Biden heads to rival-rich Florida ready to push Republicans on Social Security and Medicare
President Joe Biden will embark Thursday on the next leg of his post-State of the Union tour with a visit to the former swing state of Florida, home to an emerging Republican foil and two potential GOP challengers in a 2024 campaign.
White House advisers who spoke with CNN don’t view the Sunshine State as a key piece of the electoral map in a 2024 run, aware that the state has moved sharply away from Democrats.
So Biden is going, advisers say, because there are no issues that dramatically pop in their polling like Medicare and Social Security. There’s no state with a larger population that utilizes those programs and most critically. And there are no two politicians they want to spar with more on the programs than Sen. Rick Scott and Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“We want this fight,” a senior White House official told CNN. “We relish this fight.”
The president is expected to drive home his pledge to protect Social Security and Medicare while in Florida, seeking to draw a sharp contrast with Scott, the architect of a plan that would sunset all federal legislation — including Social Security and Medicare — every five years and require Congress to approve them again. The president’s decision to highlight that proposal drew the fiercest reaction from Republicans during Tuesday’s address to Congress, eliciting loud jeers by accusing some Republicans of supporting changes to the popular entitlement programs.
Even as Biden focuses on Scott — and is expected to name check the senator again Thursday — the presence of DeSantis and former President Donald Trump, who resides in Palm Beach, is certain to hang over the visit as the Democratic incumbent teases a likely 2024 reelection bid. DeSantis is a politician at his peak popularity with Republicans — but White House officials believe he serves as the embodiment of who they can elevate to Biden’s benefit.
“We like foils,” one adviser told me. “There are no better foils in politics than Scott and DeSantis.”
Biden offered a preview of his post-State of the Union message to union workers in DeForest, Wisconsin, as he moves away from trying to brand some Republicans as “ultra MAGA” or “mega MAGA” extremists in thrall to Trump. Instead, he appears ready to push Republicans on their plans to negotiate spending cuts in exchange for a debt limit increase, including proposed cuts to the social safety net.
“Look — a lot of Republicans, their dream is to cut Social Security and Medicare. Well, let me just say this: it’s your dream, but I’m gonna have my veto pen make it a nightmare,” he said.
The Republican Study Committee also previously put out a budget plan that calls for making several changes to Social Security and Medicare that would amount to cutting the programs’ benefits for future senior citizens.
Neither that proposal nor Scott’s plans made it far — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell quickly dismissed it, saying that the GOP would not include in its agenda a bill that sunsets Social Security and Medicare within five years. And newly anointed House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has pledged not to touch the programs even as he seeks budget cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling this summer.
But that hasn’t stopped Biden’s politicking, and it could allow him an opening to improve on his showing among seniors in the 2020 election — particularly in Florida, a state where he lost voters 65 and older to Trump by 10 points in 2020, wider than his 5-point deficit nationally.
Biden said Wednesday that some Republicans, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, “seemed shocked” when he highlighted their colleagues’ efforts to cut those social safety net programs, holding up a “brochure” with Scott’s plan. He referenced quotes on the matter from Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who received boos and hisses, and Utah Sen. Mike Lee.
The visit to Wisconsin and the expected message in Florida show that the President’s State of the Union back and forth may have been unscripted, but the lines were very intentional in trying to draw a response, according to several officials.
“They walked right into the trap,” the close adviser told CNN. “Chaos and extremes.”
Asked if that’s how they viewed Scott and DeSantis, the adviser chuckled: “The most chaos. The most extreme.”
In anticipation of Biden’s visit, Scott will run an ad criticizing Biden and claiming the president is to blame for cuts to Medicare, concluding: “Biden should resign.”
The senator repeated his criticism of Biden’s visit on “CNN This Morning” Thursday, disputing Biden’s characterization of his proposal and calling the president a “failure.”
“Look at what the people in my state care about. Inflation — he caused it. Gas prices — he caused it. We got open border — he caused it. … Look at the Chinese spy balloon. He let the thing go clear across this country before he did anything. And there is no transparency in his administration.”
Referring to Scott’s ad, White House spokesman Andrew Bates said it “only cements that congressional Republicans are targeting Medicare. Repealing the AARP-backed Inflation Reduction Act, as Scott’s now calling for, would impose the biggest cut to Medicare benefits in decades.”
“Every time Rick Scott opens his mouth, he proves the president’s point. The man who got rich overseeing the biggest Medicare fraud in history is protesting too much — again,” Bates added.
Potential 2024 challenger in DeSantis
Scott is not Biden’s only rival in the state. DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential contender, has been a fierce critic of the Biden administration, especially over immigration policy.
The relationship between the two men perhaps hit its lowest point in September of last year, when DeSantis orchestrated two flights carrying migrants from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Biden accused DeSantis of “playing politics with human beings,” while DeSantis contended the stunt had worked in getting the White House’s attention on the border crisis.
As Biden touches down in Tampa, Florida, lawmakers meeting in the state Capitol are considering an expansion of the migrant transport program that would give DeSantis more power to move recent asylum seekers from border states to Democratic-leaning jurisdictions.
The move, expected to pass this week in a special session, is intended to lift legal hurdles that have stalled the program in the months after the initial planes took off, potentially setting off another showdown between DeSantis and Biden over immigration.
DeSantis’ monumental victory in his November reelection — a 19-point shellacking of Democrat Charlie Crist, who Biden campaigned for in the final days of the race — further energized conservatives who want to see the Republican Party nominate Florida’s governor to take on the incumbent Democratic president in 2024.
His victory also left Democrats in Florida utterly devastated and fearing the national party will decide to leave the Sunshine State off the electoral map in two years and instead focus resources on protecting Biden’s wins in other key Midwest and Southwest battlegrounds.
“I am hopeful that by coming to Tampa he is telling the country that Democrats are not writing off Florida and that the performance of his administration over the last two years can ensure the benefits in Florida,” said former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat. “But yes, we have some structural issues we have to deal with.”
Those structural issues include a massive shift in voter registration patterns. When Biden was on the ticket for the first time in Florida as Barack Obama’s running mate, Democrats saw a historic wave of new voters and the party outnumbered registered Republicans by nearly 700,000. By the time he ran for president in 2020, the Democratic advantage was under 100,000 voters.
Now, Republicans outnumber Democrats here by nearly 400,000.
Meanwhile, the Florida Democratic Party is leaderless after the abrupt resignation of former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz as party chair, and it has struggled to raise money in a state that is notoriously expensive and complicated to campaign because of its vast, multilingual media markets.
It won’t help the case of Florida Democrats that Biden lost the Sunshine State to Trump in 2020 despite a $100 million injection by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But forgoing the state’s 30 electoral college votes is a tough way for Democrats to start in 2024.
“It can be a game changer in a presidential cycle,” Buckhorn said. “Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, it’s complicated and we have ground to make up. But it’s ground that we used to own.”
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