President Joe Biden was on vacation in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware when Donald Trump was indicted for trying to overturn the 2020 election. As TV news anchors chewed over the meaning of the four felony charges, bringing the total number of criminal charges Trump’s facing across multiple investigations to 78, Biden went on bike rides along a scenic salt marsh, ate out at a seafood restaurant and saw the film Oppenheimer in a movie theater.
The next day, as Biden rode his bike past a scrum of reporters, one from the Associated Press shouted out, “Indictments?” The President kept riding.
Biden was adopting the same strategy for Trump’s third indictment as he had for the previous two: staying out of the way. White House officials say that Biden wants to avoid weighing in on Trump’s charges because he doesn’t want to influence the judicial process.
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Yet those two earlier indictments were about Trump’s use of hush-money payments to cover up an affair and his handling of classified documents. The latest charges speak to the heart of Biden’s political message to voters in 2024: that the extreme ideas embodied by Trump and championed by much of the Republican Party pose a threat to American democracy.
Biden “will be measured in how he approaches all this given there are many ongoing court cases,” says Simon Rosenberg, a long-time Democratic strategist.
In his first successful bid for President in 2020, Biden traveled to events with the slogan, “Battle for the Soul of the Nation” painted on the side of his campaign bus. Two years later, made the idea that America’s democracy was at stake a major part of his pitch to midterm voters, when control of both the Senate and the House were up for grabs.
He is preparing to employ a similar strategy for his 2024 campaign, while also emphasizing what he’s done to create manufacturing jobs and raise wages.
It’s likely to be a tight race. A recent New York Times/Siena poll showed Biden and Trump neck and neck in a possible head to head general election.
Last November, Attorney General Merrick Garland named special counsel Jack Smith to lead the federal investigations into Trump in order to keep the prosecution of Biden’s chief political rival at arm’s length.
Pushing back on autocratic ideas that undermine legitimate voting results will be a key part of Biden’s pitch to voters in 2024. But Biden may be hemmed in on how far he can go in pressing that point. Not only is he reluctant to seem like he’s cheering on the prosecutors, Trump and his allies have framed all of Trump’s legal problems as being orchestrated by Biden as a campaign strategy.
“The entire Biden Administration knows that I’m the ONLY candidate who would defeat Crooked Joe in a free and fair election,” Trump wrote in a fundraising email to supporters last week. “So, their only hope is to try and send me to JAIL for the rest of my life.”
Rosenberg notes that Republicans have already gone to the polls defending Donald Trump’s election lies and performed poorly. Every Republican candidate for secretary of state who denied the legitimate 2020 election results lost their races, he says.
“These issues were heavily litigated in the battleground in 2022 and it didn’t go well for Republicans and it’s not going to go well for them again in 2024 because Trump represents a far more clear and present danger to our democracy than he did even in the last election,” says Rosenberg.
This time around, Trump is running as a former President who is defending himself against charges related to his efforts to cling to power, including conspiracy to defraud the United States. While the prosecution will be an unavoidable issue in next year’s presidential race, it will be up to Biden to decide how much his campaign intends to talk about it.
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