Republicans find it hard to attack Biden on social issues.
President Joe Biden memorably jumped the gun on Barack Obama in endorsing same-sex marriage more than a decade ago, but at a June fundraiser near San Francisco, he couldn’t recall the letters LGBTQ.
And even as the Democratic Party makes the fight for abortion rights central to its political message, Biden last week declared himself “not big on abortion.”
At a moment when the American political parties are trading fierce fire from the trenches of a war over social and cultural policy, the president is staying out of the fray.
White, male, 80 years old and not particularly up-to-date on the language of the left, Biden has largely avoided becoming enmeshed in contemporary battles over gender, abortion and other hotly contested social issues — even as he does things like hosting what he called “the largest Pride Month celebration ever held at the White House.”
Republicans have tried to pull him in, but appear to recognize the difficulty: When GOP presidential candidates vow to end what they derisively call “woke” culture, they often aim their barbs not directly at Biden but at big corporations like Disney and BlackRock or the vast “administrative state” of the federal government. Republican strategists say most of their party’s message on abortion and transgender issues is aimed at primary voters, while Biden is seen as far more vulnerable in a general election on the economy, crime and immigration.
Biden’s armor against cultural attacks might seem unlikely for a president who has strongly advocated for LGBTQ people, the leader of a party whose fortunes ride on the wave of abortion politics, and a man who owes his presidency to unbending support from Black Democratic primary voters.
Yet despite adopting positions over the years that pushed Democrats — and then the country — to embrace more liberal attitudes on social issues, Biden has kept himself at arms’ length from elements of his party that could pose him political problems. In June, the White House said it had barred a transgender activist who went topless at its Pride event.
And while Biden’s age has become one of his chief political weaknesses, both his allies and adversaries say it also helps insulate him from cultural attacks by Republicans.
“Everybody wants to talk about how old Joe Biden is,
but the truth of the matter is it’s his age and his experience allow him to be who he is and allow him to say the things and to help people in a way that nobody else can,” said Henry R. Muñoz III, a former Democratic National Committee finance director. Muñoz, who is gay, had Biden serve as his wedding officiant in 2017.
Much of Biden’s loyalty from LGBTQ Democrats stems from his 2012 endorsement of same-sex marriages when Obama was still officially opposed to them. Biden’s position was seen as politically risky at the time, before the Supreme Court in 2015 recognized the right of same-sex couples to marry, but has evolved into something he bragged about during his 2020 campaign.
He has also been on the forefront of recognizing transgender rights. In his first week in office Biden ended the Trump era ban on transgender troops in the military. In December he signed into law federal protections for same sex marriages.
At the same time, Biden has not adopted the terminology of progressive activists or allowed himself to be drawn into public debates that might leave him outside the political mainstream. On Thursday, after the Supreme Court’s major ruling ending affirmative action in college admissions, a reporter asked him, “Is this a rogue court?”
Pausing to think for a moment, Biden responded, “This is not a normal court.”
He also does not always remember the words most American politicians use to describe LGBTQ people. At the fundraiser near San Francisco last month, Biden lamented the Supreme Court’s decision last year that ended the national right to an abortion and suggested the court was coming for gay rights next.
Paraphrasing two of the conservative justices, he said: “There’s no constitutional right in the law for H-B, excuse me, for gay, lesbian, you know, the whole, the whole group. There’s no constitutional protection.”
During a stop at the Iowa State Fair during his 2020 campaign, a conservative provocateur trailing the Democratic presidential candidates asked Biden, “How many genders are there?”
Biden replied: “There are at least three. Don’t play games with me, kid.”
Then, perhaps not realizing that his inquisitor was a right-wing activist, Biden added: “By the way, first one to come out for marriage was me.”
a Delaware state senator who recently began a campaign to become the first transgender member of Congress, said Biden’s language gave him the ability to solidify Democrats behind a progressive social agenda and “reach communities and demographics that are not yet fully in the coalition.”
“He’s not getting caught up on rhetoric that isn’t understandable for your middle-of-the-road voter,” McBride said.
She also pointed to Biden’s age as helpful for making Democrats’ case on social issues without alienating skeptical voters.
“His background allows him to say things that I think would be heard as more radical if they were said by a younger politician,” she said.
As majorities of Americans have accepted same sex marriage social conservatives have made opposition to transgender rights a mainstay of their politics. And Republicans running to displace Biden have tended to focus on energizing GOP primary voters rather than making a villain out of the president.
“It’s hard to paint an 80-year-old white man as a flaming woke warrior,” said Whit Ayres, a longtime pollster for Republican candidates.
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is perhaps the leading purveyor of Republicans’ anti-“woke” message, throwing barbs both online and in speeches. On Friday, his campaign cast even former President Donald Trump as too liberal on LGBTQ issues in a provocative video posted on Twitter.
At a June rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, DeSantis described being approached by military veterans who don’t want their children and grandchildren joining the armed forces because of liberal policy changes instituted by Democrats — though the governor blamed Obama as much as he did Biden.
“A woke military is not going to be a strong military,” DeSantis said. “You got to get the politicization out of it. And on Day 1, we’re ripping out all the Obama-Biden policies to woke-ify the military.”
Biden has never presented as a left-wing culture warrior. A Catholic, he has long been wary about jumping headlong into fights over abortion rights. Even as his campaign and party are preparing to make his reelection bid a referendum on Republican efforts to further restrict abortion, Biden proclaimed to a crowd of donors in suburban Washington that he himself was not eager to do so.
“You know, I happen to be a practicing Catholic,” Biden said last week. “I’m not big on abortion. But guess what? Roe v. Wade got it right.”
Democrats have long been troubled by that position. It took until June 2019, weeks after beginning his 2020 campaign and under immense pressure from allies in his party, for Biden to renounce his long-held support for banning federal funding for abortions.
Renee Bracey Sherman, the founder of We Testify, a group that shares women’s stories of having abortions, said Biden would need to adopt a more forceful position in favor of abortion rights to energize liberal voters in 2024. She suggested that in the same way Biden hosts championship sports teams at the White House, he should invite women who have had abortions to come and tell their stories.
“The midterms show that Americans love abortion,” Bracey Sherman said. “Abortion has a higher approval rating than he does. He should be riding the abortion wave.”