Joe Biden's 'Fighting Words' Could Encourage Democrats in Crucial Midterms

President Joe Biden caused some controversy this week when he was heard on a hot mic calling Fox News White House correspondent Peter Doocy a "stupid son of a b***h."

Though the president later spoke with Doocy and reportedly "cleared the air," his remark was the latest in a series of critical comments where Biden appeared to depart from his earlier commitment to bipartisanship and national healing.

Political experts who spoke to Newsweek suggested that the president's recent turn to harsh rhetoric would do little to unite the country or win over conservatives but it might be what Democrats want to hear in a crucial midterm election year.

On the first anniversary of the storming of the Capitol on January 6, Biden launched his strongest attack yet on former President Donald Trump, suggesting he was a threat to democracy.

The president then caused Republican outrage in a January 11 speech where he appeared to compare GOP senators who opposed voting rights legislation to infamous segregationists.

And in a press conference on January 19, Biden took aim at the Republican party again. Addressing GOP opposition to his agenda, he said that when he was vice president Republicans "weren't nearly as obstructionist as they are now."

"Think about this: What are Republicans for? What are they for? Name me one thing they're for," said the president.

Those comments differed significantly from Biden's tone when he won the presidential election and came to office. At that time, he urged national healing and was a strong advocate of bipartisanship. His first year in office may have changed his perspective.

Inflammatory Rhetoric

Thomas Gift, founding director of University College London's Centre on U.S. Politics, told Newsweek that some of the president's comments seemed designed to anger the GOP.

"To say that Biden has given up on bipartisanship is too strong, but a number of his recent comments seem increasingly intent on appealing to elite opinion on the progressive left—at the expense of national unity," said Gift.

"For example, suggesting that Republican-led voting reforms in Georgia and elsewhere equate to 'Jim Crow 2.0' is not only inflammatory, it's inaccurate in that it seriously diminishes how bad Jim Crow laws actually were," he said.

"Painting opposition to a partisan voting bill in Congress as being on the side of Jefferson Davis or Bull Connor again amounts to fighting words that almost seem deliberately designed to enrage Republicans," said Gift.

Jefferson Davis was the first and only president of the Confederate States, while Connor was an ardent segregationist.

"It's hard to argue that this kind of rhetoric is aimed at forging consensus, building compromise, and persuading moderate and conservative voters," he said.

Defining Party Differences

Paul Quirk, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia in Canada, told Newsweek that Biden's talk of unity during his 2021 inauguration speech "sounded like a polite fiction" to most insiders.

"Biden has been smart to avoid harsh criticism of Republicans, to this point, if only because he has needed support from two very Republican-friendly Democrats in the Senate," said Quirk.

He was referring to Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ).

"Picking up a smidgeon of Republican support for the voting rights bill or the Build Back Better bill could have made a major difference," he said.

"But he can't afford to be held accountable for congressional inaction without pointing his finger at the Republicans," said Quirk. "As the election year goes on, Biden's rhetoric will be less about trying to make bipartisan deals and more about defining party differences for the voters."

A Fighter

David A. Bateman, an associate professor of government at Cornell University, told Newsweek that Biden could expect no more bipartisan wins this year following the passage of a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package.

"With the first year of Biden's term behind him, he knows he is not likely to get any more significant legislative victories and that Republicans will provide no more bipartisanship on administrative priorities until after November, at best," said Bateman.

"So he might as well sell himself to Democrats as a fighter in the hopes that they don't stay home in the midterms," he said.

Bateman said that bipartisan policymaking does take place but it often goes largely unnoticed.

"The infrastructure bill was a high-profile example, but most bipartisanship happens with less fanfare, and the administration is involved in some capacity in most of it and no doubt will continue to be," said Bateman.

"Biden being a bit more combative in speeches isn't going to make much difference here, though the approach of the midterms might," he said.

"But the low visibility of a lot of bipartisan lawmaking, and the fact that what the parties agree about is often just truly miserable policy, underscores the fact that bipartisanship is a means rather than a worthwhile end in itself," said Bateman.

Regaining Momentum

Mark Shanahan is an associate professor at the Department of Politics and International Relations at Reading University in the U.K. and co-editor of The Trump Presidency: From Campaign Trail to World Stage. He told Newsweek that Biden had "woken up" to the fact that the U.S. "has no intention of all holding hands and singing 'Kumbaya.'"

Shanahan said that Biden was clearly annoyed by Congress and his public statements had made that clear.

"The Mr. Nice Guy strategy has achieved nothing—and he may only see a way to claw back popularity with the public if he can denigrate his opponents for their groundless intransigence," said Shanahan.

"What he needs to learn from Trump, who spent four years attacking the Democrats, is that the attack on its own is not enough," he went on.

"What's needed is the positive alternative," said Shanahan. "Trump operated by making every issue a zero-sum game. It's not Biden's natural style. But in midterm year, it may be the most effective strategy to put some momentum back into a stalled presidency."

Joe Biden Speaks at the Capitol
President Joe Biden speaks in the Statuary Hall of the U.S Capitol on January 6, 2022 in Washington, D.C. Biden has recently been highly critical of his Republican opponents. Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images