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Jumpstart Joe

Can one State of the Union address get President Joe Biden’s campaign back on track?

Happy Thursday! There will be fewer elephants in the room at the annual GOP retreat this year, as more than 100 House Republicans will reportedly skip the trip. The reason? They just really don’t want to be together.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced plans Wednesday to increase defense spending by 40 billion kroner—roughly $6 billion—over the next five years in order to meet NATO targets and in response to Russia’s increased aggression on the continent. “We are not rearming in Denmark because we want war, destruction, or suffering,” Frederiksen told reporters. “We are rearming right now to avoid war and in a world where the international order is being challenged.” The new budget sets military spending at 2.4 percent of the Nordic country’s GDP when including this year’s military aid sent to Ukraine, and next year will be at 2 percent without such contributions. The plan also introduces military conscription for women starting in 2026. 
  • Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders, whose Party for Freedom won parliamentary elections in November, announced on Wednesday that he would forgo the prime ministership after failing to build a governing majority. “I can only become Prime Minister if ALL parties in the coalition support it,” he tweeted yesterday. “That was not the case. … The love for my country and voters is great and more important than my own position.” The Party for Freedom is now in talks with three other major parties—the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, the New Social Contract, and the Farmer-Citizen Movement—to form a coalition cabinet.
  • The House of Representatives passed a bill on Wednesday that would require Chinese company ByteDance to divest its ownership of social media platform TikTok or face a ban from U.S. app stores. The legislation passed by a 352-65 vote along broadly bipartisan lines. The bill heads to the Senate next, and though it faces an uncertain future in the upper chamber, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio—the chairman and vice chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, respectively—have voiced their support for the measure. “We are united in our concern about the national security threat posed by TikTok—a platform with enormous power to influence and divide Americans whose parent company ByteDance remains legally required to do the bidding of the Chinese Communist Party,” the senators said in a joint statement released Wednesday. “We were encouraged by today’s strong bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives, and look forward to working together to get this bill passed through the Senate and signed into law.”
  • The judge presiding over former President Donald Trump’s election interference case in Georgia threw out six of the 41 charges included in the indictment Wednesday, ruling that the state was not specific enough in its allegations. Three of the dismissed charges pertained to Trump; the remainder were leveled against co-conspirators Rudy Giuliani, John Eastman, and Mark Meadows. Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee left open the opportunity for prosecutors to appeal the decision or refile the charges with greater detail. The six dismissed charges involved accusations that the former president and his co-conspirators solicited public officers to violate their oaths.
  • Hunter Biden on Wednesday rejected House Republicans’ request to testify publicly as part of their impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden. “Your latest step—this March 6 invitation—is not a serious oversight proceeding,” Biden lawyer Abbe Lowell wrote in a letter responding to the invitation. “It is your attempt to resuscitate your Conference’s moribund inquiry with a made-for-right-wing-media, circus act.” Lawyers for the president’s son suggested the younger Biden would appear if “relatives of former President Trump” were also required to testify. Biden’s rejection follows a closed-door deposition before the House Oversight Committee in late February, and represents a reversal of his previous insistence on testifying only publicly.

Whither the Narrative Goes

President Joe Biden speaks during the State of the Union address on March 7, 2024, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden speaks during the State of the Union address on March 7, 2024, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address last week presented both an opportunity to outline a policy vision for the country and to boost his reelection bid. “Turning setback into comeback, that’s what America does,” he quipped, and as the night ended, Democrats hoped the speech would do the same for the president’s campaign. 

Biden and former President Donald Trump both reached the necessary delegate thresholds in their respective party primaries on Tuesday to clinch the nominations, formally kicking off the general election. While the Trump campaign is fresh off a victorious primary contest, the Biden campaign has kicked into a new gear following the SOTU. The speech and the redoubled campaign activity have prompted some left-leaning commentators and strategists who previously doubted the president’s reelection chances to change their tune. But with a lengthy reelection campaign ahead, polling still shows the president remains a weak incumbent. 

The fiery and historically partisan SOTU provided some reassurance to Democratic strategists looking for signs that Biden can effectively run a reelection effort. “Democrats are reinvigorated,” Cristóbal Alex, a former senior adviser to Biden’s 2020 campaign, said after the speech. “My phone has been blowing up since last night and hasn’t stopped.” The campaign brought in a $10 million fundraising haul in the 24 hours following the speech—comparatively, the campaign and allied groups like the Democratic National Committee raised $42 million combined over the month of January. The Friday after the address, Biden set off on a whirlwind tour of battleground states, traveling first to Philadelphia and then Atlanta over the weekend. Earlier this week, he spoke to supporters at two stops in New Hampshire. He was in Milwaukee yesterday and will be stumping in Michigan today. The Biden campaign also launched a $30 million, six-week ad blitz in swing states.

In the early stages of the Democratic primary, some Democrats doubted whether the 81-year-old incumbent was actually up for the rigors of a tough campaign. Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota—who ended his primary challenge to Biden earlier this month—based much of his campaign on offering a younger alternative. Worries over Biden’s age and acuity had caused some liberal commentators to suggest the president step aside, and they reached a crescendo with the release of special counsel Robert Hur’s report on Biden’s handling of classified documents last month. Hur’s description of Biden as a “a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” put that anxiety in stark relief. 

The president’s rushed press conference in reaction to Hur’s report did little to assuage fears about his competence, and the decision to forgo a Super Bowl interview seemed like further confirmation that Biden wasn’t ready for a campaign, let alone four more years in the Oval Office. Surveys have shown that a large majority of voters feel the same. Biden’s limited public presence came across as a deliberate strategy to protect against stumbles, either verbal or physical. Biden has given only a small fraction of the number of interviews that former Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama had given at this stage of their presidencies, and has held relatively few press conferences. 

