Joe Biden’s five-state trip ahead of Tuesday’s midterm elections was meant to boost Democrats facing narrow odds of winning.
But in a series of ad-libbed asides, the president managed to anger a key Senate ally, while making headlines with swipes at Elon Musk, Iran’s government and “idiot” GOP protesters outside an Illinois rally.
While the remarks amounted to no more than a few stray sentences in thousands of words uttered over four days, they distracted attention from Biden’s central task: preserving Democrats’ slim congressional majorities, and with them any chance of further legislative achievements before he himself potentially stands for re-election in two years.
The president probably did little damage to himself or his party with his remarks. Musk is a deeply divisive figure, Biden’s comment about a “free” Iran could resonate with Iranian American voters in southern California — and anyone turned off by his shots at protesters or the coal industry was already likely to vote Republican.
Nonetheless, the incidents highlighted Biden’s penchant for veering off-message. While his candor sometimes helps him relate to members of the public, it presents a potential risk for candidates who counted on the president to give last-minute aid to their campaigns.
“No one ever doubts I mean what I say. Sometimes, unfortunately, I say all that I mean,” Biden said Saturday in Illinois after his barb at a group of protesters.
Biden heads to New York on Sunday to campaign for Gov. Kathy Hochul, who’s facing an unexpectedly tough reelection bid, after visits starting Thursday to New Mexico, California, Illinois and Pennsylvania.
The president’s vow to close coal-fired power plants — which prompted a spat with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin — came during a Friday speech spotlighting his semiconductor law in California, where he traveled to campaign on behalf of vulnerable Democratic Rep. Mike Levin.
Biden said burning coal is becoming less economically viable and “we’re going to be shutting these plants down all across America.”
The White House was forced to play defense Saturday after angering Manchin, issuing a statement saying Biden’s remarks on coal had been “twisted” and celebrating the fellow Democrat as “a tireless advocate for his state and the hard-working men and women who live there.”
Biden’s top spokeswoman, Karine Jean-Pierre, also had to clarify that the president was not calling for regime change in Iran when he suggested the country would soon be “free,” telling reporters Friday that he was simply “expressing our solidarity with the protesters.”
Anti-government protests have gripped Iran for weeks, spurring pressure on Biden to abandon negotiations with Tehran over resurrecting a nuclear agreement.
The Iran remark, which drew cheers from the crowd, hearkened back to when Biden said during a March speech in Poland that the war in Ukraine demonstrated Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain remain in power.” Most Americans agreed with the sentiment, yet it stirred controversy on the world stage that muddied Biden’s core message, and the White House quickly moved to clarify the remarks.
In an aside during a Friday fundraiser in Chicago for two House Democrats running in competitive races, Biden said Musk acquired a platform that “spews lies” when he purchased Twitter Inc.
Then on Saturday morning the president called demonstrators outside an event in Joliet, Illinois, holding signs denouncing socialism “idiots.”
One of the protesters held a sign saying “Where’s Nancy” — an apparent reference to the words uttered by an intruder who attacked Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband with a hammer in their San Francisco home.
Biden, however, delivered during the marquee event of his multi-state, pre-midterm swing: a Saturday night rally in Philadelphia with former President Barack Obama, Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman and gubernatorial hopeful Josh Shapiro.
The president quipped that he lived in Pennsylvania longer than Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz, “and I moved away when I was 10 years old,” and sharply laid out the stakes in the election.
“Your right to choose is on the ballot. Your right to vote is on the ballot. Social Security and Medicare is on the ballot. There’s something else on the ballot: character. Character is on the ballot,” Biden said.
Not long afterward, Donald Trump struggled to stick to the script while rallying for GOP candidates Saturday in western Pennsylvania.
The former president mused about another White House run and called Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 rival, “Ron DeSanctimonious.”