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Biden plays offense on border politics

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It has been a tough week for President Biden, arguably the toughest so far since he launched his reelection bid. There was a bombshell report from the Justice Department. It did clear him of criminal wrongdoing and his handling of old classified documents. But special counsel Robert Hur had a lot to say about Biden's age and his memory. Before that, Republicans in Congress tanked a bill that could have slowed the number of migrants coming across the southern border. That's another one of the president's biggest vulnerabilities heading into the election this November.

NPR White House correspondent Deepa Shivaram joins us now to talk about how Biden is trying to talk to Americans about these issues. Hey, Deepa.

DEEPA SHIVARAM, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: So let's start with that report. The president ended his week taking some very uncomfortable questions like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: That's...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you know your memory has gotten worse, Mr. President?

BIDEN: My memory has not gotten - my memory is fine. My memory - take a look at what I've done since I've become president. None of you thought I could pass any of the things I got passed.

DETROW: Look. Deepa, we have both talked to voters, and not just Republicans, who are concerned that Biden is too old for this job. With this report now, how does he deal with this?

SHIVARAM: I mean, yeah, this is a tough hill to climb for the Biden campaign because it kind of confirms what a lot of voters are already thinking and feeling, right? We've met Republicans on the trail, Democrats on the trail who have talked about this, who have brought it up before I even could ask about it. So in response, the White House is trying to say that the details here about the president's age and his memory are basically irrelevant and inappropriate. Vice President Kamala Harris even said the report was politically motivated.

And then at the same time, they're trying to highlight the contrast - right? - between Biden and former President Trump because at the end of the day, like you said, Biden isn't facing any criminal charges here on how he handled these classified documents versus Trump, who is facing several criminal charges. And they're also pointing to Trump and saying, you know, look at his mindset and how many things Trump says that are made up. Just last night, Trump gave a speech, and the Biden campaign sent out a long list of things Trump said in his remarks that they called, quote, "confused, deranged, lying or worse." and they really want people to pay attention to that. But polling shows that voters overall are more concerned with Biden's age and health than Trump's.

DETROW: Yeah. And let's rewind a little bit. This was one of those weeks where several things seemed like the story of the week.

SHIVARAM: So much happened (laughter).

DETROW: So rewind, rewind. Let's talk immigration. Biden was trying to flip the script on Republicans on another issue where he's really vulnerable. And that's the border.

SHIVARAM: Yeah.

DETROW: Let's listen to this new message from Biden here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Every day between now and November, the American people are going to know that the only reason the border is not secure is Donald Trump.

DETROW: I mean, for a while of his presidency, Biden wouldn't even say the word Trump.

SHIVARAM: He wouldn't talk about it. Yeah.

DETROW: What's with the change here?

SHIVARAM: Yeah, I mean, Biden had agreed to this bipartisan border security bill - right? - that was supposed to help stem the increasing number of migrants who were coming to the U.S. to seek asylum right now at rates much higher than the current system can manage. And as it became clear that Republicans were going to back out of this bill, Biden started going on offense, like you just heard from that clip. And this has been a big pivot because talking about the border, having a strong message on it has really not been a forte for Biden in the last several months and arguably ever in his administration. Polling shows that immigration is one of his weakest issues, and the most recent NPR/PBS/Marist Poll showed that his approval rating on immigration is very low, at 29%.

DETROW: But you'll have Trump attacking Biden on immigration, Biden attacking Trump on immigration. How does either message cut through and not just become the Spider-Man meme of two people pointing at each other?

SHIVARAM: Yeah, I talked to Alex Conant, who's a Republican strategist, about this - yep, with the Spider-Man meme. He used to work for Senator Marco Rubio, and he said that before this week, Biden had no message on the border and was completely playing defense here. And even though he's now just blaming Trump, Conant says that that still may get Biden some traction with independent voters and also with Democrats in cities like New York and Chicago, where these mayors are grappling with large numbers of migrants who are looking for shelter and employment.

DETROW: Real quick. If Biden gets tougher on immigration with his rhetoric...

SHIVARAM: Yeah.

DETROW: ...Does he risk alienating a base that needs to show up?

SHIVARAM: Yeah. You know, there are some Democrats who are already saying they're really turned off by Biden's rhetoric here. I talked to one immigration advocate who was saying that it's basically going Trump-lite, and they have concerns, both about the concessions that Biden was prepared to make to Republicans and about next steps. They want to see Biden take action and know what he's actually going to do on the border besides just point fingers at Trump.

DETROW: All this ahead of an election that's going to be a pretty narrow contest. NPR's Deepa Shivaram. Thanks so much.

SHIVARAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Deepa Shivaram
Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.