Talk About Abortion, Don’t Talk About Trump: Governors Give Biden Advice


America’s Democratic governors brag about booming local economies, preside over ribbon-cuttings of projects paid for with new federal legislation and have successfully framed themselves as defenders of abortion rights and democracy.

Almost all of them are far more popular in their home states than the Democratic president they hope to re-elect next year.

While President Biden is mired in the political doldrums of low approval ratings and a national economy that voters are sour on, Democratic governors are riding high, having won re-election in red-state Kentucky last month and holding office in five of the seven most important presidential battleground states.

The governors, like nearly all prominent Democrats, are publicly projecting confidence: In interviews and conversations with eight governors at their annual winter gathering at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix over the weekend, they expressed on-the-record optimism that Mr. Biden would win re-election.

But also like many Democrats, some privately acknowledged fears that former President Donald J. Trump could win a rematch with Mr. Biden. They also said that Mr. Biden, at 81 years old, might not compare well with a younger Republican like Nikki Haley, the former United Nations ambassador, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida or even former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.

The governors offered a series of explanations for Mr. Biden’s political struggles and supplied free advice. Here are six ways they believe he can raise his standing ahead of next year’s election.

Mr. Biden barely says the word abortion in his public statements, a fact that frustrates fellow governors hoping he can, as many of them have, use anger over the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision overturning Roe v. Wade to improve his political fortunes.

“We should talk about all the threats to women’s health care, including abortion, and use that word specifically,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan. “We should be talking about it like that because Americans are awake. They are angry that this right could be stripped away and we are the only ones fighting for it.”

On abortion politics, Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey acknowledged that “it’s widely known that this is probably an uncomfortable reality for him,” given that Mr. Biden, a practicing Catholic, once voted in the Senate to let states overturn Roe v. Wade and his stance on abortion rights has evolved over the years.

Mr. Murphy said Mr. Biden must be forthright about discussing the likelihood that Republicans would aim to enact new abortion restrictions if they win control of the federal government in 2024 and emphasizing the Democratic position that decisions about abortion should be left to women and their doctors.

“That has to be laid out in a much more crystalclear, explicit, affirmative way,” he said.

The governors broadly agreed that Mr. Trump would be the Republican nominee. They don’t love Mr. Biden’s recent turn to focus more attention on his predecessor.

“You’ve got to run for something and not against someone,” said Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky. That is easy for Mr. Beshear to say — he is among the nation’s most popular governors and just won re-election in a deep-red state.

Gov. Laura Kelly of Kansas urged the president to stop talking about Mr. Trump altogether. Be positive, she said, and let others carry the fight to Mr. Trump.

“If I were in Biden’s shoes, I would not talk about Trump,” she said. “I would let other people talk about Trump.”

Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota also said Mr. Biden needed to adopt some of Mr. Trump’s penchant for bragging.

“He’s been modest for so long, to watch him do it now feels a little uncomfortable,” Mr. Walz said.

Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina said his constituents were hoping Republicans would nominate someone other than Mr. Trump.

Mr. Murphy said hopefully that Republicans supporting someone else in their primary might stay home or wind up voting for Mr. Biden next year.

“What if Trump is the nominee? What’s the behavior pattern among the Haley, DeSantis and Chris Christie supporters? Where do they go?” Mr. Murphy said. “I find it hard to believe that a majority of them are going to Trump.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, fresh off a prime-time Fox News debate against Mr. DeSantis that seemed meant in part to elevate the ambitious Mr. Newsom to the role of Mr. Biden’s leading defender, lamented “the gap between performance and perception.”

He was one of several governors who said their constituents felt good about their lives but were pessimistic about the state of the country.

“People feel pretty good about their states, feel pretty good about their communities, even their own lived lives,” Mr. Newsom said. “You ask, ‘How are you doing?’ They say, ‘We’re doing great, but this country’s going to hell.’”

Mr. Newsom said Mr. Biden’s biggest problem was that he had not been able to communicate to voters that he is responsible for improvements in their lives.

“People just don’t know the record,” he said. “They don’t hear it. They never see it.”

In North Carolina, which last week became the 40th state to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, Mr. Cooper said people who are newly eligible for health care were not likely to credit Mr. Biden or White House policies.

“The people who are getting it don’t really associate it with anybody other than finally being able to get health care for themselves,” he said.

The governors all seemed to agree that they would like to see Mr. Biden spend more time cutting ribbons and attending groundbreakings for new projects paid for by infrastructure, climate and semiconductor funding he signed into law.

“I would be doing those morning, noon and night,” Mr. Murphy said.

Ms. Kelly of Kansas, who won her red state twice, said Mr. Biden should announce the opening of new projects and factories because she said it would focus attention away from his age.

“I would spend a lot of time doing those just because they’re relatively easy and they are energizing,” she said.

And Mr. Walz, whom his fellow governors voted the new chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said Mr. Biden’s challenge would be explaining to people the future benefits of investments being made now.

“The problem is going to be, it’s going to take us 20 years to build all this infrastructure out,” Mr. Walz said. “Whether they see it within the next 11 months or not, that’s what we need to tell the story.”

No governor at the Phoenix gathering expressed more desire to give Mr. Biden another term in the White House than Mr. Newsom, who used a 40-minute chat with reporters to take a victory lap from his debate with Mr. DeSantis, a ratings bonanza for the Fox News host Sean Hannity that doubled as the largest audience of the California governor’s political career.

Mr. Newsom, who since the middle of last year has evolved from a friendly critic of Mr. Biden’s political messaging to one of his most enthusiastic supporters, said his fellow governors needed to perform like old-school politicians who could deliver a constituency for an ally through force of will by activating supporters to follow political commands.

“We, the Democratic Party, need to get out there on behalf of the leader of the Democratic Party, Joe Biden, and make the case and do it with pride,” Mr. Newsom said. “We’ve got to wind this thing up.”

The task may be difficult. Mr. Cooper described “a general malaise and frustration” that has Americans blaming Mr. Biden for forces often beyond his control.

But Mr. Newsom said that if others were wary of carrying the torch for Mr. Biden in the next year, he was not afraid to do so all by himself.

“If no one’s showing up doing stuff, I’m going to show up,” he said. “I can’t take it. I can’t take the alternative. I can’t even conceive it.”



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