults believe Joe Biden personally has done something illegal with regard to the business dealings of his son, who has acknowledged struggling with drug addiction. An additional 33% say the president acted unethically but did not violate the law. Just 30% say Joe Biden did nothing wrong.

Even if Biden does overcome negative poll numbers and does win a second term, there is no guarantee that democracy is automatically saved.

In a Nov. 9 speech to donors in Chicago, the president acknowledged that he would still need to create a sense of unity by having the nation return to the principles of equality in the Declaration of Independence. But those are the same principles that he also said Trump and his millions of supporters are willing to abandon.

“My notion is if you can’t unite the country, how do you keep a participatory democracy going if you can’t get consensus?” he said. “How does that work?”

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