“We had to wait till this year—till now, really—to see Biden even begin to show what he’d be like on the campaign trail,” Ezra Klein, a columnist for the New York Times, said a month ago. “What I think we’re seeing is that he is not up for this. He is not the campaigner he was, even five years ago. That’s not insider reporting on my part. Go watch a speech he gave in Pennsylvania, kicking off his campaign in 2019. And then go watch the speech he gave last month, in Valley Forge, kicking off his election campaign. No comparison here. … You can see it. The way he moves, the energy in his voice. The Democrats denying decline are only fooling themselves.”

CNN’s Van Jones put his criticisms of Biden more bluntly. “If I were Biden, I would stay hidden,” he said in January. “He’s not a great messenger for himself.”

One SOTU later, the Biden campaign is riding a wave of retractions from his doubters. “A lot of Democrats were nervous, were concerned, were despondent, were fearful,” Jones said on Tuesday. “And then we saw Red Bull Biden last week. It was like, ‘Okay, this guy can actually get out there and do some things.’” Klein published an essay on Monday titled “Fine, Call It a Comeback.” Referencing his earlier misgivings, he wrote, “If the Joe Biden who showed up to deliver the State of the Union address last week is the Joe Biden who shows up for the rest of the campaign, you’re not going to have any more of those weak-kneed pundits suggesting he’s not up to running for reelection.” 

Even David Axelrod—a Democratic strategist and Obama campaign veteran who has been sounding the alarm for several months about Biden’s age—offered some praise for the president. “No one speech changes the entire trajectory of a campaign,” he tweeted last week, “but [Biden] did what he had to last night, commanding the moment.” 

Biden himself also started taking a different tack: addressing his age head on. He joked about his advanced years in the SOTU, saying, “I know it may not look like it, but I’ve been around a while.” An ad released by the campaign last weekend opened with Biden cheekily admitting, “Look, I know I’m not a young guy.” The comments stand in contrast to the president’s tone last month when he indignantly told reporters, “I’m well meaning, and I’m an elderly man, and I know what the hell I’m doing.” Politico’s Jonathan Martin observed on Monday that Biden’s willingness to “frontally address his age,” not the SOTU speech, was the most important development for Democrats in the last two weeks.

Some left-leaning observers argue that the comeback framing is overstated. Matt Bennett—executive vice president at Third Way, a center-left think tank—told TMD that Biden’s SOTU was “outstanding” but not surprising given his previous SOTU performance. He also noted that now is about the time when reelection campaigns typically ramp up. “I am not at all surprised that the campaign has picked up pace now that we’re into the general election,” he said. “But it’s gratifying to see that doubters are beginning to come around and believe that Biden has it in him to win.”

This rhetorical circling of the wagons among professional Democrats is one thing. The polling released in the last week, however, has provided a dose of reality to temper their renewed enthusiasm. All but one of the national polls released after the SOTU show Trump maintaining a slight lead over the president, or even gaining a few points. Plus, Biden’s approval rating is near the lowest point of his presidency—38 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average. Nate Silver, polling analyst and founder of FiveThirtyEight, noted the yawning gap between the upbeat takes on Biden’s performance and the polling. “It is just frustrating that people seem increasingly unable to separate out their personal views of how Biden did/is doing from an honest acknowledgment of the state of public opinion,” Silver tweeted on Tuesday

The president tried to downplay his poor numbers earlier this week. “None of the polling matters much more now,” Biden said in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Monday. “It’s not nearly as accurate.” Polling has changed over the last two presidential cycles, but that’s cold comfort given that Biden’s numbers are historically abysmal

Worth Your Time

  • In the early 2010s, mental health plummeted among adolescents as loneliness increased—and as these individuals began to enter the workforce, their struggles continued. Writing for The Atlantic, New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt pointed to the smartphone as one of the greatest roadblocks to human development—especially during childhood. “Once young people began carrying the entire internet in their pockets, available to them day and night, it altered their daily experiences and developmental pathways across the board,” he wrote. “Friendship, dating, sexuality, exercise, sleep, academics, politics, family dynamics, identity—all were affected.” Haidt argued that this phone-based childhood robbed kids of vital learning experiences, like discovering independence through playtime. “The main reason why the phone-based childhood is so harmful is because it pushes aside everything else. Smartphones are experience blockers. Our ultimate goal should not be to remove screens entirely, nor should it be to return childhood to exactly the way it was in 1960. Rather, it should be to create a version of childhood and adolescence that keeps young people anchored in the real world while flourishing in the digital age.”

Presented Without Comment

Financial Times: U.S. Held Secret Talks with Iran Over Red Sea Attacks

Also Presented Without Comment

Axios: Trump Says Biden Is “Not Too Old” to Be President [September 2023]

Former President Trump said in an interview airing Thursday that President Biden is “not too old” to be president—but that he’s “incompetent.” … “Age is interesting because some people are very sharp and some people do lose it, but you lose it at 40 and 50, also,” Trump said on SiriusXM’s The Megyn Kelly Show. “But no, he’s not too old at all. He’s grossly incompetent.”

Toeing the Company Line

Let Us Know

Do you think a campaign blitz by President Joe Biden can assuage voters’ fears about his mental acuity?

Correction, March 14, 2024: This newsletter did not originally state that the Axios article regarding former President Donald Trump’s comments about President Joe Biden’s age was dated September 2023.

James Scimecca works on editorial partnerships for The Dispatch, and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he served as the director of communications at the Empire Center for Public Policy. When James is not promoting the work of his Dispatch colleagues, he can usually be found running along the Potomac River, cooking up a new recipe, or rooting for a beleaguered New York sports team.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.