President Biden and his allies are taking competing approaches to the election of new Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), balancing the realities of crucial governing while slapping campaign labels onto a member of the Trump-wing of the Republican Party who tried to overturn Biden’s 2020 election win.
Within hours of Johnson securing the Speakership, Biden, from the White House, had phoned the Louisiana Republican to congratulate him and express his desire to work together and find common ground.
But shortly thereafter, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Biden campaign were blasting out clips and quotes of Johnson’s past comments, highlighting his support for abortion restrictions, his opposition to same-sex marriage and his leading role in pushing the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Trump.
Biden aides dismissed the idea that there is any tension between the two approaches, arguing that the White House and the president’s reelection campaign serve two distinct purposes.
But the dynamic offered a preview of what’s to come as Johnson settles in as Speaker, with the government hurtling toward a shutdown in addition to considering a crucial aid package to help Israel and Ukraine the White House needs Congress to act on. First though, allies said, the White House will likely need to spend some time getting familiar with the new Speaker.
“Mike Johnson has likely been the most googled name in America over the past 24 hours. I expect some of that googling came from within the White House,” said Jim Kessler, a former Senate aide and co-founder of the centrist group Third Way.
“Joe Biden and the White House have generally been gracious partners who try to rise above the fray,” he added. “They often turned the other cheek in the face of criticism from former Speaker McCarthy and would attribute that to the political theater necessary to impress constituencies. I imagine they will extend those same courtesies to the new Speaker.”
That appeared to be the case Thursday, when press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, from the briefing room podium, declined to say whether Biden believes Johnson is a “MAGA extremist,” as he has described swaths of the Trump-supporting Republican Party before. Instead, she said the president is willing to work with Johnson “in a good-faith fashion.”
Johnson was at the White House on Thursday with congressional committee leaders for a briefing on Biden’s $106 billion national security supplemental funding request and met with Biden and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.).
When asked if Biden and Johnson had ever spoken before he was elected, Jean-Pierre said the Louisiana Republican had previously attended a congressional picnic at the White House, as well a celebration for a Louisiana State University (LSU) championship team. But Biden and Johnson, who has served in Congress since 2017, have seldom interacted one-on-one.
There are some signs, however, that Biden and Johnson may be able to form a working partnership; Biden and his aides managed to avert a default through negotiations with former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in May, despite the lack of a warm relationship.
One of the aides central to those talks was White House budget director Shalanda Young, a longtime Capitol Hill aide who, like Johnson, hails from Louisiana.
But while the White House is working to nurture a relationship that needs to be at its basics a functional one, the president’s reelection campaign and Democratic officials will try to paint Johnson as an extremist Trump ally who is representative of today’s Republican Party.
Within hours of Johnson’s election as Speaker, Democrats quickly began circulating Johnson’s comments on a podcast in November 2020 in which he referenced a conspiracy that voting machines used in the presidential election had ties to Venezuela.
They also dredged up comments Johnson made after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, in which the congressman called it an “extraordinary day”; as well as the Louisiana Republican’s past comments and policy positions in which he signaled support for reforms or cuts to entitlement programs like Social Security — something Biden has harped on Republicans for, including during his State of the Union address.
“He’s going from low-profile in a safe district to starting quarterback in the NFL,” Kate Bedingfield, a longtime Biden aide and former White House official, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “The election denial and the support for abortion bans will now be front and center and [Republicans] should have to answer for them.”
The DNC also issued a memo to reporters with “four things to know” about Johnson that highlighted his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results, his support for a national abortion ban, his past support for reforming Medicare and Social Security and his connections to former Trump, who dubbed the new Speaker “MAGA Mike Johnson” on Wednesday.
Biden’s campaign, meanwhile, previewed that Johnson’s new role atop the House GOP is likely to become a talking point during the 2024 campaign cycle, believing his views on abortion and entitlement reform in particular are the types of issues that will motivate voters both in the presidential race and in key House contests that could determine the majority in the next cycle.
“The American people have rejected the extreme MAGA ideology at the ballot box because they understand what’s at stake,” Ammar Moussa, a spokesperson for the Biden campaign, said in a statement. “And so to every MAGA Republican who supported this choice: We’ll see you in November.”