Joe Biden has had a mantra throughout his presidency, his allies say: Don’t underestimate me.
This modus operandi has been a guiding principle whenever his critics have called him too old and when others have questioned his mental acuity or cast doubt on his governing or political strategy.
Now, as he prepares to launch his reelection bid against former President Trump or whomever emerges from the GOP primary contest, allies say he revels in his perceived underrated, at times-marginalized status.
“In some ways, he loves being the underdog and being able to prove people wrong at the end of the day,” one Biden ally said.
When reporters have questioned whether he has the bandwidth and tenacity to take on a second term well into his 80s, Biden often answers with two words: “Watch me.”
And in recent weeks, Biden has sought to show-not-tell his way through his presidency, while attempting to silence his critics.
When the president traveled to Ukraine last month, making a surprise trip that included a 10-hour overnight train ride through the embattled nation, it was intended to send a signal about his fortitude toward the war – and about his own mental and physical strength.
During his State of the Union address earlier in February, Biden was able to go off-script and conduct a back-and-forth with Republicans sitting in the chamber over the future of Social Security and Medicare. The president wanted to cast the GOP as wanting to make cuts to the entitlement programs, and the impromptu conversation went about as well as the White House might have hoped.
Biden pointed to a proposal from Florida GOP Sen. Rick Scott to buttress his point on the entitlement programs.
“Anybody who doubts it, contact my office,” Biden replied after he was met with jeers and heckling from Republicans, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) who called him a liar for saying the GOP wanted to cut Social Security and Medicare.
“I’ll give you a copy,” the president retorted. “I’ll give you a copy of the proposal.”
Scott later changed his proposal, which had also come under criticism from Republicans.
Biden was also vindicated by the results of the midterm elections, when a predicted red wave never materialized.
While Biden’s polling numbers have remained underwater – hovering around 40 percent – he’s proven that he’s able to claw his way out of the low points of his presidency, political observers say.
“Look, his very presidency is, ‘I don’t give up,’ ” said Michael Eric Dyson, the renowned presidential historian who has met with Biden. “If he would have given up, he wouldn’t have been president.”
Dyson was referring to the 2020 presidential campaign, when Biden was written off from the start after he suffered major blows in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary.
Pundits at the time said there was no way Biden could find his way back even as he went on to secure the Democratic nomination and beat Trump in the general election.
Biden faced a similar circumstance in 2016 when even former President Obama and his close advisers urged Biden not to run for president. Biden maintained at the time – and after Hillary Clinton’s loss that year – that he could have won.
“He’s used to being counted out,” one strategist said. “But I think what’s part of the appeal is that he always rises like a phoenix even against a rising tide of doubt.”
Democrats say it’s also smart strategy for Biden as he prepares for his upcoming challenge in 2024.
“It insulates him from criticism and allows him to project strength,” said Democratic strategist Christy Setzer. “It also sets up a fascinating dynamic for 2024, when his most likely opponent, Donald Trump is also someone whose political strength is frequently underestimated.”
Republicans are less enamored.
“Unfortunately for Biden, the American people have been watching and they’re horrified at what they’ve seen: a botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, a humanitarian crisis at the border, skyrocketing crime, runaway inflation, and failure on the world stage,” said Republican National Committee spokesperson Emma Vaughn.
Republican strategist Susan Del Percio said the don’t-underestimate-me theme “appears to be related to his age.”
“It might be helpful in a primary, however, voters want leadership and results. That should be the president’s message for 2024,” she said.
Robert Wolf, a Biden ally who served as chairman and CEO of UBS Americas, said Biden demonstrated his don’t-count-me-out attitude best on his trip to Ukraine.
It was the best opportunity, Wolf said, to show his leadership.
“His 25-hour trip would be tough for anyone,” Wolf said. “It was physical, psychological and emotional as democracy is on the line.”
“He lived up to all the desired expectations of the leader of the free world,” he added. “Action is louder than words. His actions have been real. His legislative victories have been real.”
“You can’t underestimate his successes,” he said.
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This story was originally published March 7, 2023, 6:00 AM.